Some Comments on Government, Followed by Another Dialogue
August 4, 2009

Congress is taking a recess for the month of August without yet having passed either health-care reform or legislation to address climate change. It’s still possible that one or both of these issues will be resolved this autumn in some way, but lots of progressives are getting frustrated. Matt Taibbi is always frustrated, but last week he found agreement from Ezra Klein, who is usually much more sanguine about the establishment. Ezra wrote that it’s too soon to abandon hope for reform — “Something might get done” — but

whatever gets done will be much too expensive because the political system is very afraid of harming any of the relevant industries. Taibbi is right that [health care reform], like climate change, is a litmus test for our government. Both are serious, foreseeable and solvable threats to our society. One threatens to bankrupt the country. The other threatens irreversible damage to the planet we live on. Responding to such threats is the test of a political system. And our system will fail it. We will not avert catastrophic climate change. We will not protect ourselves from health-care inflation… The country, and the system, will continue to whistle while our wages get eaten up and our government tumbles further into debt and our interest rates rise and other priorities get squeezed out and a serious and painful fiscal reckoning inches ever closer.

I think these statements are obviously correct, but if anyone disagrees I’d be interested to hear why. One of the Economist’s anonymous Democracy in America bloggers was also struck by these comments, and wrote a nice post about how every generation of young progressive intellectuals starts off idealistic about politics and then gets disenchanted and either moderates or radicalizes. The DiA commenters were generally pretty dismissive of the concerns of Klein and Taibbi (e.g. “Um, I can sum this up in one word: whining”), which made me think more about the issue. Reflecting on it for a while, instead of coming to a conclusion I ended up with another dialogue, which I have reproduced below the fold:

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A Brief Dialogue on Neighborhood Design
May 3, 2009

streetcomparison5

URBANITE: Check out this image, which was published by the Congress for the New Urbanism last year and publicized by Matthew Yglesias last month.

SUBURBANITE: Why do you keep showing me these things? Stop being so sanctimonious about your urban lifestyle!

URBANITE: But don’t you see? This image perfectly explains why my glamorous urban lifestyle is so superior to your wasteful suburban existence. The layout of the major roads and civic buildings is identical in these two neighborhoods; the only difference is in the road network design. In my urban paradise, it’s easy for my kids to walk to school from the purple house, which reduces car usage (good for the environment!), promotes exercise (good for public health!) and fosters a sense of neighborhood and community (good for socialization and instilling values!). In your suburban neighborhood, a family living in the purple house would have to drive to get there, or really to get anywhere, because of the labyrinthine roads.

SUBURBANITE: Yes, I see that. But look how large a yard is available to the purple house in my neighborhood. You have to give that up to live in a high-density urban environment. Yards are highly desirable to me; they provide a safe environment in which me, my children, and my pets can all play.

URBANITE: That’s true, each house does have a much smaller yard in my city. For one thing, that’s good for conserving water and energy. But also, some of those green rectangles in the image represent public parks, where you, your children, and your pets can still play with each other, as well as with your neighbors and their pets! How lovely!

SUBURBANITE: How dangerous! Parks are for homeless people and child abductors – I want nothing to do with them! In fact, even if I lived in your urban neighborhood, I wouldn’t want my kids walking around unsupervised. There’s too much crime in cities!

URBANITE: So your overblown fears about crime are keeping you from moving downtown where you’d be living a lifestyle that is healthier, more sustainable, and more satisfying?

SUBURBANITE: They’re not overblown! Per capita, cities have 50% more violent crime than suburbs! And I also happen to like driving and having a big yard. You know, many people actually prefer the suburban lifestyle to the urban lifestyle, regardless of crime.

URBANITE: And of course plenty prefer the urban lifestyle. But even if suburbia did appeal to me –- and it doesn’t — there are plenty of things I enjoy but abstain from for ethical reasons, like using plastic bags. Your selfish and overindulgent suburban lifestyle is destroying America!!

SUBURBANITE: See, this is what I meant about your sanctimony. Good day.