November 8: Notes from Kabul

1. Journalists as superheroes

The staff at Shamshad TV deserve the 2017 Global Prize for Courageousness from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Please look up CPJ and donate if you can, especially if you care about freedom of the press. American journalists are belittled and disparaged by the Trump administration for not selecting the facts that he thinks they should report about him. He and his followers show a certain lack of respect for the intention and value of the First Amendment. A free (and critical) press has served Americans better than voting itself as a way to keep government accountable and answerable to the people it governs. So I have profound admiration for journalists who maintain a critical stance in places where it is really dangerous to do reporting! When the reporter came back on air, with bandaged hand, to describe the ISIL attack on his own station, that is what I call a Moment of Awesomeness.

2. Finding balance in the 2nd Amendment

A week after I arrived in Kabul in 2007 there was a brutal massacre at Virgina Tech. A few weeks after I arrived in Kabul this time, 10.5 years later, there was a brutal massacre in Las Vegas. And now there has been another one in Texas. So while I am in Kabul and people are worried about me, I am worried about–and praying for–Americans who are suffering from random violence. I get the intention of the Second Amendment; in the previous paragraph I pointed out the need to keep the government answerable to the people. So when it says ‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,’ it is pretty clear that the Amendment-pushers were arguing for the continued right to bear arms to fulfill our right–and indeed our obligation–to overthrow tyrannical government if necessary. The 2nd Amendment does not state, nor does it imply, that the right to bear arms was for the propose of personal self-defense against criminals.

This line of thinking does not lead to any specific policy solutions. Just trying to get clarity on a tragic situation. Many gun-safety ideas also cannot address another ongoing tragedy: 2/3 of gun-related deaths in the U.S. right now are suicides. No safety protocol, no technical fix is going to prevent the licensed owner of a gun from using it on themselves. So policy in this area is going to be really difficult, and the NRA is really crippling our ability to think this through carefully and respectfully.

3. Respectful discourse?

My UC Berkeley alumni newsletter arrived today in my email box (yeah, the postage to Kabul would have been special). In it, one piece is about how Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, asks Berkeley to invite more conservative speakers to come, and encourage discussion across ideological lines in the spirit of actual free speech and critical scholarship.

I love the intention. I have not heard a conservative ask to be respectfully listened to in years. I have been told how wrong I am for not being conservative. I have been condescended to for decades. And frankly, I have been treated much better than people who are not male, not straight, and not white–in other words, at least 85% of my fellow Californians–who are told by conservatives that they do not deserve a voice in US politics, and do not deserve a right to be listened to.

So before even asking to be listened to by someone like me, I would like to see conservative thinkers address a Service Employees International Union meeting of custodial workers. Any request to be listened to would need to be reciprocated by readiness to listen to a group of people who, like most Americans, are a lovely variety of skin-complexions and a full spectrum of life-experiences. I would absolutely attend that meeting, and I would work in good faith to keep it respectful on all sides. I would even use some of my white privilege to persuade the conservative from bolting for the exit the moment they start listening to something that rattles their worldview a bit. Getting your worldview rattled is healthy for the brain! It encourages good cranial circulation. I recommend it. Feminism and queer theory have taught me some valuable perspective on white privilege: we cannot help how we are born; but we can work towards justice from whatever starting point we are given. We all have that power, even if it manifests in very different ways based on the very unequal starting points we begin with in a very unequal society.

Two hours from now I am going to make an appeal for policy reform that will promote economic investment in cities in Afghanistan. To get to this moment, I could not be an American conservative. The sneering condescension I have personally experienced for decades from conservatives? That kind of attitude would not enable me to listen. It would not put me in a position to work with the Islamic Republic. I have to start from a position of skepticism, of doubt, and curiosity: how do Afghans see the world now? What assumptions am I working with? Any policy reform needs to be very selective, but even so, institutional reform can be jarring. I have been invited to this task, and it is deeply humbling. And I need to figure out how to promote economic growth in a society under the most extreme duress and long-term trauma.

What can governments do to promote actual economic growth? Demonstrate to people–especially the poorest people–that their rights are respected and protected. We want to promote all sorts of investment; cash and labor and time and effort and care. All of it. The guy who decides to set up a neighborhood bakery rather than saving up his cash to emigrate. The policy environment that promotes those little, small-scale investments also creates a culture in which larger-scale investors might build a factory. If a broad swath of the population feels the government is supporting and protecting them, those are also fundamental preconditions for the kind of eccentric creative environment where innovations emerge. And that is the highest-value economic growth engine in the world today. It is not coincidental that a metropolis that actively promotes racial and gender diversity is home to the highest-value companies in the world. So I can draw some lessons from San Francisco for policy in Kabul, if I listen carefully and respectfully to both cities. Not all policies will translate, which becomes clear through listening.

But I have also listened to American conservatives, even as they sneer down their noses at me. I have heard a lot of normative declarations about The Way the World Ought To Be, from people in positions of privilege where they do not need to listen too carefully to the way the world actually is, at the moment. I, too, am a proponent of change. Though I am preemptively dismissed as someone who ‘opposes business’ and ‘opposes economic growth’, I am actually extremely in favor of it, as are my ‘Liberal feminist’ peers. The fact that I think sustained growth requires some broad distribution of income, some major reinvestment of profits into infrastructure and education, is dismissed preemptively and with extreme prejudice.

Rather than rigid mottoes, I will pay much more attention when I hear good questions: What balance of regulation and permissiveness promotes the most economic growth? How does that balance need to change over time and in different contexts? What is the best way to promote (or just permit) a rich ecology of small businesses to flourish? What is the most effective way to publicly invest tax revenue? How do we design the combination of taxes to reflect the returns-of-service appropriate to each form of payment? How do we use the inevitable, and perpetual irritation of tax-payment to promote both participatory government and effective answerability? We can’t even get to these questions in an American political climate in which conservatives still feel that all government is inherently the problem.

Rethinking planning through Kabuli lenses

Yesterday a bomb went off near where I work in Kabul. For security reasons, I need to be vague on the details of my relationship to events here; that is one reason I have not posted in the last two months. However one colleague’s reaction to the bombing made me think about something we should all consider.

“It was probably a magnet bomb,” he speculated. We may not find out, because security forces here also withhold details about attacks; details that might inform terrorists in ways they find useful. So this reflection is not about the attack, but about the discourse in Kabul and what it reveals about life, insurgency, and class politics. “Someone sees a big car, with black plates. Stuck in traffic, They know the car belongs to someone important because of the government plates. So they stick a bomb to the rear bumper, and…” he gestured with his hands to show an explosion.

I know about those cars. Land Rover SUVs, or Lincoln Navigators or some other grotesque equivalent. Tinted windows. Pointedly aggressive driving. Never yield for pedestrians or smaller cars. This, in a country where my management-level government colleagues have not been paid in five months. This, in a country where malnutrition is obvious in all sorts of ways. It has gotten colder in Kabul. So once again, I smelled that nasty pungency of burning plastic. In a house nearby, someone has gathered up plastic trash and is burning it in their house, probably to keep their children warm. Balancing whatever longer-term respiratory health hazards come from inhaling plastic-smoke against the more immediate and tangible dangers of hypothermia.

So in a city like this, where the inequalities are flaunted so bluntly, who needs an organized Islamist insurgency to provoke violence? The violence is already here, in a continuous way: it is the rich attacking the poor, depriving them of both dignity and the means to keep their children safe.

Kabul is one of the best teachers I have ever had. It explains the nature of the modern, 21st-century world with a raw clarity that is concealed and buffered in North American cities. Yes, this is modernity. Yes, this is the 21st century; indeed conditions of Kabul are the direct byproduct of late 20th-century Cold War geopolitics. You can’t find a more Global City than Kabul. So it is worth taking a close look at what it reveals.

One thing it reveals is an unpleasant re-think about urban planning ethics. For those of you who are not planners: our profession took a strong social-justice turn in the 1960s. We mark it with the publication of Paul Davidoff’s “Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning,” published in 1965. One of the most cherished awards in our American Collegiate Schools of Planning association is the Davidoff Award, in his honor. So planners may still be technocratic nerds in some ways, but we are deeply invested in the idea of social justice. And for those of us who read Davidoff alongside Machiavelli, there is the added logic that when planners are seen as doing good, they add credibility to the regime. It promotes stability, along with promotion of “heath, safety, morals, and the general welfare,” as our legal record affirms.

As a planner, I am more consciously pro-system and pro-government than the vast majority of Americans. But unconsciously, maybe my fellow citizens are propping up aspects of the American regime that are deeply toxic: we are letting the rich get away with harming us in some deeply profound ways. We let them write laws that profit them, and block laws that would protect the rest of us from their predations. There is still not substantive legislation to protect us from the sub-prime lending/speculative hijinks that trashed the US economy starting in 2007. We need to think hard about our willingness to protect and apologize for our billionaires.

How does this tie to Kabul? The elites in those SUVs got their money from us. We set up this racket. As another Afghan colleague reflected, “When the U.S. said they were going to move on Afghanistan, the leaders of the United Islamic Front [we call them the “Northern Alliance”] were terrified that they would be arrested as war criminals for what they had done,” referring to the bloody civil war of the early 1990s that had only been suppressed by the arrival of the Taliban. “Instead, the Americans welcomed them with pallets of money.” Not briefcases. Freight pallets. Thus the Bush regime set up one of the most corrupt governments in the world—an official ranking of the Karzai regime by Transparency International some ten years ago. Ashraf Ghani—and thousands of ethical, dedicated Afghans under him—are trying to undo that damage, but habits have become ingrained. Commanders careening around Kabul with no regard for human life are a persistent, daily reminder to the rest of us that there are still thugs in high places here.

There is another connection, though, which makes this more relevant to an American context. We got involved in Afghanistan because of a criminal attack that was hyped up into being called an Act of War. By definition, that was a stretch, because al Qaeda was not a government and not even claiming to be one. It was in fact a movement led by a billionaire. So one way of interpreting 9/11 is that it was an attack on Americans by a very rich person, from a very rich family. The known facts are even weirder than speculations about other explanations. The woman who coordinated the flight of the bin Laden family out of Texas on the afternoon of September 11th was my student. She described what it was like to arrange the only civilian flight over the United States on that afternoon. The bin Laden family was protected from potential angry reprisals and perhaps embarrassing questions from a Senate committee. Billionaires were protected. Bush even shifted focus away from bin Laden towards the distraction of Iraq for the better part of a decade. Maybe I infer too much there; but there is no secret to the predominant guess—for a decade—that Osama was sheltering in Pakistan.

So here is the problem for a planner: since Davidoff and the ‘social justice turn’ in planning back in 1965, we have focused on helping the poor. Community planning, in the U.S., does not mean helping the whole community (as it does, I discovered, in Thailand). Community planning for American planners means helping the poor, the disadvantaged. Which is a charity model of social justice, and it only holds up if we accept the (rather patronizing) assumption that the rich mean well. That those with more feel an ethical need to help those who are less fortunate. This ethical position also does something less obvious: it shifts the planner’s attention away from looking too closely at the behavior of the rich. I was, for many years, concerned about the plight of minorities and underrepresented people in the U.S., and pointedly indifferent to the rich, who do not need the systemic help of planners. Since they can take care of themselves, I did not pay much attention to those who are much closer to my class-position (at least I have an education on a par with theirs) but above me. For planners as a whole, this has been a costly mistake.

From a systemic point of view, the financial crisis of 2007- was another attack upon Americans by the very rich. It did not have the spectacular drama of jets hitting buildings. But on a month-to-month basis of making millions of Americans wonder which bills they could pay, it did deeper systemic harm. And it was brutally violent in the way that only a family who were foreclosed out of their home can fully understand. And it was damaging enough to institutional systems that planners need to rethink our position in the 21st century very carefully.

Americans based at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul are not allowed out of the Embassy except under extraordinarily rare circumstances. They arrive at Kabul International Airport and are flown by helicopters (Blackhawks or Chinooks, flown in pairs) to the U.S. Embassy. The rotor-thump of those choppers wakes me up each morning. The American Embassy squats as a massive fortified complex in the middle of Kabul, blocking traffic and the commerce of a very vulnerable population who have to squeak around it and wait in congested traffic every day, because there are no alternative routes to the downtown adjacent to the Embassy complex. In unguarded moments, Afghan colleagues have dropped their usual graciousness towards me and intimated how much they resent the behavior of the Americans in Kabul. Rich people flying overhead. Not touching ground, not contributing to the city in any tangible way. Floating balloons with surveillance cameras, to catch high-resolution images of people and behaviors that they do not understand, because they have practically no interface with the actual urban population of the city.

It would be easy to flatten ‘those Americans’ into caricatures. But they went to the same schools I went to. These are my fellow countrymen. But they—we—are operating with a set of assumptions that I find increasingly untenable. What kind of system are we protecting? What promise do we hold out to Afghans? That they should become like us? What does that mean? A people who apologize for the misbehavior of billionaires?

Planners, almost by definition, are not revolutionaries. Since we are the system, we are perhaps constitutionally incapable of advocating the overthrow of the system. Furthermore, as pragmatists, we generally get the sense that idealistic government overthrows mostly kill the poor, no matter what the other outcomes are. So we are, at most, radical revisionists. Based on what I am seeing through lenses granted by Kabul, we as planners need to think about how to protect ourselves and human populations as a whole from the predations of the very rich. We often plan for ‘urban resilience’ as recovery from natural disasters. But how do we protect the cities we are responsible for from real-estate speculation and resultant gentrification? From the sumping of middle-class salaries by people who spend it on 400-foot yachts and personal jets? Paul Davidoff did not prepare us for this. We have a very different set of problems we need to tackle.

Silver lining of a very dark stormcloud

These days I work in China, so in winter I only have 4 weeks to spend with my family in California. These four weeks are overshadowed by the transition to a disastrous new American presidency. The first policies being imposed don’t even seem to favor conservatives; they seem primarily intended to aggrieve Americans who believe in equal rights, social justice, environmental protection, and respect for scientific research.

However there is also good news in this disaster. I am seeing Americans my age and younger becoming mobilized on a par with Tunisians and Egyptians! What I hope is that we can move forward, not just against the current buffoon-in-chief. Here are a few policies I hope for:

  • Equal rights for women. Equal pay, reproductive choice, and comprehensive free childcare so that those who choose to have children are not punished economically.
  • Equal rights for black men. At the very least, the right not to be killed arbitrarily by police officers with impunity. Equal indictment and sentencing for crimes. Equal punishment in school for the same offenses as whites. Equal investment in education. Release from incarceration for as many as quickly as possible, and restoration of rights to those whose were stripped by racially-skewed sentencing.
  • Desegregation. Laissez-faire markets are not just disastrous for sustained economic growth. Laissez-faire also enables residential sorting, which means US residential segregation has continued to increase non-stop since 1910. US communities are now far more segregated by race and class than they were during the 1950s. To prevent segregation-through-gentrification, we may need to partially socialize urban residential property. Or, at minimum, detach urban land-values from financial market speculators.
  • Public healthcare. Here is the business rationale: an entrepreneur is much more likely to take risks and face business-failure if she does not fear that she will lose health-coverage for herself and her children. For small business-owners, national healthcare would lift a massive paperwork burden.
  • Revisit Native American rights. The Five Civilized Tribes have claims to northern Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia; the Lakota have claim to an area about the size of South Dakota. The United States will have far more moral authority in foreign-policy negotiations if we display the moral courage to honor the treaties we have broken in the past. What would it mean for mineral-rights in the Black Hills and oil-rights in Oklahoma? That is for respective Native American councils to decide.
  • Restore the Constitution. The rights and governmental constraints in the Constitution apply to all people under US jurisdiction and control. Guantanamo Bay Prison remains a violation of the 5th, 6th, and 8th Amendments. Furthermore, we should never accept any suspension of any part of the Constitution during times of emergency. The Constitution was written during an emergency, and intended to govern even during times of warfare. We should never accept intimidation (‘terrorizing’) as a pretext for even a partial suspension of the Constitution again.

We knew that the election and re-election of Barack Obama did not mean that America had evolved past racism. Continued incidents of police brutality are only the most obvious indicator of persistent prejudice. White brutality needs to be addressed; but basic economic inequality is probably even more serious as a problem. As Martin Luther King Jr. once asked, what does it matter if a black man wins the right to sit at a lunch counter with his fellow Americans if he cannot afford the food on the menu? Achieving equal opportunity is a much more difficult task than landing a man on the moon. As a metric of achievement, America will deserve far more credit a thousand years from now if we eliminate the income-gap by race in this country.

In fact, this is a vision for America: a nation that strives for equality of opportunity. A nation that defends the right of all people to pursue happiness and fulfillment in their own terms. A nation tat defends that right not just for current citizens, but equally for all people who come to the US and seek to become Americans. A nation that defends that right for peoples who were brought here by force, or annexed into the country by force, or compelled to come as refugees—as well as those who have come seeking their fortune.

Furthermore, this vision of a land of opportunity is compatible with a vision of a land that cares for its own. Equal access to education, healthcare, and infrastructure. Freedom of opportunity does mean allowing risk-takers to fail; but if the consequences of failure are too disastrous, reasonable Americans will become risk-averse. If there is a firm, bottom-line platform to stand on, many more Americans would be willing to ‘push off’ from that baseline to do more; and that baseline also provides the educated, healthy pool of employees who can grow businesses. That business-healthy environment is the ‘return on the social investment’ of tax-expenditures. We need to tax-to-invest, and invest in the types of underlying social and infrastructure conditions which individual firms cannot provide. “Tax-and-spend” is a deceptively incomplete expression; we need to understand tax-expenditures as investments, so that tax-burden is weighed in relation to tax-investments.

Why blog about these long-term political economy issues in a moment of acute crisis?

Because politics is the art of shaping the public narrative. We need the phraseology to win over swing voters. Because our current very unhappy president will not be in office forever, and his are not the only policies that need to be resisted, redirected, or overturned. Because two pieces of advice from Barack Obama still pertain: (1) Don’t get caught up in the distractions, and (2) No individual, not even the president, can define the path of the United States. If we want change, we must push for that collectively. So: pushing back against the policies of a malicious president is a good place to start, and to learn how to push collectively. But we have goals that lie well beyond the scope of this specific moment. If we can learn to push collectively for those, then the current president’s efforts will not only be completely undone, but also truly erased under a much deeper shift in a humane direction.

ISIS and some reckoning about Bush’s invasion of Iraq

Liberals never collectively said ‘I told you so’ about the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We should have. As it turns out, that story is not over. The post-occupancy analysis made it very clear that Hussein was bluffing, And that George W. Bush’s pressure to find some excuse to invade Iraq caused intelligence analysts to see what he wanted to see. Furthermore, there was no relationship between Hussein and Islamist terrorists.

In 2014, I was disturbed to hear that ISIS had taken over Mosul (I wrote about it in this blog in June 2014). I was disturbed that ISIS had gained control over both oilfields and oil pipelines; and therefore a steady stream of revenue. I was also disturbed that the Iraqi national forces gave up the fight so easily. President Bush spent more than 100 billion US tax dollars from 2003-2008 to rebuild an Iraqi Army. But clearly this ‘post-Ba’ath’ army had little commitment to really defend Iraq as a whole nation. They took off their uniforms, abandoned their M16s and humvees, and hitched rides back to Baghdad. When Republicans complain about wasteful government spending of hard-earned American tax dollars, I think the Iraqi army’s rout at Mosul in 2014 is the worst case I have ever heard of. It is also a reminder that warfare is always a political process. If the troops do not believe in the political arguments of their side, they will lose no matter how well-armed they might be.

Martin Luther King Jr. made this argument in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech on April 4, 1967. The ARVN (South Vietnamese military) seemed uncommitted to the cause of defending their US-allied military dictatorship against the North Vietnamese communists. If they didn’t want to defend South Vietnam then what was America doing there? And wouldn’t it be better to spend those tax-dollars on education and jobs for poorer Americans? King was a committed pacifist, because he understood the nature of political conflict and the limited effectiveness of violence. Today, a president who spouts racist and sexist remarks—a president who promotes violence through his words—should consider how quickly he is eroding his own authority to role at home, and defend his country from outside threats.

ISIS is a present threat to US security, and to the security of our allies. They are also fascists, and I believe that Americans are committed to opposing fascism on principle. But to oppose them means a political struggle above all else. To rephrase Clausewitz, military operations are a subset of politics, and military force should be used as a subset of a political process—and only when combat does not strengthen the political cause of the opposition. The failure in Mosul shows the serious limitations of using an army when they do not believe in the political cause of the people who pay them. So before ‘bombing the crap out of ISIS’ we need to understand them, and how to fight them on their turf.

Here is one example. ISIS is known for posting videos of their activities. They overlay praise-music with video footage of them dynamiting Shi’ite shrines. It is forbidden in Islam to destroy places and icons that are being actively revered by people of other faiths. So ISIS’s destruction of actively-used Shi’ite shrines is haram (forbidden by Islamic law). ISIS’s claim to credibility is that they are the ‘true’ Islamic government. To attack their credibility, we need to challenge them on Islamic terms. That means the foreign-policy wing of the US government needs to understand Islam well enough to wage the political war through Shari’a jurisprudential arguments. We cannot defeat this intolerant threat if Americans are perceived as being similarly intolerant. Trump’s bigoted tone weakens our position against ISIS.

Bigotry makes America politically clumsy. We missed and badly misinterpreted an opportunity with the Taliban sixteen years ago. Westerners still make the mistake of thinking that the destruction of the Buddha statues at Bamiyan was “senseless.” I don’t agree with the “sense” that the Taliban argued at the time, but it was definitely sensible and profoundly different from ISIS today. Before destroying the Buddhas the Taliban argued that 1) Buddhists had not been revering the statues at Bamiyan for decades, so it was legal to remove them. But more importantly: 2) a German historical agency had just offered to spend more than $100 million to restore the statues. Meanwhile, no international agency had offered help with the serious famine which had set in in Afghanistan by 1999. The Taliban were appalled by this prioritization of art-preservation over the preservation of human life, and they wanted to call international attention to this hypocrisy. Unfortunately the international reaction remains under-(hypo)critical of this event. I read the Taliban’s arguments in the New York Times. This was not classified information, not hard to find. In some very important ways, the Taliban destruction of the Buddha statues at Bamiyan was the opposite of the ISIS destruction of Christian, Shi’ite, and Yazidi sites in Iraq. The Taliban were arguing for the importance of human life over the veneration of objects. ISIS, on the other hand, is committing genocide in a distinctly fascistic way. The US government could still use the 16-year-old Taliban arguments not just to condemn ISIS as un-Islamic, but to recruit the Taliban and perhaps even some al Qaeda factions to work with us against ISIS. If we simplistically dismiss the Taliban as ‘the bad guys,’ then we are being politically clumsy.

A fourth disturbing thing about ISIS. One of the videos they posted in 2014 shows them stopping a car at one of their checkpoints. While one ISIS guard is at the car, another checks the driver’s identification cards against information he has in a laptop. Based on whatever he finds on the laptop, the ISIS guards take the man out of the car and shoot him. What did ISIS indicate by posting this video? 1) they are brutal. No surprise there. 2) they seem to have an extensive Iraqi government database, and the ability to use it in the field. 3) they are organized ans systematic.

Later in 2014 I read that one of the major groups that came together to form ISIS was the government workers whom L. Paul Bremer dismissed in 2003 during his “de-Ba’athification program” in Iraq. I would have doubted that analysis if I had not seen that ISIS video; because actual Ba’athists were supposed to be committed secularists. That is why there was virtually no possibility that Hussein’s Ba’athinst government would have had anything to do with al Qaeda in 2001 or earlier. However, perhaps after the defeat of Hussein, and being thrown out of government, and living as unemployed people in an occupied country for a decade, maybe some former Iraqi civil servants and soldiers have decided that a Sunni Islamic militant path is the only effective way to fight the US backed, Shi’ite-partisan government in Baghdad. ISIS does in fact share two ideological traits with the Ba’athists: pan-Arabism, and anti-colonialism. But is this what happened? If we are going to fight ISIS politically, US intelligence analysts better understand this sequence of events with great clarity, and US political leaders need to heed the actual events, no matter how unexpected.

It is clear that ISIS is very organized, as if it is made up of people who are used to working in an organized government. Unlike the Taliban, who started out as vigilantes fighting corruption, or al Qaeda, who started out as adventurers seeking to overthrow the Saudi kingdom, ISIS has sought to be recognized as a government from the beginning. This makes sense especially if a fairly large fraction of ISIS is former government workers, who know how to operate a regime, maintain an identity-card database, and secure oil-facilities to maintain a revenue-flow.

I am not saying that the Bush Administration deliberately created ISIS. But there is very strong evidence that the Bush Administration inadvertently created ISIS by overthrowing Hussein and indiscriminately firing people from the Iraqi government and military who were somehow associated with the Ba’ath Party.

Now let us return to the winter of 2002-2003. Tens of thousands of Americans in San Francisco alone demonstrated against an imminent Bush invasion of Iraq. Worldwide, twenty million were demonstrating against an Iraqi invasion in the first weekends of March 2003. At the time we lived near downtown San Francisco, and the drone of aircraft overhead was constant for three months as ‘Homeland Security’ monitored demonstrators rather than focusing on actual security-threats. Unlike Vietnam, these were tens of thousands of people protesting before any war had begun. Part of my concern was that a war in Iraq would divert attention away from the actual security threat of al Qaeda. That also turned out to be correct. Al Qaeda continued to attack in Bali, Spain, Turkey, and Britain in over the next seven years. Only when the Obama Administration came in and turned attention back to al Qaeda did the US manage to reduce that security threat.

So I say this to Republicans who want to dismiss us Liberals as ‘special interest groups’ (that is a verbatim quote of George W. Bush’s reaction to the pre-invasion anti-war protests). We were right. Stop sneering at us. I have heard for years about Liberals being condescending; but in fact we did not sneer at Republicans for the mistake of Iraq. We grieved. We counted the dead, when Republicans refused to do so. Eventually Republicans themselves decided Iraq was a waste; now I am not sure if Republicans are willing to collect the tax-dollars necessary to care for America’s wounded veterans (and definitely not for the Iraqis whom we have harmed). Liberals are dismissed and sneered at for studying obscure subjects (like Islamic political thought) and objecting to warfare as a first option, rather than as a last resort within a larger political conflict. Rather than sneer at us, I invite Republicans to have the courage of humility; the courage to listen this time.

Taking responsibility for Trump

Many Republicans have tried to disassociate themselves from the election of Donald Trump. This is consistent with a Republican pattern of seeking to avoid taking responsibility, perhaps best encapsulated in Mitt Romney’s book title No Apologies. Trump has promoted an atmosphere of racism and intolerance that the Republican party finds embarrassing. This may have also led to inaccurate projections of the electoral outcome. I teach survey design. We know there is a problem forecasting votes when one of the positions is so morally objectionable that respondents are embarrassed to publicly admit their actual voting preference.

Now Trump’s election is setting a new tone in many parts of the US, including swastika graffiti (“Make America White Again!”) and harassment of women wearing hijab. In public, the Republican party establishment wants to avoid any responsibility for this change of tone—I think partly out of habit; they have not taken responsibility for endorsing torture at Guantanamo or at rendition black sites—but partly because it might damage future electability of Republican candidates.

However there is strong evidence that Trump actually does represent Republican values. Since 1964, the Republican party has opposed civil rights, which is strange since the party was founded in the 1850s with an Abolitionist platform. This peculiar shift happened between 1948 and 1964. It began with Democrat Harry Truman’s adoption of a civil-rights platform, and culminated with Strom Thurmond and his fellow Dixiecrats shifting to the Republican party.

Jeet Heer of the New Republic identified this historic linkage to Trump supporters back in February 2016. While the RNC tried to disavow Trump as a candidate, Heer notes:

Polling in South Carolina, which holds its Republican primary on Saturday, reveals the single most salient difference between Trump’s supporters and those of his rivals: They are much more likely to endorse white ethnic nationalism and to express nostalgia for traditional Southern racism. In light of this polling, Trump’s campaign can best be understood not as an outlier but as the latest manifestation of the Southern Strategy, which the Republican Party has deployed for a half-century to shore up its support in the old Confederate states by appeals to racial resentment and white solidarity.

My impression was that the Southern Strategy was initiated by Richard Nixon. However, Heer traces the SS back to the National Review, which was founded in 1955 to oppose an expansion of civil rights for blacks. Truman desegregated the US military in 1948, and the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 caused great anxiety among Southern Democrats. Strom Thurmond was still a member of the Democratic Party in 1956 when he read his Southern Manifesto into the Congressional Record, formally opposing the Brown decision and desegregation as a whole. Conversely, Chief Justice Earl Warren’s efforts to make the Brown decision unanimous represent the shift of Californians from the racist-socialist Workingman’s Party of the 1870s and Japanese internment in the 1940s towards a much stronger support for equal rights.

But how did the Republican Party—the party of Lincoln—become attractive for Strom Thurmond and other avowedly racist politicians and voters? Heer explains that—like the TEA Party movement—the Southern Strategy was a rebellion within the Republican party itself. William F. Buckley founded the National Review in 1955 “in opposition to the moderate Republicanism of Dwight Eisenhower, who was seen as being soft on communism and all too willing to compromise with liberals.” For Buckley this was personal because he was the child of plantation-owners. But he also believed that a Republican Party opposed to equal rights could gain political success in Southern States.

Buckley was correct. When Lyndon Johnson backed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Dixiecrats shifted to the Republican party and brought their voters with them. The 1964 Republican National Convention nominated Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act, and won in the Deep South. Though Goldwater lost in the general election to Johnson, the results showed the Republican National Committee that they could gain electoral success in the South for this first time since the Party’s founding, by appealing to Southern voters who were opposed to equal rights. I must point out that not all Southern whites oppose equal rights. I was born in North Carolina.

The University of Michigan Law School traces the success of the Southern Strategy forward to the “Reagan Revolution” in 1984. Reagan also set a tone of racial intolerance and opposition to equal rights; in fact his election in 1980 signaled the end of any hope for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which would have established equal rights for women. Reagan vilified poor black women as ‘welfare queens’ and set a hostile racist tone in the United States that I vividly remember.

However, historians Lassiter, Cruse, and Crespino argue that this interpretation may give too much credit to the National Review’s and the RNC’s Southern Strategy as a whole, because it is a top-down explanation of the white shift towards a Republican party that supported segregation. They argue instead that there was a bottom-up “suburban strategy” of white voters across the United States who wanted to defend the new segregation they were creating through “white flight” to suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. The demographic analysis of Massey and Denton (1993) supports this: residential segregation has been continuously increasing across the United States since 1910, largely through white suburbanization. The NYU film Trouble in Levittown (1957) shows vigorous racist opposition to an attempt by a black middle-class veteran to move into that Pennsylvania suburb. I witnessed segregationist attitudes and practices in suburban Connecticut in the 1970s and 1980s. I agree that the shift occurred across the US, and even in the south it was closely associated with suburbanization (Kruse 2005). What this indicates, however, is that both the Republican leadership and the voting base of the Republican party have embraced racist policies since the 1950s; and this shift became official in 1964.

Republicans’ public disavowal of the racist, sexist, and religiously intolerant statements of Trump and his supporters carries no weight in my opinion. The past 60 years of electoral politics indicate that Trump truly does represent Republican attitudes and values for the past two generations. This is ironic considering the Republican values of 1854-1955, when the Republican party promoted equal rights and liberties. To recover that legacy, Republicans need to act vigorously and overtly to oppose this recent tide of Trump-affiliated hatred. The first step will be to take responsibility for racist attitudes within the party for the last 60 years. The next step will be to do whatever is possible to redeem that shameful legacy. It is possible. Note that the Democratic Party has to publicly admit that Woodrow Wilson was a segregationist and FDR put Japanese-Americans into concentration camps. Johnson’s support of civil rights legislation and the embrace of Barack Obama as president were important steps toward redeeming the legacy of the Democratic Party. I look forward to Republicans taking responsibility by actively promoting justice, fair and equal treatment, and opposition to racism and religious intolerance. Action means passing laws; enforcing justice; admitting error. It also means having the courage to apologize. Only through acts of political courage do Americans recognize ourselves as a great nation.


Aistrup, Joseph A. (1996). The Southern Strategy Revisited: Republican Top-Down Advancement in the South. University Press of Kentucky.

Heer, Jeet. (18 February 2016). How the Southern Strategy Made Donald Trump Possible: In states like South Carolina, the mogul reaps the benefits of the GOP’s longstanding appeal to racism. The New Republic.

Kevin Michael Kruse (2005). White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton University Press.

Lassiter, Matthew D. (2006). The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South. Princeton University Press.

Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. (1993). American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Harvard University Press.

Zelizer, Julian E. (4 March 2012). Governing America: The Revival of Political History. Princeton University Press.

Reflections on the US Election from Afar

“California is – and must always be – a refuge of justice and opportunity for people of all walks, talks, ages and aspirations – regardless of how you look, where you live, what language you speak, or who you love.”
Joint Statement from California Legislative Leaders on Result of Presidential Election, November 9, 2016

In 2008, Barack Obama urged his supporters to mobilize for change. He cautioned that he was only one person, and that—thankfully—the US political system was designed so that no single person could define or redefine national policy. I think we Americans have not yet heeded that message. In very important ways, we actually have been changing the US for the better: now you can marry the person you love. Police murders of unarmed black men actually make the news, and most Americans seem to think police brutality is wrong. Women’s rights and transgender rights are at least being discussed again. America is a better country for all this progress.

Even so, reforms to financial regulation and campaign financing have been blocked by the Republican-controlled Congress since 2009. And the conservative-led Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 has given corporations even more power to protect themselves against regulations and enforcements that would stabilize our financial system. The Affordable Care Act was a half-measure compromise; basic healthcare is still not a right for all Americans. And the restoration of economic opportunity for most Americans will require some profound policy changes. So a lot of progress still needs to be made.

A lot can be done at the local and state level. The recent movement to increase minimum wages in coastal cities is one example. Cities may also need to become part-owners of their own housing stock, as in Britain and the Netherlands, to make housing affordable for workers committed to remaining in their communities. Perhaps state-level capital-gains taxes can be used to fund equal-level education in every school district. A statewide healthcare system could reduce both risk and paperwork for small businesses and their employees. Many working-class people in the US still believe that conservative policies will actually help them. Rather than dispute that paradoxical faith, it will be better to show how effective these socialist policies can be.

I understand a lot of the anger and dismay at the outcome of the election. But as Obama advised, I hope that we can turn that emotion into mobilization for the policy changes we want. Will Trump be our president? Well, yes. But we give any president far too much power if we assume that they will define all of government and all the policies that shape our lives. We should not have done that with Obama; we left him with too little momentum to implement serious healthcare and financial reform.

To resist the phobic mindset of Trump supporters, we need to develop persuasive stories and narratives that make radical reform appealing. Phobia means both hatred and fear. It is an accurate characterization of Trump politics. And the opposite of phobia is love and compassion. That is a huge advantage for creating a compelling way of describing our policy values! Here is one way we might tell our story: ‘In a democracy, we are the government. And we use the government to care for each other, especially in times of sickness and unexpected disaster. We tax ourselves to invest in the education of our children, the protection of our rights, and sustainable wealth earned through work.’

This year I think Republicans were looking forward to being the ‘party-of-opposition’ for another four years. ‘Just saying no’ to legislation is much easier than actually developing new policies. This has been an appealing position for Republicans ever since Reagan declared that ‘government is the problem’ in his 1981 inaugural address. Clinton would have had a miserable four years in office. All of her experience would have made little difference in domestic policy since the Republican Congress was going to continue its policy of refusing to act.

Now Republicans have to lead. They face the unpleasant prospect of being held responsible for their actions. With control of the presidency and both houses in Congress, whatever happens from 2017 to 2021 will be attributed to the Republican party and the conservative movement as a whole. The wealthy white conservatives in Washington are exceedingly unlikely to implement policies that actually help the working-class whites who elected them. Tax cuts only help if you make enough money to pay tax; it does not help unemployed people at all. Without major job growth, tax cuts will only mean even fewer services in poor communities. We need a compelling narrative for socially positive reforms to be well-established as the conservative myth unravels.

More thoughts on space colonization

Eleven years ago on this blog, I posted the idea of the gravitat. The concept was first envisioned by Herman Potočnik, a.k.a. Hermann Noordung (1928), and popularized by Werner von Braun in 1952. Here I discuss some refinements and wider uses of the gravitat. Using this system, humans could live under Earth-normal gravity conditions on the surface of the other solid planets, moons, and asteroids in our solar system (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. A gravitat on Asteroide B-612 (thank you, St-Exupery). Any decent-sized rock would shield the habitat from at least half the meteors and much of the radiation of deep space.

Figure 1. A gravitat on Asteroide B-612 (thank you, St-Exupery). Any decent-sized rock would shield the habitat from at least half the meteors and much of the radiation of deep space.

Part of the reason I bring up this issue again is that I have been reading James S.A. Corey’s book series called The Expanse. I really like the books and TV show as opera; and the authors also take technology very seriously. But they do not seem aware of the idea of inducing gravity while living on the surface of other planets, and I am not sure if anyone else has proposed it!

Rationale for the gravitat

Since the 1960s, NASA has studied human physiology under conditions of microgravity, and the results are not encouraging. Not only do muscles atrophy, but astronauts also lose about 1% bone density per month in microgravity. So: microgravity may remain useful for scientific experiments and industrial production, but humans shouldn’t spend too much time living in micro-g. On the other hand, it would be very helpful to have humans making the complex decisions in places that are light-seconds and light-minutes from Earth. Even the signal-distance to Luna is enough to cause potential problems with remotely-operated machinery there.

Until we know otherwise, I propose that a standard gravitat should produce centripetal acceleration equivalent of 1 Earth-gravity (1.0 g, or 9.81m/s/s). Why? Because we have evolved under 1g, and numerous biological systems from our musculature to our bones to our lymphatic system are adapted to the 1g environment. There are other biological stressors in space (radiation, confined living conditions) so it would be wise to eliminate at least this one stress-factor.

Unfortunately the result is a structure with a lot of mass. Gilruth (1969) argued for 2 RPM as the maximum revolutions/minute of a centrifugal habitat to avoid causing vertigo. However Globus and Hall (2015) recently reviewed the literature, and 4 RPM seems generally feasible, although newly-arriving people might need a few hours to adapt. Theodore Hall (2000) created a “spin calc” program which yields the following results:

For a centripetal acceleration of 9.81m/s/s, with an angular velocity of 4 RPM,

The radius is 56 meters; diameter = 112m. That means a relatively big structure.

Right away, this suggests some empirical research that needs to be done adjacent to the International Space Station:

(1) What is the highest angular velocity that humans can comfortably tolerate? If a structure can spin faster, the radius (and thus the overall mass) of the structure can be reduced proportionally while still producing 1g of force. For a ring, the savings in mass vary geometrically with radius, so the gains would be significant.

(2) What is the lowest centripetal acceleration (spin-gravity) that can maintain long-term health? I suspect that permanent gravitats will always need to produce something close to 1.0 g, but for a multi-month interplanetary voyage, much lower forces could still maintain far better health than traveling in microgravity.

Two basic configurations: Mast-and-Yardarm, Mast-and-Ring

The lowest-mass gravitat would be a two-capsule Mast-and-Yardarm (MnY) design (see Figure 2). I chose these terms carefully to describe the multiple roles and historical corollaries for each component. Normally the central mast would not spin. Solar arrays, engines, observation equipment, communication equipment, and docking equipment would all be attached to this central mast. So the mast needs to be relatively strong, and it needs to be able to maintain a fixed orientation.

The yardarm is designed to rotate around the mast. A low-mass yardarm structure can hold the capsules in position mostly through tension while it is spinning; but that would also require fore-and-aft stays to prevent the yardarm from resonating or oscillating. Similar rigging was used on square-sail ships, for the same reason of structural efficiency. Therefore I use the same terms: stays and rigging. Figure 2 is a modified image of an existing ship’s communication mast; it gives a rough impression of the MnY configuration.

A mast-and-yardarm gravitat configuration

Figure 2. A mast-and-yardarm gravitat configuration.

Permanent stations on other planets, moons, and asteroids, or in orbit or at Lagrange points, could all be the much more massive Mast-and-Wheel (MnW) structure. When positioned on a planet, the mast would become the “maypole” around which the wheel would turn. All the other (known) solid bodies in the solar system have a lower surface-gravity than Earth; so the purpose of a surface-mounted gravitat would be to supplement natural gravity with centripetal force, to maintain 1g for long-term health. Surface-mounted gravitats would spin more slowly in proportion to the amount of supplementary centripetal force required to get 1g. Also, the direction of force would no longer be strictly radial, so the decks within pressurized capsules would need to gimbal so that they remain force-level within the combination of planetary and centripetal force. However, I still suggest the same standard design so that standard components can be built and debugged most efficiently.

The wheel-structure of a gravitat would look most like the London Eye or Singapore Flyer, which are both designed with tension-cables rather than rigid Ferris-Wheel spokes. Figure 3 is a mashup of an image of the Singapore Flyer with the solar arrays of the ISS, to give an impression of what it would look like. Gravitats are going to need very large solar arrays, not just because of the power-demand of such a large structure, but also because most of them will be positioned farther away from the sun than the Earth itself.

Figure 3. A full gravitat.

Figure 3. A full gravitat.

Capsules as triple-bagged trusses

Hard-shelled pressure vessels are not an efficient combination of function and mass for space exploration and occupation. NASA and Bigelow Aerospace have the right idea experimenting with inflatable structures. From my life-experience, I make a further recommendation: triple-bag the human-occupied areas (see Figure 4). I think a triple-bag structure will yield the best compromise of low mass, radiation-shielding, and minimal risk of catastrophic decompression due to meteorite-impact.

My guess is that each layer could be pressurized with the following gases:

(A) Innermost inhabited space: N2/O2 atmosphere at 0.6 bar pressure;

(B) Intermediate pressurized layer: N2 gas at 0.2 bar pressure;

(C) Outermost pressurized layer: argon gas at perhaps 0.05 bar.

Each layer would have some insulation on the outer face, and whatever is the lightest way to block the most harmful radiation.

Within the innermost bag, the inhabited deck would be supported by an open truss.

Thus, there would be no “hard pressure vessel” in this design, except perhaps the junction-airlocks that link each capsule to the next capsule along the ring.

Also, this means inhabited capsules would have no windows. Maybe in the junction-airlocks. But then the junction-airlocks would admit more radiation; at some point the residents would need to decide their own trade-off of radiation-exposure for a direct view outside.

Figure 4. Schematic section of one of the pressurized capsules of a gravitat.

Figure 4. Schematic section of one of the pressurized capsules of a gravitat. Note: this sketch represents one segment in a much larger (225m) structure, based on my prior impression that the maximum comfortable rotation rate would be 2 RPM.

Remotes for most EVA maintenance work

Since there is a fair amount of hard radiation in space (and on the surface of most bodies in our solar system), extravehicular activities (EVAs) should be minimized. Remote robots should be used as much as possible for maintenance, repair, scientific research, and commercial production.

Two other reasons to minimize EVAs on planets, moons, and other bodies: to avoid biologically contaminating them, and to avoid having their dust contaminate us. For the next few decades at least, we should try to avoid spreading bacteria to our neighboring planets and moons until we can verify ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that there are no indigenous microbes on those planets and moons. It is pretty likely that some of the “extremophile” microbes on Earth could survive on Mars. If we allow that contamination, we may never know if life emerged there independently.

Conversely, dust is a problem for us. On Earth, our rich complex of biota locks down most forms of dust in soil and water. But the other planets, moons, and asteroids in our solar system have superfine dust that would cause serious long-term lung damage for humans. When the Apollo astronauts climbed back into the LEM with their suits on, they tracked in a lot of hazardous dust. This will be a problem for EVAs on the surface of every other solid body in our solar system.

Super-fine dust is also a problem for the moving parts within machinery, and I assume NASA has been spending time designing for that.

Re-visiting the rationale for human space exploration

Should humans be in space at all? I think that question can only be answered in a moral framework. As an urban planner, one of my core concerns is social justice; and the argument against the Apollo program was that we should not be spending tax dollars sending people to the moon when people in our own country are suffering from poverty. In the 1960s and 1970s, space-exploration looked profligate; and I think it only really gained Congressional funding because it was a thinly-veiled weapons demonstration against the USSR Today, we use satellite imagery for weather-predictions and disaster-coordination, so the argument against satellite-launches has abated, since rich and poor benefit from this technology. And there are other U.S. budget-items which are indeed more profligate—like the unnecessary invasion and occupation of Iraq for $2 trillion. To put the human spaceflight program in perspective, Elon Musk recently said, ‘I think we should spend at least as much on space exploration as Americans spend on lipstick every year.’

There are two reasons why I think we should push much more human space exploration. First of all, I think we will make discoveries that will grow our economy. Not merely technologies like velcro and mylar, but the sort of widespread kick to a whole economy when a population feels inspired. When we use a really big space-based telescope to get high-resolution images of the planets orbiting nearby stars, I think the effect on our culture and economy will be very positive.

The second reason I advocate space-exploration is the lessons in environmental humility we will encounter. A long-term life-support system is hard to design, hard to maintain. I believe NASA-AMES should promote the difficulty of long-term, closed-loop life-support systems. The Initiatives-List of Ames shows that NASA has already linked the idea of offworld life-support systems with Earth-based sustainability research. Their Sustainability Base building is an application of NASA tech to what Architects call ‘green building systems’. During the next high-profile mission, such as to Mars, NASA could tie the problem of long-term life-support explicitly to thinking about the emergent complexity of natural ecosystems. In this way, long-journey human spaceflight could shift our collective attention much more to the gritty details of soil micro-biomes, algae growth, and managed nutrient-cycles.

Here is where planning for deep space exploration links most profoundly to city planning. Cities are complex emergent systems. One dimension of urbanism is that cities are integrated into multiple ecosystems; they are part of the environment and we need to plan accordingly. For example, Singapore has dammed off all the coves and bays of their island-city, so that all rainwater runoff is literally captured before it reaches the sea. The political tensions with the Malaysian national government have pushed Singaporean leaders to think about how political isolation of their island affects access to water. Since it is easier to remove bacteria than dissolved salts, Singaporean planners are willing to recycle everything from stormwater runoff to sewage into potable water before engaging in large-scale desalination. That is an entire city thinking about their life-support systems along the lines of spacecraft planning. Thus, political tensions have caused Singaporean planners to think about sustainable urbanism well beyond what most planners have considered–yet. It will help if high-profile missions in deep space draw attention to humbler things: the beauty of composting, window-box gardening, and water-cycles.


Cramer (1985). “Physiological considerations of artificial gravity.” in A.C. Cron, ed., Applications of tethers in space. NASA CP-2364, v.1, pp.3.95-3.107.

Connors et al. (1985). “Living aloft: Human requirements for extended spaceflight.” NASA SP-483, pp.35-51.

Gilruth, Robert R. (1969). “Manned Space Stations–Gateway to Our Future in Space.” Manned laboratories in space, p. 1-10. New York, New York, USA: Springer-Verlag.

Globus, Al and Theodore Hall (2015). “Space settlement population rotation tolerance.” Preprint PDF.

Hall, Theodore. (1994). The Architecture of Artificial-Gravity Environments for Long-Duration Space Habitation. Ann Arbor, Michigan: PhD Dissertation.

Noordung, Hermann [Herman Potočnik] (1929). Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums: Der Raketenmotor. Berlin: Schmidt & Co.

Back to Berkeley

Since I research the intersection of urbanization and globalization, I have studied a fair bit about migration and refugees. With that perspective, our family situation is pretty good. But it is still strange to be away from my family for most of the year, teaching at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China. It is a great work opportunity, and as an urbanist I am pretty thrilled to be working and researching smack dab in the middle of the largest process of urbanization going on in the world. If demographic projections are accurate, this may be the largest moment of urbanization ever, because the human population may level off within one generation and begin to decline after that. So I am glad to be in Suzhou, and my wife and kids are glad for this opportunity for me, and they are glad that they can stay in Berkeley and pursue their own life-ambitions. But it is weird to be on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean. Communication technology does make a huge difference, but it does not quite “collapse space”: we are on very different circadian rhythms, living 1/3 of a planet apart, and the total difference in weather and time of day is a constant (albeit instantaneous) reminder of how big the planet is, and how far apart we live.

Rather than ‘migrant laborer,’ though, I feel like my family situation is much more like a soldier deployed on a tour. Returning to our home after months away means re-assuming the direct role of being a parent; not always comfortable for me and our early-teen kids. I am doing a lot of house chores to earn my credibility and reassertion of my role. Still, we all have to be pretty up front with out expectations. I guess that military families have had to deal with these dynamics a lot.

And now, on to some political griping.

Like a lot of military families, this is a career opportunity for me. But it is also strongly pressured by my need to pay off grad school debt. A financial planner from Shanghai remarked at how much worse off her American clients often are — how they seem to have a lot of debt, whereas Australians, Europeans, Britons, and Koreans don’t. We agreed that for the regular household, China is passing the United States right now. So much for a Reagan-defined, free-market America. We could make policy choices to reduce inequality and middle-class debt for regular American households — we did it under FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson — but Americans seem too insecure, too frightened to really make bold policy moves. Or, maybe most Americans want to go back to fixed gender roles, segregation, and ‘people knowing their place.’ I am not sure if it is public will, or just conservative political weirdness, but there seems to be a push to wind the policy-clock back to somewhere in the 1890s (railroad robber barons) or the late 1920s (free market free-fall of the economy).

Ach, general griping. But some things need to be repeated in case a short collective public memory enables conservatives to somehow avoid accountability for the harm they have done to this country. I am tired of being a ‘tactful’ good sport towards a whole movement that has revealed itself as demonstrably harmful. Nixon and his ‘Southern Strategy.’ Reagan’s union-busting and bank deregulation. GW Bush and his Iraq war (by now it is pretty clear that his cabinet did not believe in WMDs; so once again: Why did we invade, occupy and spend $2 trillion on Iraq?). The plutocrat Romney. The plutocrat-racist Donald Trump. Republicans used to stand for individual rights; but Eisenhower seems to be the last Republican president who tried to do good. Ever since 1964, when Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond decided to switch from Democrat to Republican, Republicans have been the party that opposes a black person’s right to life and the vote; a woman’s right to reproductive control of her own body and equal pay for equal work; and an immigrant’s right to the 14th-Amendment principle of equal protection under U.S. law. Frankly, I have serious disagreements with some Democratic policy positions. But I don’t really have a voting choice, because the Republican positions are both ethically and Constitutionally indefensible. Rather than the party of ‘just say no’ to all Democratic legislative proposals, I wish the other major party in this country were the Greens, who actually propose policy positions.

For instance, Democrats are pro-business and pro-trade (despite Republican claims to be pro-business). In some ways that is a good thing, but what about a party to counterbalance this ‘growth at all costs’ position? What about a party that understands ‘conservative’ to mean environmental protection? What about a party that acts conservatively to protect the 99% from the financial-speculation harm of the top 0.1%? Dems are sort of in favor of this; but a meaningfully different party would be strongly advocating this. What about a party that advocates immigration, and the elimination of bigoted immigration quotas? Since none of the Wall Street investment-banking and hedge funds have been seized by the federal government, Democrats apparently tolerate open malfeasance by high-value corporations (sadly, Republicans are even worse). What about a party that advocates seizure and break-up of firms that violate the public trust and knowingly do harm? Republicans ‘just say no’ to whatever Dems propose. That is not even an opposition party, because it is not the articulation of a coherent alternative position. Rather, it is the “Nuh-uh!” obstinacy of a teenage brat.

I apologize to those readers who prefer tactful and measured reflection. Perhaps lingering jet-lag suppresses my tact-o-meter. What set me off, this morning, is that I had to the ‘sane’ thing and vote for Hilary Clinton in the California primary today. In my crabby mood I should point out that this could be a very good thing: first woman president, and a candidate with tremendous experience who might therefore be very effective in working with this dysfunctional Congress and getting legislation passed. That is all good. But I am crabby because I could not risk voting for my first choice, Bernie Sanders. We have already passed a point in the electoral cycle where the overriding need is to prevent Donald Trump from being elected. Hilary needs to have as much support as possible, not just for the good she might do, but to prevent the political disaster of a Trump presidency. I feel like we cannot risk splitting the vote or weakening her candidacy now. We cannot risk allowing another conservative demagogue to become president. The consequences of the Gore/Nader split in 2000 was George W, the Iraq war, and the largest economic crisis since the Republican free-marketeer Herbert Hoover allowed the 1929 crash to become the 1931 Great Depression.

For my younger readers, maybe the usefulness of this post will be a series of keywords so they can look up and get a better feel for the last 120 years of the U.S. political economy. Democrats did some bad things in that time, too: Woodrow Wilson segregated federal offices (though Truman and Johnson redeemed some of this). FDR sent Japanese-Americans to concentration-camps. Bill Clinton caved to Republican pressure to eviscerate welfare and partially repeal the Glass-Steagall Act. Southern Dems were often horribly racist — but their political and literal descendants are now “Dixicans” I guess (don’t know if there is another term for them). A ‘balanced’ view of history implies that the good-versus-harm of both parties is roughly even over the past 12 decades. I see no evidence of this. Historical evidence enables a nuanced historical perspective, a counterpoint to a political amnesia about the chronic harmfulness of Republicans. Their one consistent bright spot had been advocacy of individual rights: the abolition of slavery (1865), right to clean air and water (1971), and right to dignified equal access, regardless of physical disability (1991). But most conservatives today openly oppose environmental protections and effectively favor slavery through anti-immigration policies. So I am not even sure if 21st-century conservatives can claim credit for the achievements of a past Republican Party whose policies they now oppose.

Not sure if blog-ranting actually has therapeutic qualities. Joe Rogan warns about the American tendency toward “recreational outrage.” Though I have proposed some options and alternatives here, and pointed to very specific historic events that I think conservatives would rather conveniently forget.

Rethinking urban forms and ideals

Over the last few weeks I have begun to rethink my ideals for the design of cities at the block level of scale. Yesterday my colleague Raffaele Pernice reviewed the history of modern urban design with our class. His slides reminded me that the mid-19th-century industrial city is often seen as the starting-point, the problem. I don’t disagree with that, but I am not sure about the way that lessons were learned from the reaction to it.

Le Corbusier's vision of the "Radiant City"

Le Corbusier’s vision of the “Radiant City”

Raffaele showed le Corbusier’s concept of the Radiant City. From my American experience, I shudder at the idea, because we associate it with the failed experiments in tower-block public housing and the arrogance of Robert Moses. Then I thought about it from the perspective of our Chinese students. In general, the conclusion here has been: Right. High-rise concrete and glass, modern, lots of natural light and ventilation, good. The only objection might be that historic sites should be preserved, not destroyed as Corbu proposed in the Voisin Plan (below).

Voisin Plan, exibited in 1925. Perhaps deliberately provocative, this image has been used for decades to categorically oppose high-rise urbanism.

Voisin Plan, exibited in 1925. Perhaps deliberately provocative, this image has been used for decades to categorically oppose high-rise urbanism.

Meanwhile I assigned Chapter 1 of Jane Jacobs to my students: standard fare for an introduction to planning and urban studies in an American university, and perhaps necessary here to explain the American approach to planning. But I may have absorbed a corrupt lesson myself in the U.S., where Jacobs’ advocacy for vibrant urban streets is associated with opposition to massive tower-block housing. Her opposition to urban renewal and public housing in the 1950s is portrayed as opposition to the impersonal regime of the State and its sterile, State-funded towers.

Hylan Houses, Bushwick, NYC.

Hylan Houses, Bushwick, NYC.

But Jacobs did not oppose high-rise housing. She objected to the insensitive destruction of existing neighborhoods. Her objections were echoed most famously by Robert Caro (1975) and Marshall Berman (1985). In some ways they both shifted the blame of arrogance from the impersonal State onto the very personal Robert Moses. But I think Caro and Berman missed a point that Kate Bristol identified in “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” in 1991: she documented how this most symbolically infamous public housing project was doomed by the political decisions of racially-prejudiced leaders in St. Louis. They wanted the blacks out of the way so that they could redevelop land adjacent to downtown. So they built Pruitt-Igoe as a displacement-warehouse and treated it as such through the neglect of maintenance and management budgets for it. Going back to Jacobs (1961), her objection to public housing in New York City was also about the policy failures in management.

Jane Jacobs in 1961, photo by Phil Stanziola

Jane Jacobs in 1961, photo by Phil Stanziola

So the linkage of “Intimate urban streets = good” with “High-rise towers = bad” is a flawed association, and really has nothing to do with Jane Jacobs. So let me re-pose an urban question: How do we design high-quality, high-rise housing combined with vibrant, urbane streets?

Greenwich Village. The four-storey frontage defines the character of the street. It might or might not have a high-rise tower behind it.

Greenwich Village. The four-storey frontage defines the character of the street. It might or might not have a high-rise tower behind it.

There are a lot of policy questions that need to be tackled as well, such as dampening speculative inflation, promoting racial and class integration, and sustainable use of resources. Those are also in the recipe I am mulling over; but at the moment I want to re-visit a basic spatial-structure question, because I have never heard it asked in quite this way.

1930s-era building, with step-backs.

1930s-era building, with step-backs.

Part of a solution comes from a 90-year-old NYC policy: the stepped-back building. In NYC this was intended primarily to maintain exposure to direct sunlight in winter for the lowest floors in buildings. But the same policy can also be used to define street-space, by limiting the number of storeys that a building can rise adjacent to the street before stepping back. The most famous example is the Empire State Building (1929). When you stand next to the building, what you experience directly is the “podium base” which is about 6 storeys along the street, which do a fine job of defining the street space. The 80-storey “shaft” of the building is stepped back so that it does not impinge on you from the street; it feels remote rather than looming.

Empire State Building, street-level base

Empire State Building, street-level base

I think that in Vancouver they are trying this at a smaller scale, the scale that interests me. 100-storey buildings might make sense in the city center, but for the main part I think the 10 to 25 storey range makes more sense. I think I will post more on this in the next few days.

The Will to House!

One of the maddening obstacles to making cities both interesting and affordable in the United States is the opposition to real urban housing. Back in 1920 there was good reason to fear density: we had just figured out how to deal with contagious diseases. And apartments at that time were still cramped, dim, and poorly-ventilated. In contrast, there is the recent experience of China…


On my way towards downtown, I came across this bank of housing (like a bank of cliffs). As far as I can tell it is fully occupied. But as in Shanghai, massive housing here does not mean crowded streets. Notice the absence of congestion in the foreground. When I take photos here, I actually have to wait for people and cars to come by so that I can show some humans in the picture! I thought this was peculiar to Shanghai, but I have found this absence of congestion to be typical across much of Suzhou.


One factor that explains the lack of congestion is that people in Suzhou–just like Americans–stay at home more. Newer apartments are quite spacious, and almost all units are south-facing, with copious daylight. And with internet and big-screen TVs. So I am not saying this new world is ideal, but I can certainly refute the presumption that tower-blocks = teeming streets. If anything, this neighborhood commercial street has a homey, village-like feel. It reminds me of Jane Jacobs’ arguments about Greenwich Village, fifty years ago.


From a distance you can see two eras of housing in Suzhou.


Using higher-strength concrete, developers are now able to design buildings with very generous windows.


Still, the scale and abruptness of new housing developments is a little shocking. What was here two years ago? Farmland? A water-village?

Americans and Brits had miserable experiences with high-rise public housing. We tend to associate that scale and style of construction white flight, “urban malaise,” and authoritarian regimes. I expect that an English-language film director would look at this site as the ideal place to shoot a dystopian film. But as Kate Bristol pointed out in “the Pruitt-Igoe Myth” back in 1991, high-rise design had nothing to do with the failures of housing projects which were horribly mismanaged. The failure of Pruitt-Igoe–and all the public housing in the U.S.–boils down to racist practices of segregation and neglect. Such practices would (and did) render even a two-storey apartment complex into a dangerous nightmare.

In essence, Americans misread high-rise housing, and link them to vivid but misleading conclusions which distract us from real accountability for our very painful social failings. Worse, the dissemble-and-distract policy of avoiding open acknowledgment of our racism has another unfortunate side-effect: we have become utterly phobic about rebuilding our cities with mid-rise and high-rise housing.

Meanwhile we keep wondering why the housing supply in center-cities is so limited and expensive. “The market”, you say? The market in U.S. cities would result in buildings like the ones pictured above. No, as in so many domains of the U.S. economy, social prejudices override ‘market logic.’ Frankly, the urban housing market is freer here in China than in the U.S. Hmmm.