Salon ignores the urban crisis while demanding others stop ignoring the urban crisis

During the rounds of the Iowa Caucuses yesterday, we had to sit through endless urbanist whining about how unimportant voters in Iowa are compared to how important urban voters are.

Perhaps nowhere does the muddied thinking of urbanism come through more than this piece from Salon by Daniel Denvir: Iowa-centric candidates ignore the urban crisis.

First off, I read the entire thing and I still don’t know what “the urban crisis” getting ignored is. There are hints about it: I think he is referring to poverty and unemployment among urban African Americans. There’s a crisis, indeed, but it’s apparently not such a crisis that we would bother actually discussing the magnitude of the problem.

And there’s quite a bit of rural poverty in the US, too. So maybe urban poverty is less interesting to some of us than poverty, period.

But again, I have no idea for sure based on this piece. There’s a black-white, suburb-urban set of assumptions here that are acting as shorthand for “urban” in ways I don’t understand.

According to the comments from Rob Puentes:

“Cities and metropolitan areas are the engines of our economy,” says Robert Puentes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metro Program. “The top 100 metropolitan areas alone claim only 12 percent of our land mass but harbor more than 65 percent of our population, 74 percent of our most educated citizens, 77 percent of our knowledge economy jobs, and 84 percent of our most recent immigrants. They also generate 75 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.”

Well, ok, good for cities. Yay, us! Well done, us. We are clearly important. Where’s the crisis? There’s nothing that keeps cities, which are creating all this productivity and economic value, from redistributing that wealth internally if we’re worried about the urban poor. You want nice urban stuff? Use land taxes and buy nice urban stuff. What is the Federal government and our President-Mayor supposed to fix here?

And Puentes notes “cities and metropolitan areas”. It’s not just cities generating value. It’s metro areas. As much as people like Denvir want us to vilify the suburbs, they are producing wealth, and sheltering wealth. So the federal government is meant to prevent suburbs? No clue.

I’m not sure what the argument is in this piece. We are subjected to descriptions of the Republicans suburban homes, and these descriptions sound exactly like the lookyloo descriptions of the homes of fallen dictators. From these descriptions, we’re supposed to understand that not only are these people rich and insulated from the urban poor, they are *tacky*:

Gingrich owns a Northern Virginia cul-de-sac mansionette that “tends toward the ornate” and includes a master bath entirely covered in mirrors, according to a recent New York Times article on candidate homes. Rick Perry moved into a high-end gated community in exurban Austin, Texas, while the governor’s mansion was under construction. Michele Bachmann lives in a McMansion with a builder’s description that “reads like a synonym finder for nouveau suburban glory, touting the home’s arched stone entry, hand-scraped walnut plank flooring, and a fully paneled library with see-through fireplace.”

Romney rose to the pinnacle of Massachusetts politics from the leafy and high-end Boston suburb of Belmont, where he had a bathroom with “vaulted ceilings and a soaking tub some might mistake for a lap pool,” a residence “heavy on cream-colored upholstery crowded with pillows. The curtains are pleated so precisely you might think they were styled by Mr. Romney’s barber.” The house, until recently one of four owned by Romney, has now been sold.

Why are we talking about Mitt Romney’s curtains? I get it: the crisp order of the curtains is a metaphor for the oppressive rigidity and social control of the suburbs. But…I mean…are Woody Allen’s Manhattanite drapes arranged in a higgledy piggledy way? Why would that make us feel better?

So these candidates live in suburban splendor and “will stop at nothing” to maintain the lily white hegemony of the suburbs. But they just live there now. Romney is from Detroit. Paul is from Pittburgh. Those are gritty urban areas. Do their origins not count? Bachmann is from Waterloo, which granted, is not a big city, but it’s about as Rust Belt as you can get–a place the never recovered from de-industrialization. Gingerich is from Harrisburg, PA, which, again is not a large city, but it’s still an urbanized area. So it’s not like the NoVa suburbs where he now lives formed him.

The argument I believe Denvir is alluding to has been, simply, the poor economic treatment of African Americans and the straight up racism of American politics, particularly as manifested by this year’s Republican candidates, who seem to say dumbass things about race with alarming regularity.

I’m on board with that, but let’s call it that and quit trying to make a spatial argument that doesn’t make any sense. There are many impoverished rural African Americans who also need help, too. I think–though it’s not clear—- I think I’m supposed to believe that an impoverished African American in Philadelphia is a needier person than an impoverished African American living in rural Louisiana. There are actually some reasons to believe that the former is far better off than the latter.

Look, I’d be happy to go to a simple primary vote, too, if you really hate the idea that every 4 years we pay too much attention to Iowa instead of our constant nattering abut the urban coasts. Fine. Anything to shut people up.

But the last I checked, in a super-primary, one vote is still one vote whether it happens in New York or Iowa. There’s little reason to believe that voters in New York, simply because there are a lot of them in the same geographic container, will demand a coherent urban policy from their presidential candidates. Why not? Many of those voters might hold the idea that national leaders aren’t ersatz mayors who are, for reasons yet to be explained to me, meant to solve urban problems from the President’s chair.

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7 responses to “Salon ignores the urban crisis while demanding others stop ignoring the urban crisis

  1. DJB

    If there’s a solid critique of the Iowa caucuses and their timing it’s that they give a state with less than 1% of the national population disproportionate influence over the process, and you can’t participate in the caucuses unless you have up to a couple hours of free time to be physically present in a particular place (sorry people who work nights and soldiers serving overseas).

    Given that that’s a recipe for low turnout, a shockingly small number of people decide the contest. Fewer than 125,000 Republican voters caucused in this latest and ended the candidacy of at least one candidate.

  2. I don’t really know how much influence Iowa’s caucuses really have on the actual political outcomes. We’re talking one state, in a primary. I theorize Iowa has three major uses as a first-state locale via caucuses;

    a) it’s a manageable forum for retail politics that gives the candidates lots of opportunities for “theater”–that is, talking to the larger audience via media interactions. It’s a stage—and it’s a clear one, where other media events are unlikely to come up. It’s a place where if you campaign well, you can get yourself branded/defined the way you want in the national media so that they continue to echo your message long after Iowa, but that you established early on in the race;

    b) its results indicate what messages are resonating with fringe members of the parties. This caucus is a prime example of the split within the GOP. Santorum, resonating with the Christian Right; Paul, resonating with the fiscal conservatives and social liberals, and Romney emerging, barely, as sort of a center candidate (which is a problem…). No clear victory there rather helps signal to Romney what members of his party of responding to; and

    c) it gives people who are half-in, half-out a warm-up state, comparatively low-stakes, that allows them to think about whether they want to keep doing that.

    To wit, Iowa didn’t end Bachmann’s candidacy. She did. And it was obvious weeks before the actual the caucus that she was closing down and wasn’t going to continue.

    Now, whether these functions are worth the time and energy candidates spend on them is another question.

  3. “There’s nothing that keeps cities, which are creating all this productivity and economic value, from redistributing that wealth internally if we’re worried about the urban poor. You want nice urban stuff? Use land taxes and buy nice urban stuff.”

    If an entire metropolitan area were a single city, this would be possible. Because metropolitan areas are made up of many cities and suburbs, it is impossible.

    It is not fair to tax city dwellers to help the poor and not to tax all those outer-ring suburbanites described in the article.

      • If either cities or states raise taxes, they run the risk that the people being taxed will flee to a jurisdiction with lower taxes. If New York State raises taxes, it is very easy for business or residents to move to New Jersey.

        I actually think the best policy for reducing inequality is to make the federal income tax system more progressive, with higher maximum rates and a beefed-up Earned Income Tax Credit. If we raise federal taxes on businesses, they will move to other countries. If we raise personal income tax, people are less likely to move to other countries.

        The US has the most extreme inequality of any developed nation. In addition, according to yesterday’s NY Times, we now have less economic mobility than other developed nations – in part because our poor tend to be much poorer than those in the other developed nations.

        We used to take it from granted that the United States was a land of opportunity, where anyone could work his way up, contrasted with countries like England, with rigid class systems. But now Britain has less economic inequality and more economic mobility than the US.

  4. I agree with you on changing the income tax (I actually agree with Greg Mankiw on the negative income tax). And this would have spatial consequences. But it would also help out the impoverished in rural areas. And that’s kind of the point. I’m willing to discuss inequality writ large as a national social issue, but should *urban* inequality be the president’s focus, or should inequality be the focus? That’s my question. And I still think that there are things cities can do address inequality and poverty that they are not doing because they want somebody else to pay for it. Like, for example, pony up for for more frequent and higher quality transit.

    • I agree with you that inequality should be the focus, dealing with both the rural and the urban poor. I also agree that “inequality writ large” should be discussed as a national social issue.

      I think this is beginning to happen. Republicans and Democrats are fighting about whether to repeal the Bush tax cuts for those in the highest income tax bracket.