Ben Bernake’s speech and why planners should care

For a scholarly discipline that has produced some pretty amazing students of globalization (John Friedmann, for one), my discipline rather rigorously puts its head down and refuses to be pay attention to macro changes. For instance, American planners are still obviously focussed on sprawl even though it has, as an issue, lost tremendous salience. Yes, Americans still drive too much and suburbs are still bad, blah blah blah, but the markets that many planners have insisted don’t work properly eventually came around to discipline fringe and housing over-investment. The driving forces prompted planners and architects to become self-appointed sprawl tamers—and what made planning relevant to people who wanted their regions to stop growing during the housing expansion—are mostly gone, and don’t appear to be coming back any time soon.

Ben Bernake’s cautionary speech last week went largely unnoticed, and it shouldn’t have. Because his remarks carry all the hints about of a “recovery” that means major problems for the US, planning, and cities.

There are four reasons why we should be worried:

1) A growing share of US growth will continue to come from overseas, despite Obama’s export plan, at the expense of US employee income growth. That means continued globalization of US companies, and greater competition for US workers who aren’t served very well by their own education system.

2) The pendulum of power in the US has swung sharply from public to corporate, and that power means that problem #1 is not a problem for the people who are driving policy. Profits at the expense of income growth is just fine in that power balance because democratic discontent means little.

3) The emergence of two-tiered workforce means that while the US is adding jobs, it is doing so in such a way that median income will fall. (Not unlike the last “jobless recovery” we got to enjoy.)

So you know all that screaming about adjuncts in the academy and how wrong it is? Sure, it’s wrong, but it’s also par for the course in industries around the US where young workers are typically getting much, much lower starting wages and benefit packages than older workers were hired at.

4) Our balkanized politics offers us no way out soon

To wit; corporate profits have been soaring happily throughout most of the downtown while the US only just added enough jobs to keep people like me from tossing ourselves in front of buses.

Corporations are not people, as Mitt Romney pointed out in his chronic inability to not give a counter-productive sound bite (are he and Larry Summers twins and I’m not aware of it?). Corporations are institutions that already enjoyed extreme legal privilege prior the bailout precedent. They may employ people, but there is no reason to believe that what benefits capital also benefits labor in the distributive function of those organizations.

Planners should care about deepening inequality and a hollower state because they’re employed by the public sector both in public agencies and the consulting firms that cater to those agencies. So there’s the self-interest. The general case is: what does it mean for your profession when the rich don’t need you, or the amenities you advocate for (they can get their own, without public finance), and the poor can’t afford you?