Friday, November 28, 2014

Black Thursday: Does It Matter?

The arms race among chain stores for Day-after-Thanksgiving shoppers breached midnight a couple years ago, and this year stores were advertising "doorbusters" as early as 5 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. The muscling in by holiday shopping onto what had been a sacred day for American civil religion has occasioned some outrage among commentators, which has in turn led to counter-outrage and charges of hypocrisy. My friend and fellow blogger John Heaton noted on Facebook:
For everyone concerned about retail workers having to work tomorrow, please don't forget to boycott the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade; NFL football; NHL ice hockey; NCAA football and basketballl; and literally anything else that airs on any TV or radio station. Unless you think it's OK for cameramen, engineers, stadium beer vendors, balloon wranglers, newscasters, and athletes to have to spend their holiday away from their families.
My own initial instinct is to be, if not outraged, at least profoundly troubled by this intrusion. But is there a rational basis for this feeling, or am I just reacting to a change in cultural tradition?

Critics often note that the chain stores are yanking underpaid workers (see Florida article, cited below) away from their families in order to deal with hordes of bargain-hungry shoppers. But many people were already working on Thanksgiving. Some are essential workers, like police, firefighters, security guards and medical personnel. Radio and television stations operate with at least skeleton staff; this may be because they were traditionally part of the civil defense system, and since 1978 stations have to keep operating in order to defend their space on the broadcast spectrum. So, if you're listening to the radio or watching TV on Thanksgiving, you're using the services of at least one person who's at work instead of being at home with family.

There are others working, too. When my wife was growing up, her family tradition was to go bowling after Thanksgiving dinner. Someone had to be working at the bowling alley, right? More recently, I had a modest personal Thanksgiving tradition. After our family had a sumptuous dinner at my sister's house in Illinois, I would drive my brother home and then stop at a convenience store (at Rte. 53 and 75th Street, to be precise) for an energizing coffee or pop. As a college teacher, I don't hold classes on Thanksgiving Day, but I almost always do some grading (as indeed I did this year), and many years ago worked holiday shifts at my college radio station so we could comply with FCC regulations and keep our frequency. So for years upon years I have been no stranger either to working or to using services on Thanksgiving.

So why then am I bothered by the recent move of major retailers into the holiday evening? I can think of three major reasons... love 'em or gently correct 'em.

It's the scale. One could argue, as John does above, that if anyone is working on Thanksgiving Day, no one can justifiably complain about working. I'd say, though, there is a difference between a bowling alley or convenience store that just happens to be open, and a large retail franchise for which this is a major, heavily-advertised event. Maybe I'm buying too credulously into the myth of small business benignity. But I think that a small operation can identify and financially reward staff who are willing to work the holiday without requiring all hands to be on deck; and that the local owner might well be responsive if he or she found the staff generally objected to working then.

On a holiday honoring our better feelings, it appeals to our baser motives. Materialism has its place, as economists since Mandeville have noted. But that place should be bounded, because we are more than mere consumers of stuff. Our brains have reward centers, at which holiday marketing takes dead-eye aim (Glinton), but we need to take time to connect with family and friends, to express gratitude, and to digest food. Our culture used to support our need for this time: Recall that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1939 proclamation moving Thanksgiving from the last Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday was occasioned by retailers' concerns about delaying the start of Christmas shopping (Stein and Delaney). Now materialism, having walked all over the religious-spiritual side of  Christmas for years, tosses constraint aside and brazenly marches into Thanksgiving. You saw your family and ate your turkey, right? Good. Now get out here and buy something!

It reminds us of the spiritual poverty of our public spaces. The first Thanksgiving dinner, at least in legend, was shared by the entire population of the  Plymouth colony along with their Powhatan neighbors. These days we celebrate Thanksgiving, not as a whole community, but in pods of family and friends. Retail Doorbusters do get us out in public--however, instead of being a community of citizens we're individual consumers competing with other consumers out to acquire the same low-priced stuff. The physical locations where these encounters occur are no more uplifting, as underscored by this year's Strong Towns survey of parking lots (Marohn).

So I think we're right to feel uneasy at this latest development of modern life, at whatever level we feel the unease, and however inconsistent it might be with our behavior. Starting Black Friday on Thursday late afternoon  harms rather than enhances our common life. Formulating a response is tricky, though. It doesn't seem to me to be properly the province of public policy (i.e. regulation). The rules of competition being what they are, it's a lot to expect any of the major retailers unilaterally to disarm. (Note the comments of retail analyst Howard Davidowitz in the NPR story.) However, if any of them does, we should reward them. Better yet, let's eschew the chains altogether and patronize local businesses that keep their revenues in our towns.


Richard Florida, "This Holiday Season, Let's Turn Retail Jobs Into Middle-Class Ones," CityLab, 28 November 2014,

Sunari Glinton, "Holiday Shopping Ads Are Geared Toward Brain's Reward Center," National Public Radio, 26 November 2014,

Charles Marohn, "#blackfridayparking," Strong Towns, 28 November 2014,

Sam Stein and Arthur Delaney, "When FDR Tried To Mess With Thanksgiving, It Backfired Big Time," Huffington Post, 25 November 2014,


"Ending the War on Christmas," 21 December 2013,

"Local Businesses," 4 June 2013,

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Four towns, four days

Last weekend I had the opportunity to drive south of chilly Iowa, as far as Arkansas, where the leaves were still colorful, but it was also chilly. The impetus was an event at the Clinton Presidential Museum and Library, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The museum is in a new building...

Clinton Museum and Library, Little Rock
...but the neighboring Clinton School of Public Service is in a repurposed building that has been a train depot, shop and a storage facility over the years. The makeover is lovely.
Clinton School of Public Service, Little Rock
Here's an interior shot, of the library where they had a reception for us visiting academics Thursday night. There's just something about a historic building..
Library, Clinton School of Public Service
The Clinton campus is located east of downtown, and has spurred some commercial development in the area now known as River Market. An internal report out in advance of the anniversary celebration credited the museum with spurring $2.5 billion in development since its opening (cited in Leslie Newell Peacock, "Ten Years After," Arkansas Times, 13 November 2014, 16).. River Market covers only a few square blocks in a town of less than 200,000 population (metro area is 724,385). But it shows what can be accomplished by focusing attention on a specific area. As Jeff Speck argues in the last chapter of Walkable City, you can't solve every problem at once so you have to choose your projects.

Interstate 30 runs between the museum campus and River Market, leaving a vast empty space on the streets there, but once downtown there are some friendly walkable blocks with attractive museums, restaurants and shops.

Both nights I was there, people were walking around in the evenings despite the chilly air.

If I were reading this post, I would want to know about coffee. Sufficient Grounds Café claims to be the "best coffee house in Little Rock."

It is only open weekdays, but Andina Cafe and Boulevard Bread Company were doing a brisk business Saturday morning, so the area must have sufficient residential population...

...mostly condos, from what I saw.

Other urbanist features included street trees... lanes protected by the on-street parking...

...a riverwalk that included a variety of options (including a "Health Walk" with posters listing symptoms that I'm sure is a favorite among hypochondriacs)...

...streetcars instead of buses...

...and it's worth noting that none of the streets downtown were more than a couple lanes wide.

There were also banners, the inevitable sign of a conscious place branding strategy.

Although I could see from my hotel window where River Market stopped and the parking craters and brutalist architecture began...

...I was impressed with how Little Rock has worked within the specific River Market area. Success here certainly has the potential for success elsewhere in the area.

On my trip I spent time in three other towns. My former, superficial impression of Hannibal was mainly as a tourist trap capitalizing on native son Mark Twain. There was some of that...

OK, there was a lot of that...

...but my main impression this time was impressed at how well they were taking advantage of the Mississippi River.

There was a walk up the bluff to an overlook, and a butterfly garden along the way.

Downtown looked picturesque and inviting, albeit it was 7:00 in the morning in the off-season.

From there I drove to Columbia, site of the University of Missouri's main campus, where my former student Bimal is in a Ph.D. program. We met for coffee at funky Fretboard Coffee in Columbia's North Village area...

...but my general impression of greater campustown was not favorable. Walnut Street on the way to Fretboard was dominated by new, large, blocky apartment buildings that dominate the street. Iowa City, which seems to have caught the construction bug of late, should take note that not all new construction contributes positively to the life of a city.

On the way back to Iowa I stopped in Joplin, Misouri, to see two friends of long-standing, Jeff and Heather Grills. Heather is the owner of Phoenix Fired Art, a gallery with space for classes that is or could be the headquarters of a little arts district on South Main Street.

Much of Joplin is building its way back from a devastating tornado in 2011. It's too early to say if the rebuilding has a vision to it, or if it will be as car-centered as ever.

Interestingly, none of these towns has a high Walk Score. In Little Rock and Hannibal, though, I saw areas that could become the bases for more walkable cities.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Ballot initiatives: Election 2014

Alexis de Tocqueville (above, from Wikimedia Commons) was impressed by local self-government.
There was more to Election Day than met the eye. Specifically, there were a number of state and local initiatives that bore directly on our common life. In nearly all of these cases I was unaware of the vote; the information below comes from the sources listed at the end of the piece.

Transportation. San Francisco and Seattle passed propositions that would expand public transit operations and routes, and in Seattle's case prevent proposed transit cuts by raising the city sales tax. San Francisco's Proposition A also set aside funding for 27 miles of bike routes, as well as traffic signal and crosswalk improvements for pedestrian safety. Other transit improvements were passed in Alameda County (Oakland), California; Arlington County (suburban Washington), Virginia; Clayton County (suburban Atlanta), Georgia; and the State of Rhode Island. Transportation measures lost in Alachua and Pinellas Counties (Gainesville and St. Petersburg, respectively), Florida, and Austin, Texas, while Massachusetts voters blocked a "cost-of-living" increase in that state's gasoline tax (which funds a variety of transportation projects). The Austin measure, which would have created a light-rail system, had led rather decisively in pre-election polling, with analysts there blaming the defeat on low turnout by transit-loving younger voters.

Environmental Conservation. Statewide referenda to dedicate funds (generally, existing rather than new money) to environmental conservation were passed in Florida, Maine, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Florida and Maine were focused on water quality and wetlands--in Florida's case involving a long-term commitment and billions of dollars. New Jersey shifted money within the environmental budget towards conservation of open spaces, while Rhode Island focused on clean-up of brownfields (abandoned, contaminated industrial sites). Beaufort County, South Carolina passed legislation to make it easier for the county to purchase environmentally-sensitive property.

Fracking. Two cities--Athens, Ohio, and Denton, Texas--as well as San Benito County, California, passed bans on the energy extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing. "Fracking" has been a key element in the increase in American oil production, not to mention the drop in gasoline prices and manufacturing operations moving back to these shores. It has been alleged by environmentalists to contaminate drinking water and cause earthquakes, with producer interests vigorously contesting those claims. The overall evidence is inconclusive to date but does tend to unnerve people, apparently even in Texas. Sure, Denton is a university town, but, Texas.

City Development. Two California towns, Dublin and Union City, defeated attempts to override open space protections. San Francisco defeated an attempt to undo their clever, market-based parking rate innovations.

Minimum wage. Voters in four states, all of which tilt Republican in presidential and most statewide elections, approved increases in the state minimum wage over the next 1-3 years. Arkansas and South Dakota will rise to $8.50 an hour, Nebraska to $9.00 and Alaska to $9.75. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Casinos. Voters in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and South Dakota voted to add or expand casino gambling in those states. California and Colorado rejected casino referenda, albeit the "no" campaigns in those states (as was the case in Cedar Rapids in 2013) were primarily funded by other casinos that feared new competition.

Marijuana. Voters in the states of Alaska and Oregon, as well as the District of Columbia, passed initiatives legalizing marijuana. These, of course, require federal acquiescence--or at least--passivity, as marijuana remains illegal under U.S. law. This is particularly true for the District of Columbia, which is not a sovereign state and so anything it does requires congressional approval. A majority of Florida voters approved a measure legalizing marijuana for medicinal use, but it failed of passage because it fell short of the required 60 percent threshold. It passed in Guam, though. There were a variety of local initiatives in six states, notably all blue states or at least purple (Colorado, New Mexico). An Arizona referendum in 2016 would be interesting to watch.

I find a lot of this activity encouraging. It shows voters in many places--though by no means everywhere--are thinking about ways to improve their quality of life and those of their neighbors, and are not shy about using public authority and funds to do so. Too many places have gotten into the habit of leveraging federal money for infrastructure and environmental improvements. The federal government can on occasion be out in front of states and localities on important issues, but can also create perverse incentives. Anyway, it's better if people are deciding the direction their own towns will take. Besides, as the Strong Towns folk have begun to mull in their most recent podcast, there's no guarantee the federal cow will be around much longer to milk for local projects.

I'm ambivalent about initiatives for three reasons. First, the economy and the environment are national if not global in scale, and sometimes need coordinated national policy responses. Economically vulnerable cities can just as easily "race to the bottom" as they can pass thoughtful initiatives (sort of like Iowa blocking passenger rail while funding the opening of a fertilizer plant). Secondly, voters do not have the ability that legislatures have to coordinate policies and balance priorities. They can pass things that individually sound good but collectively make no sense. Finally, initiatives, like other elections (and indeed legislatures), are vulnerable to manipulation by well-funded interests. Wallach and Hudak note that the "yes" side in the Alaska marijuana referendum and the "no" side in Florida vastly outspent their opponents.

I'm also terribly conflicted about marijuana legalization. Dealing with our youth as I do on a daily basis, I see that it can be abused with costly results to the individual. But you could say the same about alcohol, and indeed it's hard to justify marijuana being illegal when alcohol is legal. I wonder how I would have blogged on prohibition in 1932? The costs of marijuana law enforcement are pretty much a massive waste. So on balance I'm glad about this trend.

In all I find the upsurges of local self-government in 2014 to be as encouraging as the congressional elections were dispiriting. Discussing, even arguing local issues with your neighbors is likely to be more constructive than yelling across the country at a caricature of the other side.


Josh Barro, "The Strange Case of States' Penchant for Casinos," New York Times, 6 November 2014, P8

Shaila Dewan, "State Wage Initiatives Fare Better Than Democrats," New York Times, 6 November 2014, P8

Alex Dodds, "Voters Strongly Support Smart Growth Measures on Election Day 2014," Smart Growth America, 5 November 2014,

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, "In Denton, Texas, Voters Approve 'Unprecedented' Fracking Ban," Los Angeles Times, 7 November 2014,

Kirk Johnson, "New Marijuana Initiatives Loom as 3 Win Approval," New York Times, 6 November 2014, P8

Keenan Orfalea, "Millennials Demand Public Transportation, But Lose Out by Skipping the Voting Booth," Urbanful, 5 November 2014,

Joel Ramos, "San Francisco Voters Can Improve Muni Service at the Ballot Box This November," TransForum, 31 July 2014,

"2014 Ballot Initiatives," Marijuana Policy Project,

"2014 Measures to Watch," Transportation for America,

Phillip A. Wallach and John Hudak, "The Nation Continues to Embrace Marijuana Legislation," FixGov: Making Government Work, 5 November 2014,

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Turn red for what?

Iowa finally has sent a woman to Congress. Yay, Iowa?
The off-year elections of 2014 occurred in the shadow of continued economic uncertainty. Economic indicators have shown improvement since the recession hit bottom in 2009, but the public is slow to buy into the idea of recovery--appropriately so, in my view. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last summer found respondents split almost down the middle: 50 percent believed the economy is improving, 47 percent disagreed. Similarly, 49 percent said the economy was still in recession, 46 percent disagreed. (The percentage describing the economy as in recession has steadily declined since 2010, but remains too high to describe the public mood as anything like confident.) 69 percent of respondents told CNN that another financial crisis in the near future was either "very likely" or "somewhat likely." (Source: Polling Report) As of today, the Real Clear Politics average on the question of whether the country is on the "right track" or the "wrong track" stands at 28-66 (Source: Real Clear Politics).

Continued economic uncertainty is, I argue, central to many questions at the core of our common life in 21st century America. Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution argues inequality "lurks" in election-year arguments over the Affordable Care Act, taxes and the minimum wage (cited below). Beyond that, it's hard to be confident about the next generation's prospects for rewarding work. (I liked the way KCRG-TV reporter Chris Earl put it in a recent conversation about the election, that the issue is not so much about jobs as careers.) Uncertainty about our immediate prospects make it nearly impossible to address important long-term challenges such as resource conservation, climate change, community-building and accommodating diversity. Negotiating complex phenomena while feeling personally insecure is hardly likely to be productive.

What all this adds up to is the nature of the political campaign we have just endured. Clearly public officials are aware of the public mood, but have little to offer in the way of constructive solutions. My Drake University colleague Dennis J. Goldford used the term "carpet bombing" to describe what's been happening to states like Iowa as well-resourced groups, freed from restraints on their spending "speech" by a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, tirelessly and relentlessly communicate at us. There may be some argument somewhere in all this noise, but the themes from the groups, and the candidates have largely amounted to: Vote against the bad guys. And please send us money so they don't accidentally win. I've been getting eight e-mails a day from groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, saying essentially that and no more. As a result, writes former Des Moines Register editorial page editor Richard Doak (cited below), "I can't remember a year when voting was so unsatisfying. Casting an early ballot in 2014 felt like a chore. There was no pride or enthusiasm. There was something close to indifference." Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson chimes in: "We're being asked to vote out of resentment and grim duty. So much for what Lincoln called 'the better angels of our nature ("Four Takes").'"

Republican gains in the Senate set up a situation we've seen before (1959-60, 1987-88, 1999-2000, 2007-08): a President of one party, in the last two years of his administration, facing a Congress controlled by the other party. This will change the context of Washington politics--Republicans will control the agenda and the investigative apparatus of the Senate--but if the past is any guide nothing of significance will occur to affect our lives or the direction of the country. President Obama will become decreasingly relevant as attention swivels to the long 2016 presidential campaign. This may be just as well, given that neither party has run an issue-oriented campaign, and so would have no mandate to govern if they were somehow in position to do so. (That is not to say they wouldn't try, given recent unpleasant experiences with one-party rule in Kansas, North Carolina, Wisconsin and arguably Colorado, where an agenda-less election produced a government in a sudden hurry to enact an ideological agenda.)

Perhaps the best outcome of this year's elections would be to cause us to re-examine what national politics can contribute to our common life. A global economy requires national, if not, global responses: only the national government can produce a health care system, counter-cyclical economic policy, and financial and environmental regulation. In an ideal world, Democrats would be making this case, and Republicans would be arguing how they could do it better. But that's not going to be happening any time soon. Both parties--maybe, apres Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein (It's Even Worse Than It Looks [Basic, 2012]), the Republicans more than the Democrats--are ideologically out of the mainstream of American voters and so shun policy appeals in favor of cheesy promises, absurd fantasies and attack ads.

So, what can we do in the mean time?

1. Think locally, act globally. Communities need to be engaged in conversations about their future: what the town will look like, how things are going to get paid for, how to include everyone. Some of these conversations have begun in Cedar Rapids, while other places have gotten implementable ideas from organizations like Strong Towns and The Better Block. More people should get involved in these sorts of conversations, even informally. I'm not sanguine about this, either, as you can tell from the tone of my last few posts about development in Cedar Rapids, and I know there are plenty of people in localities who only want to put space, walls, guns and laws between themselves and The Other. But local communities are where conversations can occur, and maybe just maybe that spirit can bubble up into our national political dialogue. If we can fix our neighborhoods and metro regions, I think the country could fix itself.

2. Think critically. This election, I freely admit, I cast unenthusiastic votes for unimpressive people because I found the alternatives far worse. Maybe this is dumb. Can we insist that the people on "our side" articulate coherent solutions to our problems before we vote for them? And can we stop believing whatever bad things are said about the other side? One reasons candidates use coded language and sloppy arguments is that someone out there is falling for them. Don't be that guy. Democrats should say, "Climate change is real, and Republicans sound silly when they deny it. So what are we going to do about it?" Republicans should say, "Let's do repeal Obamacare. But what are we going to replace it with?" Better yet, eschew ideology altogether and look for proven, practical, affordable solutions to public problems.

3. Hope for a rational system of financing campaigns. We cannot have a common life when most of us are priced out of the political dialogue. I'm all for the freedom of expression, but this is ridiculous. In a billion dollar campaign centered on Super PACs there is no way the common voice gets heard. A lot of the money is spent by groups whose true identities are unknown even as they spend millions on last-minute ads and phone calls (Confessore and Willis; see also Hudak and Wallack) The average House member raised $2.6 million for the 2014 election, occupying up to 70 percent of their time this year (Schanzer and Sullivan). The Republican advantage this year may be a product of the political climate, not some inherent advantage, but the problem is not that Democrats don't have enough money. The problem is that the vast majority of us who aren't mega-donors have lost our voice, and our participation is being manipulated. In all the screeching about "Millionaire Rod Blum" and Bruce Braley-the-trial-lawyer-who-doesn't-care-about-terrorism, where are the constructive solutions? Is anyone talking about making the poor less poor?

Reeves of Brookings notes, "In private, at least, many Republicans are as troubled by Democrats by the relative weakness of middle class earnings and incomes" and "political possession of both Houses may increase the pressure to deliver some reforms in response to the growing anxiety on all sides about the economic health of the American middle class." But that's not what Republicans were selling, and that's not what their voters bought. So it's hard to imagine progress being made on that front, or on climate change, or on immigration, while Republicans are the ones doing the end zone dance of joy and feasting their eyes on the White House. It is unlikely, too, given past experience, that they'll be able to do much harm, either. But can Democrats plausibly claim that keeping their Senate majority would have led to better outcomes? Sure, they don't have the Republicans' wackier delusions, but where is the roadmap to a better future? President Obama has something of a roadmap, at least domestically, but many Democrats are too busy pretending they don't know him to own it or anything else (Capehart).

I am humbled by the number of my students who immersed themselves in this year's campaigns, on both sides of the partisan-ideological divide. I hope they found the experience rewarding. But I think as long as national politics features a ton of money and a paucity of policy solutions we are a long way from having politics that is worthy of their passion.


Jonathan Capehart, "Democrats' Mistake: Running from Obama or Staying Home," Post-Partisan, 3 November 2014,

Nicholas Confessore and Derek Willis, "Hidden Donors Spend Heavily On Attack Ads," The New York Times, 3 November 2014, A1, A16

Richard Doak, "Despite Choices, Nothing Changes," Des Moines Register, 2 November 2014,

"Four Takes: Columnists Predict What Will Happen in Tuesday's Midterms, and What It Means," Dallas News, 2 November 2014,

John Hudak and Grace Wallack, "Outside Spending Increases the Price of Senate Elections," FixGov: Making Government Work, 3 November 2014

Richard V. Reeves, "2014 Midterms: Inequality Lurks Beneath the Surface of Political Discourse," FixGov: Making Government Work, 24 October 2014

David Schanzer and Jay Sullivan, "Cancel the Midterms," The New York Times, 3 November 2014, A25

What is the future of Iowa's small towns?

Former Audubon County courthouse, Exira (Source: Wikimedia): county population has fallen from 8559 (1980) to 5578 (2017) A recent colum...