I have a serious question: why does Joel Kotkin get to be considered “an important urbanist” but I don’t?

I admit, to no small degree, I likely ask this question out of a bruised ego, but my ego or not, I think this question is enlightening.

I asked this question to Manuel Pastor a few weeks ago when I interviewed him for the podcast. Now, Manuel is one of the greatest, if the greatest, scholar I know. *He* is an important urbanist. It took USC way too long to get its poop together and start heaping him with endowed chairs and university titles, but it finally did, and it’s way well-deserved. ( Please do pick up Manuel’s book and listen to the podcast if you get a chance because it’s a very nice, unwonky policy/politics book from an excellent policy scholar. Oh and you can watch Manual talk about it here. )

Manuel called Kotkin “an important urbanist” in his (otherwise excellent) book, State of Resistance, and I called him out on it, and it got uncomfortable even though Manuel is one of my favorite people in the world, and I think most of the time he likes me, too (not always an easy or pleasant thing.) Bugging him about it wasn’t particularly nice.

But when genuinely, authentically important scholars like Manuel validate people like Kotkin as important, I die a little.

Manuel didn’t have a good answer to this “Why are you calling Joel Kotkin important” question, and I think it’s because Manuel’s very fast brain, in mid-interview, made the connections that I see, only after he couldn’t do much about it: Kotkin gets to be important because he gets published in various media outlets and the rest of us validate this. Why? He’s a white male contrarian who writes decently well, and self-appointed contrarians get to be treated seriously because Americans love “balanced” things in an uncritical way because it allows us to substitute virtues like “listening to both sides” as an end in itself instead of a means to “a resolved, deliberated course of action.” The former allows us to feel like good, nice people without having to deal with the latter’s hard work of rhetoric, conflict, sacrifice, and rigor.

You can make a really good living exploiting this tendency (see Brooks, David). Much more seriously, if you are one of 4,000 scientists who are like, yep, we’re cooking planet with likely disastrous consequences, you have a 1/4000 chance of getting the call to comment when a reporter from the NYT calls. If you are 1 of 20 scientists willing to say anything, no matter how factually or morally wrong, to feather your own nest, your shot is better at being a “singular” expert in the NYT. Journalists seek “balance.” If other university administrators reward media hits as much as USC has done (learning the hard way that not all publicity is good publicity), the latter strategy has real merits for becoming an “important” scientist without having to do any real work.

I see Kotkin the same way. Why be one of the 12,000 urban scholars who agree that infill is a good idea when you can stand up for suburbs which, btw, are in general growing and many doing fine without you? Deploy finger guns here.

Normally, I can stand this stuff. Even relatively superficial contrarianism like Kotkin’s “if a New Urbanist says one thing I’ll say the opposite” strategy can help us think more rigorously if good critical scholars pull apart the trolling and see what kind of weaknesses there are in things around which a consensus has formed. I’ve generally told people to hold their fire, don’t get too wound up, the noisy world of pundits is full of fluff, and the more attention you pay to dumb stuff, the bigger platform you give it. And there’s always work to be done empircally examining various claims among the dominant paradigmers and the contratrians.

Kotkin’s recent garbage essay in the Daily Beast, is, however, a bridge too far. And I’m not linking to it because not today, clickbaiters. Here, Kotkin wants us to understand the American, European, etc baby factories (aka women) are a problem, speaking just demographically, natch, except among those EN-VI-RO-mentalists who see procreation as a practically a sin. Why, employers gotta scramble for labor! And of course immigration isn’t an answer because those people are all uneducated and poor and competition for US’s own uneducated and poor people. They aren’t sending us their best! Instead, baby factories should flip to “on.”

Kotkin just keeps repeating this “immigrants can’t be the answer, it must be the baby factories” claim over and over and over in this painfully long exercise in bad thinking. Why is immigration just an impossible way to have young laborers join an economy? Wait for it: “immigration upsets people.”

Gee, the rest of us hadn’t noticed that, Joel. Thanks.

This is the level of insight it takes to be “important”? This is rewarmed 1980s demographic thinking and FoxNews-level xenophobia provided a gentler intellectual cover. Stahhhhhhp. No wonder the rest of us are fed to the teeth with old dudes telling us how great they are when this is the game they bring. We’re bored.

And we should be.

#MuellerReport text mining

My student Herri Gulabani (gulabani@usc.edu) and I nerded out during class the day that the Mueller Report dropped. Herry basically used a set of scripts that I gave them earlier in the semester for analyzing tweets about bike subscription services in New York and Minneapolis. I’m putting us both as creators because of that, and because I want to be able to make sure that I get the pushback in case any of Donal Trump’s fascist followers decide to make an issue of it at USC.

Here are probably the most informative graphics (and my personal favorite) from Herry’s exercise:

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We did this with retweet and tidyverse.

Ina Caro as a re​search collaborator and research that takes time

First off, a note: I will be maintaining this blog and social media accounts to some degree, but I am no longer responding or engaging to comments. I will use social media primarily for promoting books, the podcast, and my students.

I’ve been reading Robert Caro’s little book called Working, and as virtually all my close friends know, I am a sucker for writing process books, and this one is often really delightful. I have a longstanding dispute with Robert Caro over his paragraphing–he lets them go on entirely long. I get that his watchword patience, but good paragraphing can still let you go on as long as you like.

Reading this book has been lots of fun, not only because I have a fondness for Caro, but because his attitudes about so many things reflect my own: it boils down to, look if I could have written dozens of books quickly, I would have done that, but I couldn’t. I wrote and researched the only way that felt right to me.

Bless his heart for saying it out loud. For everybody looking at tenure track professors and financially successful authors, it’s easy to treat that statement as so much privilege. Perhaps it is. But perhaps it’s also actually true. I spent my early years on the tenure track, and before that, as a consultant, playing the game, and while I did it, I wasn’t all that good at it, and it hollowed me out and made me sick. I was really, really unsuited to the 8 to 7 world of a regular consulting gig; I can’t work around other people. That job finally drove me to a breakdown. This is one reason why now that I have tenure and full I spend a lot of time and energy standing against unreasonable expectations for productivity and adjunct exploitation.

Since the PR stuff around Caro’s book came out, there has been quite a bit of criticism about how his process reflects his privilege, and while it is true, it’s probably best to remember that a whole damn bunch of us who look like we’re sitting on top of the world weren’t born there and sacrificed a lot to get there.

There has also been a lot of speculating about how much Caro acknowledges his wife’s contributions and sacrifices, and if you are worried about Robert being grateful to Ina, don’t be. In this book, she is front and center, and it seems they are like Plato’s two halves made whole. She’s his lobster, and he hers. (He’s always talked about her extensively in his acknowledgments, too, but most people don’t read those unless they are looking for themselves or hopelessly nosy like me.)

Here’s Caro on how both he and Ina sacrificed and paid dues for the Power Broker:

When I was a reporter I blamed this feeling on the deadlines. I just hated having to write a story while there were still questions I wanted to ask or documents I wanted to look at. But when I turned to writing books, the deadlines were no longer at the end of a day, or a week, or, occasionally if you were lucky in journalism, a month. They were years away. But there were deadlines: the publisher’s delivery dates. And there was another constraint: money—money to live on while I was doing the research.* But the hard truth was that for me neither of these constraints could stand before the force of this other thing. It wasn’t that I was cavalier about deadlines. As it happens, I was lucky enough to have a publisher who never mentioned them to me, but they loomed in my mind nonetheless, as I missed them by months and then by years. * And I hated being broke, having to worry about money all the time. (I didn’t know the half of it. It wasn’t until, in 1974, when, after I had been working on the book for seven years, The New Yorker bought four excerpts from The Power Broker that my wife, Ina, said “Now I can go to the dry cleaners again.” I hadn’t realized—because she had never told me—that we had been unable to pay the bills at our local dry cleaners (or, I later learned, butcher shop) for so long that she had been doing her shopping in a more distant shopping area. (As years earlier, we had moved to an apartment in Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx after I came home one day to the house on Long Island that Ina loved, at a complete loss as to how to go on without a regular paycheck, to find her standing in the driveway to tell me, “We sold the house today.”

*See any of these spots for a paragraph break, friends. Would that be so much to ask?

Yes, certainly, lots of young writers don’t have a Princeton education and lots of young journalists never get a house to sell for their books, but the idea that this was all sunshine and roses it’s very accurate either. I’m for the idea that spouses who contribute as much as Ina did deserve authorship, it dishonors her considerable agency and commitment to the work–not just to Caro, to the work–to act like she was a long-suffering spouse who had no choice in how her life rolled out. One reason why the Caros took time over the stories they told was, simply, that they wanted to give proper time and attention to the people that nobody else paid any time or attention to.

Ina’s contributions become particularly important when getting information to precisely to the of the Texas Hill country:

And, of course, as Ina became friends with them, they told her intimate details they at they would never have told me: about the perineal tears, caused by childbirth without proper medical care, which seemed to be common in the Hill Country. (And indeed were: I was looking up federal statistics and studies from the New Deal days all the time now, and one study by a team of gynecologists had found that out of 275 Hill Country women, 158 had perineal tears, many of them third degree “tears so bad that it is difficult to see how they could stand on their feet.”) And yet, Ina would tell me, her eyes brimming, how these women had told her they had no choice but to stand on their feet and do the chores; with their husbands working from “dark to dark” (…) there was no one else to do them. I recall many moments of revelation like that; as I say, I hope to write about more them someday.* When Ina said to me one evening with real anger in her voice, “I don’t ever want to see another John Wayne movie again,” I knew exactly what she meant. So many of the women in western movies were simply the background figures standing at stoves or pleading with their husbands not to go out to a gunfight. You hear a lot about the gunfights in westerns; you don’t hear so much about hauling up the water after a perineal tear.


It’s certainly not a radical critique, it’s not a revolutionary insight or marriage, but Ina Caro was essential to it all, and it’s pretty clear that Robert Caro was the public face of a working partnership that suited her pretty well even if she didn’t receive the public acknowledgment she should have.

Do we get rid of the notion “public service” or do we reinvent it with the moral authority it requires?

My apologies for wordiness.

I was wittering about on Twitter yesterday, and somebody’s comment caught my eye, and then in the way of Twitter, it disappeared down my timeline, and I lost it. But the pith was: “it’s time just to get rid of the term “public service” because politicians are all about the money and feathering their own nests.

I certainly understand the cynicism, as it has been the prevailing sentiment about politics and, to no small degree, government employees, throughout my lifetime. I grew up in a family where working in government or politics meant serving your neighbors. Throughout the US, leaders in small towns do such public service every day with very little hope of lining their own pockets on part-time salaries. When I stepped into what became my adult world, that was so not the sentiment. “Why do you want a degree to get the a….government job?” sneered one MBA after another. Politics was crooked and lame, instead of the necessary, if often messy and difficult but potentially honorable work of sorting out collective futures for shared lives. It was the purview of losers who couldn’t hack it in the private sector, marked by lower salaries and “union protection” instead of the raw talent private sector firms thrived on according to its own mythologies. No matter what size it really is, the government is too “too big” (ever notice how nobody is ever asked what the right size of government is? It’s just always “too big” no matter what size it is.)

Donald Trump is, for me, the final, unfortunately logical, outcome of the folksy Reagen revolution where people decided that the world was simple, there was good and evil, and the simple facts are the private enterprise (both business and philanthropy) was good and government, especially the welfare state, was terrible. That government had only two real missions that boiled down to one: 1) ensuring social (read racial and class) order so that 2) the wheels of business could turn and make everybody (supposedly) richer. Democrats joined Republicans in supporting mass incarceration and one war after another, ensuring our own impoverishment through our lack of investment in our own young.

And so now we have government-by-grifters, whose fans love, rather than deplore, the naked exercise of state power by a petulant strongman they think will hate and punish all the same people they do. Gramsci, fascism, etc, and the rest of us befuddled by a man so entirely without any public ethics besides “Me first” that it has laid bare just how much of our executive leadership has been regulated by the honor and self-control of prior leaders, now utterly absent in the ones we have in men like Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell (who just got his Russian pork for helping get Russian mobster Oleg Deripaska out of sanctions; the emerging global world order is now a visible crime state, and while horray for workers in Kentucky, is this really what we are doing now? Really? )

If we ever get rid of our grifter-in-chief, whither the institutions he has so degraded? I’m seeing that question everywhere, and I don’t know what to do with it. Do we attempt to regulate the presidency so that we no longer rely on norms and expectations about the prudential use of power, or do we re-commit to judging our leaders based on precisely those virtues? And, in turn, do we re-commit to expecting it—and honoring it—in all our representatives, as well as in the people who work in our institutions day by day? Americans seem so utterly ungrateful to other people, from teachers to janitors in our public buildings, that I am not sure I can ever envision us doing right by them anymore.

I’m not fool enough to believe in a prelapsarian where government and politics were all shiny and truly democratic or representative. The US government has been hamstrung since the beginning by bargains struck to immiserate slaves and indigenous people for order and power for European settlers and subsequent generations of white people.

But I do very much worry about who steps into the power vacuum left once government work and politics becomes so hopelessly stigmatized as the purview of the rotten and hopelessly self-interested because it strikes me as a self-fulfilling prophecy. And we don’t want those people in charge.

I can also see the value of just getting rid of the pretense, if that is all it is, that people can behave virtuously in the exercise of power and, simple as that, put in so many limits and accountability checks that people who hold the reigns on state power don’t go to the bathroom without sunshine laws and effective oversight making sure it’s legit.

I don’t know anymore.

What role does gratitude pay in feminist mentoring?

In the universe of feminist pedagogy, I support approaches that de-center mentors in favor of prioritizing students and junior faculty. The decks are so stacked for the tenured faculty vis-a-vis more junior people that you have to think about mentoring here as an exercise of using power ethically. Groveling for whatever crumbs you get thrown from the great I Am is bad for both student and mentor (who is trading a real, gratifying relationship for cheap power trips).

That said, I’ve been encountering a lot of drive-by Twitter proclamations that dictate what your students are entitled to and how you are scumbag, unprofessional faculty member if you don’t do them. I recently found a very snippy Tweet about not answering emails in a timely manner, about how that’s “unprofessional” and students deserve better.

I am guilty of this one. In my defense, I get 100+ emails a day, and those are not spam. I try to get the ones from students as fast as I can, but I try to limit the hours I spend on email, and I have to admit, sometimes I put it off.

What struck me about the tweet was the tone. Now, Twitter is what it is, and nobody needs me to tone police, but I also kinda wondered about all of it: so many of these smell of a) faculty sending out “how you should be” messages that are essentially virtue signaling that these actions are the Right Way To Care About Students because they do them that way and b) projected anger from graduate students who feel like their needs aren’t being met and can’t direct that anger safely at the faculty who aren’t helping them. Neither are all bad, but neither are exactly speaking to truth to power in the manner I suspect their authors think.

To wit: no, I often don’t answer emails right away. But my students–all of them, including my undergrads–have my cell phone number. If a student needs something, they can call or text. If they prefer not to do those, then I hold between 8 to 10 office hours a week. If they don’t want to do these, then I guess they have to wait until I get my lazy ass around to answering emails, which is usually about once a week, on Friday afternoons. Sorry. A better person would think about student needs 24/7, but I got old and sick and couldn’t do that anymore. Does it help that I feel guilty?

I think all this is reasonable. I am sorry that I am not great at emails, but I’m not, and I’m pretty damn stretched most of the time. And moreover, I am not willing to accept “professional” as the behavioral standard I am expected to work to. “Professional” has always been a way to reinforce hierarchies in my experience, and I find the fetishization of the concept in the academy to be a worry. My university–like most–are puh-lenty corporate and willing to treat students like customers and me like retail salesperson vending shirts (btw, I don’t’ think retail salespeople should be expected to endure the emotional abuse of being happy clappy all the time, either.)

Too much of this “customer”/professional business reduces everything about my relationships with students. If we want to be nasty about it, ‘professional’ may mean you as a student are entitled to a timely email response to class-related questions, but then I get to kick you out of my office if you start telling me about your life if it doesn’t strictly pertain to the class? Your hopes and dreams? Screw that, I’m not a guidance counselor, and every second I spend with you smiling and nodding and supporting is a second out of my hide. I could be researching or relaxing.

I don’t listen to hopes and dreams or, conversely, dreads and worries because it’s my *professional role.” I do it because it’s what I think the old owe the young in payback for all the ways we were supported when we were young and trying to get where we were going when we were coming up. It’s human, not professional per se. I do it for students because I happen to be in a university, but I also listen to people on the bus and at the farmer’s market, and lots of other places because it’s good to support aspirations.

I do this not because it’s my job but honestly, out of gratitude to professors like Professor Jackson at the University of Iowa who listened to my prattle when I was 18 and wanted to be a classics professor. There strikes me as a great deal about being a mentor that is about paying back by paying forward. I will never, ever be able to repay Randy Crane for the faith he demonstrated in me as a wounded, fucked-up, social disaster of a PhD student. So I did my best by trying to be a credit to him, saying thank you (awkward though it was for both of us), and doing for younger people what he so sweetly did for me. Was he perfect? Nope. Am I blind to his flaws? Nope. But he saw all my flaws and stood with me anyway. And to me, that’s about as good as anything gets, ever. Ever.

It leaves me wondering about what all this “hey tenured professor shithead, do your job and attend to us with less power” stuff does to gratitude. Nobless obliges stinks, but I have to say, ingratitude stinks, too. Maybe institutions that run off noblesse oblige poison things like gratitude. But for me, I feel better in all this call-out culture of progressivism being grateful, too, even as we demand better from people who have power. At some point, we are all just limited, broken things making out way in the world, and gratitude and grace strike me as pretty important in all this.

Note: I should probably add that if you haven’t been a student of mine, you don’t get to have opinions on how I treat students.