Pluralistic: 21 Mar 2021

Today's links

The political possibility of cities (permalink)

The coming year feels like an important one. Democrats have the chance to pass the For the People Act, which will reverse decades of right-wing voter suppression, steering the US away from the baked-in antimajoritarian characteristics of its politics

At the same time, a successful vaccine rollout (assuming variants can be controlled) will mean widespread "re-openings," most notably in cities, where we find the highest concentrations of virus-incompatible stuff: mass transit, elevators, theaters and "cozy" cafes.

Cities are of huge political significance. The rise and rise of inequality has been attended by skyrocketing rents in cities, largely driven by money-launderers and speculators who turned housing stock into empty safe deposit boxes in the sky.

Cities were also key to delivering the 2020 election: Biden took major cities by 13m votes, inner suburbs by 4m votes, and midsized cities by 1.5m votes. 80% of Biden's votes came from these three categories.

As Ronald Brownstein writes in The Atlantic, "If you draw an imaginary beltway around almost any major metropolitan area, Democrats are growing stronger inside that circle, while Republicans are consolidating their position outside of it."

Last summer's BLM uprising was a mostly urban affair, but even before then, the GOP was waging war on cities, with Mitch McConnell cutting maintenance and relief funds for cities, and Trump demanding quarter for ICE snatch-squads.

America's urbanization is an unbroken trend, and cities are semi-autonomous, wildly imperfect, young, diverse and economically powerful. They are also politically important, and many of the reddest states would be blue or very purple if cities were given due representation.

Brownstein's account of cities during the Trump years makes the case that a Biden focus on mayors, rather than the deadlocked Congress and Senate, or the fringe ideologues who were crammed onto the Supreme Court, is the key to making real political change.

The deadlocked legislature is not a new phenomenon. Several presidential administrations have focused on executive orders and regulations from the administrative branch to effect change, but these are flimsy political wins. What one exec order can create, another can undo.

Net Neutrality is here, then gone, then (maybe) here again. Without legislation, these policies aren't worth the Federal Register pages they're printed on. But there are methods to durably inscribe policy, and these are primarily urban.

Mostly, we remember the negative ways that this occurs: redlining, driving freeways through Black neighborhoods or skipping over parts of the city when it comes to subway access. Infrastructure is policy – and it's among the most permanent forms of policy we have.

As recent years have demonstrated, the future is a chaotic place, but as Charlie Stross has noted, the elements of the future that are indeed up for grabs are actually pretty narrow: 90% of the future is here today.

Most of the homes people will be living in in 10 years are on the road today. Most of the people who'll be alive then are living today. most of the cars that will be on the road are already in service today.

Even sharp discontinuities like the pandemic don't change those facts much (Stross and I did a conference presentation last week where he said that maybe all the chaos of the past five years has reduced the present's share of the future to 80%, still a commanding majority).

Cities are places where administrative policies can inscribe themselves indelibly upon the future. As LA Sustainability Czar Lauren Faber O'Connor told Brownstein, "Every building in the country is basically a shovel-ready project."

A fed solarize/winterize subsidy for buildings makes a difference for decades to come: not just the carbon footprint of the built environment, but also the baseline expectations for decent buildings. It permanently alters the balance between energy companies and the nation.

Every local government could take the feds up on this, but self-owning culture war foolishness predicts that the benefit will accrue predominantly to the large/mid-sized cities and inner burbs that delivered the election to Biden.

Vehicles don't last as long as buildings, but they are remarkably durable. Biden wants to replace the fed fleet with EVs – he could subsidize cities to do the same, creating huge efficiencies of scale for EV production and demand for permanent EV charging infrastructure.

Of course, the future is transit-based, not private-vehicle-based. Just do the math: multiply the number of people who need to go places by the amount of highway a private vehicle operates, and you'll find an inescapable Red Queen's Race.

The more road we need for those private vehicles, the further apart everything gets. The further apart everything gets, the more cars we need. The more cars we need, the more road we need. The more road we need, the further apart everything gets.

If building mass transit is "socialism" then geometry is a socialist plot (and no, you can't fix this by moving cars into tunnels; do the math). Transit permanently alters where people live and work, and what they expect from their cities. A transit subsidy is a no-brainer.

Biden can't force the states to switch to carbon neutral energy sources, but he can subsidize municipal energy facilities' voluntary switchover, again, permanently altering the economics of fossil-fuel power generation.

Red states aren't red: they are gerrymandered purple states that punish and starve their economic and population centers in the name of culture war nonsense and white supremacy. There are opportunities to permanently alter this situation.

For example, the Biden FCC could resinstate the rule banning states from limiting municipal fiber, and then subsidize 100GB/s muni networks, with emphasis on the urban broadband deserts in the majority-minority neighborhoods created by redlining.

Once cities are operating profitable muni networks that connect everyone to service that is 1,000-10,000x faster than the aging copper lines that cable monopolists refuse to upgrade, those networks will become permanent facts.

(as with many anti-monopoly interventions, these will do double-duty: the cable companies' lobbying ammo comes from the monopoly rents that they extract from poor people; deprive them of those rents and you cut the supply lines in the war they wage on the public interest)

There's reforms coming to the Affordable Care Act: if one of these is a change to the rule that cities can only get federal health-care subsidies if their states permit it, then cities could opt-in to health care even when their gerrymandered GOP statehouses block it.

America has 50 governors, 435 Congressional districts, 100 senators and 9 Supreme Court justices.

America has 19,000 cities and towns and 3,100 counties. These local governments are far more accountable to the people than the larger political entities.

Officials in cities, towns and counties who deliver tangible improvements to their residents' quality of life will be rewarded with high approval ratings and re-election. The Trump years left the largest of these starved for friendly federal coordination and partnership.

Biden's cabinet already includes three prominent former mayors – Buttigieg, Walsh and Fudge – and the historically intractable task of directly coordinating with thousands of local governments is made far more reasonable thanks to digital technology.

History teaches that presidents can defeat America's antimajoritarian institutions by simply bypassing them.

When the pro-slavery Supreme Court struck down Lincoln's anti-slavery laws, he passed them again…and again…and again: "Let's see whose legitimacy tanks first."

Biden could write humane, sustainable equitable future on the country in indelible ink. He could also make permanent changes in the lives and expectations of people: increasing subsidies to local schools and wiping out student debt is a change that lasts for a generation.

As exciting as this is, it's not enough. The circumstances of rural life are range from bad to terrible, and they're only worsening. Saving the cities will save the vast majority of Americans, but it will still leave nearly 60,000,000 people in desperate circumstances.

This is unacceptable. Good governments look after all people, not just the ones it expects to win re-election from.

Working with local governments is a tactic, not a strategy – a way to erode corporate power and present alternatives.

It's the beginning, not the end.

(Image: The Fifth Element/Luc Besson)

Donziger correction (permalink)

On Fri, I published an article about Steven Donziger, an environmental lawyer who won a historic victory over Chevron, only to find himself disbarred and held under house arrest through a conspiracy between Chevron and two corporate-friendly NY judges.

I wrote, "Donziger is the only person in the entire USA who is in pre-trial detention for a misdemeanor." I was quoting Jack Holmes's Esquire interview with Donziger: "I'm the only person in the entire country held on a misdemeanor pre-trial."

This is incorrect. Many, many people in America are in pre-trial detention over a misdemeanor. I don't know if Donziger misspoke (perhaps he meant he's had the longest pre-trial misdemeanor detention, at ~600 days, or maybe he was misquoted).

I regret the error and am grateful to the readers who brought it to my attention.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Right-wing think-tank hates DRM

#15yrsago Canadian music industry pollsters slime Michael Geist,com_content/task,view/id,1173/Itemid,85/nsub,/

#15yrsago Sun ships free and open microprocessor

#1yrago Don't Look for the Helpers

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 511 words (118232 total).

  • A short story, "Jeffty is Five," for The Last Dangerous Visions. Friday's progress: 388 words (9273 total).

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." Yesterday's progress: 1054 words (35252 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Privacy Without Monopoly: Data Protection and Interoperability (Part 3)
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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla