Robert Caro Wonders What New York Is Going To Become

Via the FT, Gothamist interviews Robert Caro.   He was a reporter covering Robert Moses at Newsday in the late 1960s and wrote The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

Why is New York still such a car-centric city? Why haven’t we learned those lessons that you spent years accruing and putting into print?  This will take a minute to explain. In a way, it’s very hard to change it now.

You take Long Island—when he’s building the LIE, Long Island isn’t developed. Suffolk County is nothing but potato farms. The eastern half of Nassau is pretty much a farming area. And portions of the Queens, the northeastern portion is just farms. Everybody is saying to him—it’s not hindsight—people were saying to him at the time, so if you build this road, the minute you build it out to make an exit, you’re gonna have development there. They said the thing to do was build it with a light rail line, down the center. If you do that, it’ll be like the old towns of Long Island, like Great Neck and Port Washington. They’ll be little apartment houses near each exit, and the people who want to go into New York by train will have that option. People who want to use cars can still use cars, but a lot of people will take the train. If you don’t do that everybody’s gonna have to take cars.

In addition to that, land was really cheap. If I remember this, the right-of-way he was buying for this was 200 feet. And they said, but all you need for two light rail lines happens to be an extra 40 feet. So whatever the amount was, if you just add 4 percent more, you can add a light rail line. He was determined not to allow mass transit. He wouldn’t put the light rail in.

They said, if you won’t put the light rail in, at least buy the right-of-way, because now if you do that we’ll have the land to have the light rail line and every 10 miles or so we can add huge parking fields. If you don’t do that, they said, no one will ever be able to buy it because it’ll get too expensive.

Moses was a real genius, he didn’t want that to happen in the future. He engineered the footings of the LIE to be too light for anything but cars, so you can’t ever put a light rail there. He condemned Long Island to be this car-centered place.

So when I say that one man not only shaped New York but shaped it for centuries to come, because now how can you overcome that? All the people who live in northeastern Queens, or Co-op City in the Bronx, and all of Suffolk and a lot of Nassau County, they’re condemned to use cars. It’s not easy to use mass transit. Moses came along with his incredible vision, and vision not in a good sense. It’s like how he built the bridges too low.

I remember his aide, Sid Shapiro, who I spent a lot of time getting to talk to me, he finally talked to me. And he had this quote that I’ve never forgotten. He said Moses didn’t want poor people, particularly poor people of color, to use Jones Beach, so they had legislation passed forbidding the use of buses on parkways.

Then he had this quote, and I can still hear him saying it to me. “Legislation can always be changed. It’s very hard to tear down a bridge once it’s up.” So he built 180 or 170 bridges too low for buses.

My emphasis.

There is a new consensus in Germany – Brexit should be clean, and Britain should pay for it

New Statesman:

There are two Germanys. One is familiar to Britain: the efficient, sober place where they make the cars and the dishwashers. We like to think that, like us, the Germans exhibit a no-nonsense pragmatism born of a seafaring past. For centuries the Hanseatic League had trading posts in London, on the site today occupied by Cannon Street Station, and in towns all along eastern England. Back then the merchants from Hamburg and Lübeck sold amber, furs and timber. Today they shift BMWs and Mieles. This is the Germany with which Britain can do business. The Germany that needs us and has our back.

Yet there is another Germany, poorly understood in Britain. If the first is the “Germany of seas”, call this the “Germany of rivers”. It is a romantic land of dense, misty forests and dark past traumas. It is grandly continental, bleeding into the countries on its borders. Where the departure boards of London stations list provincial cities and ports, that of Berlin Hauptbahnhof is a roll-call of capitals, a litany of interdependence: Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Minsk, Moscow, Paris, Prague, Vienna, Warsaw. This is the Germany where many families have collective memories of oppression and flight, where grandparents know the fear of the 3am rap at the door, where herds of deer refrain from crossing once-fenced-off borders out of sheer habit. A Germany for which “Europe” is about more than trade.

In the past, the relationship with the Insel­affen (“island apes”) has divided the two Germanys. The European idealist in Merkel may have despaired over Cameron, but until 23 June 2016 she also saw him as a useful, liberal counterweight to France. Reaction to Macron’s win is similarly conflicted: romantic Germany welcomes his Euro flag-wavery, as sceptical Germany bridles at his talk of reshaping the eurozone. But Brexit is different. It has aligned the two sides to an extent poorly understood in London.

The Germany of rivers is straightforwardly for a clean Brexit. This is the Germany that humiliated Theresa May by publishing a withering account of her Downing Street dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker. And although the other Germany, the Germany of seas, mourns Britain’s flounce and the subsequent southward shift in the EU’s balance of power, it essentially agrees. Where German pragmatism and prosperity were once best served by a closer relationship with London, now they depend on the cohesion of the single market. And that means making Britain pay, to show there is no deal better than membership.

There is a new consensus abroad in Germany: that the country’s destiny lies with France and other Continental powers, that its European vocation needs defending, and that the wheeling-dealing British have lost their pragmatic mojo. And, just perhaps, that the Inselaffen were less rational than Germans thought all along.


Why Are Economists Giving Piketty the Cold Shoulder?

Boston Review:

So where does that leave us, and specifically, where does it leave Capital in the Twenty-First Century, three years after its publication? It seems strange, perverse even, to say that its influence has been “quiet” when it has had great influence on public debate. But what this tour of the landscape of academic economics tells us is that, despite its hostile reception, Piketty’s influence, and that of this book in particular, continues to grow in the academic realm and is not likely to wither and die anytime soon—much as that might pain the harshest critics or the many more who have kept their distance.

For the latter, unfortunately, it is all too easy to keep looking the other way. It is increasingly possible to have a comfortable and rewarding life as a professional economist and never even consider the broad issue of inequality or the controversial explanations for and consequences of it that Piketty offers. Social norms used to require economists to at least take on broad public sentiment and to consider the issues of the day when setting their agendas, but the amount of money available for economics research and teaching has never been higher, no matter the esteem (or lack thereof) in which economists are held by the public. High officials in government, in corporate boardrooms, in courtrooms, and in university administrations, alumni bodies, and boards of trustees still want to hear what economists have to say (or at least to make a point of ostentatiously seeking out their advice and approval), and to have that approval validated in public.

All of which avoids the crucial question: are we actually doing or saying anything to make the economy serve the people who inhabit it? Economists could very easily spend their individual and collective lives avoiding that question as the economy crumbles around them, with Piketty’s book serving as little more than a cry in the wilderness. Right now, there is no assurance it won’t end that way, but by reading between the lines, my suspicion—and hope—is that Piketty is not one in a series of pop–social science fads. Rather, his work on inequality is an agenda-setting and generation-marking intellectual achievement, potentially as explosive (albeit with a longer fuse) in academia as it has been outside of it.

Trumpism: It’s Coming From the Suburbs

The Nation:

But scapegoating poor whites keeps the conversation away from fascism’s real base: the petite bourgeoisie. This is a piece of jargon used mostly by Marxists to denote small-property owners, whose nearest equivalents these days may be the “upper middle class” or “small-business owners.” FiveThirtyEightreported last May that “the median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000,” or roughly 130 percent of the national median. Trump’s real base, the actual backbone of fascism, isn’t poor and working-class voters, but middle-class and affluent whites. Often self-employed, possessed of a retirement account and a home as a nest egg, this is the stratum taken in by Horatio Alger stories. They can envision playing the market well enough to become the next Trump. They haven’t won “big-league,” but they’ve won enough to be invested in the hierarchy they aspire to climb. If only America were made great again, they could become the haute bourgeoisie—the storied “1 percent.”

Trump’s most institutionally entrenched middle-class base includes policeand Border Patrol unions, whom he promptly unleashed after his inauguration by allowing them free rein in enforcing his vague but terrifying immigration orders, and by appointing an attorney general who would call off investigations into troubled police departments. As wanton as their human-rights atrocities in the years leading up to the Trump era have been, law-enforcement agents are already making their earlier conduct look like a model of restraint. They are Trump’s most passionate supporters and make concrete his contempt for anyone not white, male, and rich.

If the petit-bourgeois American suburbs embody a sexist hierarchy, they exist in order to enforce a racist one. In the mid-20th century, white northern and western urbanites faced a choice: Stay in the cities where Jim Crow was driving a “Great Migration” of millions of black people, or flee to the new suburban residential developments, complete with racist exclusionary charters. The Federal Housing Administration made the choice easy: Its policy redlined neighborhoods where black people were settling as having low “residential security,” thus making financial services inaccessible. In white-only suburban communities, however, the FHA was pleased to guarantee home mortgages. “There goes the neighborhood,” said millions, and fled.

Their material security bound up in the value of their real-estate assets, suburban white people had powerful incentives to keep their neighborhoods white. Just by their very proximity, black people would make their neighborhoods less desirable to future white home-buyers, thereby depreciating the value of the location. Location being the first rule of real estate, suburban homeowners nurtured racist attitudes, while deluding themselves that they weren’t excluding black people for reasons beyond their pocketbooks.

In recent decades, rising urban rents have been pushing lower-income people to more peripheral locations. As suburbia has grown poorer, the more affluent homeowners have fled for the even greener pastures of exurbia. Everywhere they turn, their economic anxiety follows them.

And yet, “among people I talk to, ‘economic anxiety’ has become kind of a joke slogan,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, by way of explaining Trump’s rise. “I mean, there is real economic hardship. West Virginia is not a happy place. But…it’s really mostly about race.” Krugman and Amanpour’s seamless transition from “anxiety” to “hardship” betrays the assumption that haunted the entire discussion: that the only form of economic anxiety is deprivation. To the contrary, the form of economic anxiety propelling the racism of devoted Trump supporters is associated with paying taxes; with jealously guarding their modest savings; with stopping black people from moving nearby and diminishing the value of their property and thus the quality of their kids’ schools; and with preserving the patriarchal family structure that facilitates it all.


The question of what Donald Trump “really believes” has no answer

David Roberts in a series of tweets provides the best explanation I’ve seen so far of Trump’s behaviour.

I want to riff on the point I made here, which I still think is central to our current political…uh, situation.

“Theory of mind” (ToM) is a concept in psychology. To have a ToM is to interpret the behavior of others as reflecting inner states.

It is to interpret behavior as issuing from, and evidence of, desires, beliefs, intentions, fears, etc.

Humans typically develop ToM early, around 2-3. There are raging debates about whether various animals have ToM, or if so what kind.

People on the autism spectrum have difficulty w/ ToM — difficulty connecting behaviors to mental states, difficulty “reading” behavior.

Autism-spectrum presents one kind of ToM problem: a rich text to be read, but a reader with difficulty reading.

There is, however, another (I suspect) more rare ToM problem, namely: sophisticated readers over-interpreting a text.

Typical adults are drawn almost irresistibly to see behaviors as indicators of complex mental states – persistent beliefs, desires, etc.

Here’s the thing: Trump, by all indications, does not have beliefs, intentions, etc. that are stable, persistent across contexts.

He is attuned to who is dominating & who is submissive *in the situation he finds himself in*. It is 100% situational, 0% persistent.

He seeks domination. That’s all. He does not care about, or even seem cognizant of, lying, reversing himself, switching loyalties, etc.

He’s like a goldfish. No beliefs, intentions, plans, or schemes are carried from place to place. Every situation is new.

There is, in a very real sense, no “mind” as such, only a set of animal impulses — seek approbation, avoid blame, dominate, win.

Here’s the problem: healthy adults are simply *not accustomed to dealing w/ someone like that*. It is a rare pathology …

… and even rarer for someone to be so protected by money/power/family that they can succeed in life despite the pathology.

To find someone with that pathology in a central position of power in the US is simply unprecedented. Utterly novel.

Normal people with normal ToM (including journalists) find it almost impossible to resist over-interpreting Trump’s behavior …

… to see it as reflective of stable, persistent beliefs, intentions, and plans. They read “mind” into his behavior. Can’t help it.

And this describes the vast bulk of journalism & analysis on Trump: a desperate attempt to figure out what kind of “mind” …

… could possibly result in this bizarre set of statements & actions. Is there some long con? Is he distracting us? Secretly a genius?

Firing Comey in the middle of the Russia investigation, for example, seems nigh inexplicable. Where’s the “mind,” the deeper rationale?

Does this show he “actually” wants to become a dictator? That he “actually” has inside info on what Comey knew/intended?

That he’s “actually” distracting attention from the Census thing (or all the other things)? “Actually” angling for revenge on Clinton?

All of these are (perfectly understandable) attempts to apply ToM. It’s what we do, instinctively, *especially* in political analysis.

The mistake is not any particular one of these theories. The mistake is *applying conventional ToM at all*.

As I argued in the piece (linked way back in tweet 1), Trump is, by all indications, just a bundle of impulses. Nothing more.

Most likely explanation re: Russia is not some deep, secret plot, but … DT saying yes to something that felt good in the moment …

… and then immediately forgetting about it, connecting it to nothing else. Thus the confusion why everyone keeps bringing it up.

Most likely explanation re: Comey is not some Machiavellian tactic, but … he kept seeing Comey on TV saying not-awesome things …

… and that gave him bad feels, made him feel non-dominant. So he made Comey get off his TV. No “mind,” just stimulus-response.

Accepting this fact — that ToM is useless, that Trump really is nothing more than amygdala — is *absolutely terrifying*.

It is more terrifying than any particular ToM as applied to Trump. Stable desires & intentions, even if evil, at least *make sense*.

A Trump ToM gives us the comfort of knowing that at least someone’s in charge, someone has a handle on things, even if malign.

The idea that Trump is simply doing what produces good feels in a particular situation, that he is utterly unconstrained by …

… consistency, by past commitments or statements, by laws or norms, by *anything* — that’s there’s no “mind” as such — is chilling.

What if he finds himself in a position where North Korea is giving him bad feels? Will he be able to assess a response in light of …

… past commitments, expectations, strategy, norms, or decency? Probably not! He will seek a feeling of dominance *in the moment*.

A mindless Trump, acting purely on impulse, is far more dangerous than an evil Trump, acting on grand, secret schemes.

As difficult as it is, journalists, analysts, & other political actors need to internalize this. Evil can be predicted, bargained w/ …

… but there’s no predicting or reasoning w/ pure animal impulse. ToM is useless. Only containment or removal will work. 

Roberts fleshes out his views here.

Highway to Hitler

Via John Naughton, the Abstract for a fascinating paper, “Highway to Hitler” by Nico Voigtlaender and Hans-Joachim Voth (NBER Working Paper No. 20150, Issued in May 2014):

Democracy is not an absorbing state; transitions to autocratic rule have been frequent throughout history and often followed periods of instability under democratic rule. In this paper, we ask whether autocrats can win support among voters by showcasing their ability to restore order and to “get things done.” We analyze a famous case – the building of the highway network in Nazi Germany. Highway construction began shortly after Hitler became Chancellor, and was one of the regime’s signature projects. Using newly collected data, we show that highway construction was highly effective in boosting popular support, helping to entrench the Nazi dictatorship. These effects are unlikely to reflect direct economic benefits. Instead, highway construction signaled economic “competence” and an end to austerity, so that many Germans credited the Nazi regime for the economic recovery. In line with this interpretation, we show that support for the Nazis increased particularly strongly where highway construction coincided with greater radio availability – a major source of propaganda. The effect of highways was also significantly stronger in politically unstable states of the Weimar Republic. Our results suggest that infrastructure spending can win “hearts” for autocracy when “minds” are led to associate it with visible economic progress and an end to political instability.


America’s rising consumer confidence mostly due to the elderly and less-educated

Financial Times:

After more than a decade of disappointment, American consumers are now more hopeful than at any point since the housing bubble.

Those who think surveys of expectations have predictive power for spending and saving might therefore conclude the uptick bodes well for America’s growth outlook. However, a closer look at who exactly is excited about the future suggests there is less here than meets the eye.

Deutsche Bank’s Torsten Slok points out that the improvement in expectations is entirely due to Americans without a college degree, rather than those with greater spending power and higher earning potential. Americans with degrees have been getting steadily less optimistic since mid-2015.

To recap:

The groups responsible for the aggregate change in sentiment are the least likely to experience big real wage increases and therefore the least likely to boost their spending. Moreover, they appear unwilling to translate their vague optimism about the future into specific expectations about behaviour.

So even if those expectations were reliable guides to the actual choices people make — something strongly debated among forecasters — there is little reason to believe the “Trump bump” in consumer sentiment is a harbinger for sharply rising real spending.

Worse than not affecting real spending, what happens to the disappointment when the optimism isn’t delivered?

Berkeley author George Lakoff says, ‘Don’t underestimate Trump’


“What George has done is tie the question of political belief to cognitive science,” said Lawrence Rosenthal, chair and lead researcher of the UC Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies. “He understands that the way to get at people’s political opinions is by talking about values, rather than specific arguments about specific issues. He believes conservatives are much better at this than liberals and have been for a very long time. They have a much better track record of crafting political appeals by way of the appropriate value statements for their audience.”

The reason Democrats have such a hard time with Lakoff’s message, Rosenthal said, “is because George is going up against something very deep-rooted, something that goes back to the Enlightenment. He would argue that the Enlightenment approach to political persuasion was never appropriate… Every time I hear a political candidate say the word ‘percent,’ I think of ‘Oh God, they haven’t read George’.”

Lakoff gave a talk recently at the Center for Right-Wing Studies and pointed out that students who become Democratic operatives tend to study political studies and statistics and demographics in college. “Students who lean Republican study marketing. “And that’s his point,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a very different way of thinking.”

Lakoff’s core finding revolves around the metaphor of family. He claims there are two core beliefs about the role of families in society, and the belief one holds determines whether one is conservative or liberal. Moderates are people in the middle who are able to hold some ideas from both sides, and being able to understand and persuade them is crucial to winning any election.

Conservatives believe in a what Lakoff calls the “strict father family,” while progressives believe in a “nurturant parent family.” In the strict father family, father knows best and he has the moral authority. The children and spouse have to defer to him, and when they disobey, he has the right to punish them so they will learn to do the right thing.

“The basic idea is that authority is justified by morality, and that, in a well-ordered world, there should be a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate,” Lakoff said. “The hierarchy is God above man; man above nature; the rich above the poor; employers above employees; adults above children; Western culture above other cultures; our country above other countries. The hierarchy also extends to men above women, whites above nonwhites, Christians above non-Christians, straights above gays.” Since this is seen as a “natural” order, it is not to be questioned.

Trump and those crafting the Republican message play straight into this strict father worldview, which is accepted in many parts of the country. Even traditionally Democratic groups such as union members and Hispanics include members who are strict fathers at home or in their private life, Lakoff says. The Republican message plays well with them.

The nurturant parent family, on the other hand, believes that children are born good and can be made better. Both parents are responsible for raising children, and their role is to nurture their children and raise them to nurture others. Empathy and responsibility toward your child also extend to empathy and responsibility toward those who are less powerful, or suffering from pollution or disease, or are marginalized in some way.

My emphasis.

How are you going to pay for it?

Richard Murphy in Tax Research UK:

The most dangerous question in political debate in the UK is the one always rolled out by every journalist, on air or in other media, which is to ask a politician ‘How are you going to pay for it?’ where ‘it’ is whatever the politicians has just proposed to do.

Why is the question dangerous? Three reasons.

First it assumes that the government spends other people’s money. It doesn’t. It spends it’s own. That’s because it actually creates all money at the end of the day (even that put into circulation by private banks is done under government licence). And because it creates all money there is technically no limit on the amount it can produce if it so wants.

Second, this means that the assumption that the government behaves like a household with regard to debt is just wrong. Households can’t create their own money out of thin air to repay debt but governments it’s their own currency and central bank (as the UK has) can. £435 billion of quantitative easing since 2009 proves this and yet everyone pretends that this has not happened, which is ludicrous. The fact is that governments and households are not the same at all because households may be constrained by the need to repay debt but governments are not.

Third, so long as the creation of government debt keeps pace with inflation and it does not overheat the economy by trying to create more than full employment then government debt is not a problem any more than having money in your pocket is a problem. And that’s unsurprising because the money in your pocket is government debt. And all UK government debt is just a giant savings account for those who want an ultra-safe place to deposit their money, and what’s wrong with that?

My emphasis.  I think that’s the key rebuttal; we just created the money to bail the banks out and the sky hasn’t fallen in.