Robert Moses follow-up

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: The real lesson of the Power Broker isn’t about urban planning or even centralized planning, both of which have their own internal problems and contradictions the way everything in grown-up life has. The lesson from Robert Moses’ career, and The Power Broker book that details it, concerns public institutions and the power of the state, which anybody associated with the state would do well to approach with fear and trembling if they want to be an ethical practitioner in ANY of the public-serving professions. (That means…all the professions.)

So I got people unsettled over the weekend about Robert Moses by noting that his academic background was in political science, and by putting some fighting words out there:

The whole narrative strikes me more as a lesson power and rationality: If something goes wrong, then the planners did it. If something goes right, the engineers/city managers/real estate developers/economists/architects/community did it right, despite all them dadgum planners.

Well screw that. Robert Moses wasn’t ours and it’s time another intellectual tradition took responsibility for him.

The post had the predictable effect with Twitter debates ensuing, with people telling me that Moses was a planner because he “functioned as planner” and assertions that “Caro or no Caro, Moses was a planner!”

And the debate was the point. People are awfully emotionally and intellectually invested in the idea of what Moses stands for in planning.

But not a single argument convinced me, and I stuck to my guns. Why?

Because my major goal here was to shake people up by exploiting the theoretical ambiguity that surrounds planning to do the *opposite* of what people usually do: reject blame cast on the planning profession rather than project blame onto the profession (Aaron Wildavsky, any one). My argument is that people use the field’s indistinctness to make it into anything they want, and if they want to cast all of government’s and market’s ills onto the profession, there is precious little to keep them from doing so. If something goes wrong with development, it was an urban planning problem–not a problem inherent to liberal progressive politics and managerialism, not a problem with capitalist real estate development, not the wholesale abandonment of the welfare state functions of government institutions that people now expect unregulated markets to provide even though they have never done so in the past (solutions for externalities, for one).

So if a PhD in political science becomes the chairman or director of a bunch of powerful commissions in New York with precious little public oversight, then that must be planning. (BTW, the title of Chairman or Director is a signal to me that you’ve moved into public management. It doesn’t mean there is a Grand Canyon of distinction between planning and public management as they are plenty connected, but still, exploring the connections between public management and planning is a fruitful exercise.)

The argument: he drew lines on a map and planned projects. He didn’t manage or build them.

The response: Engineers, architects, and developers also draw lines on maps and build projects. And they also manage them. So did he.

The argument: He traveled and consulted on planning and infrastructure projects. That’s planning.

The response: If that’s what makes a planner, then there are an awful lot of engineers drawing an engineering salary doing planning all over the place all the time.

The argument: Planners promoted his ideas…

The response: Planners promote Andres Duany’s ideas. Does that mean he’s stopped being an architect and has become a planner? Planners promote Don Shoup’s ideas. Does that mean Donald is no longer an economist? (I’d argue that Donald’s intellectual life, moving from economics and delving deeply into planning produces exactly the sort of fruitful insights that interdisciplinary research should.)

The argument: But planning has become even more technocratic (sends me a link to a gillian-page EIR)

The response: The planning profession is hardly technocratic anymore, and that gillian-page EIR likely employed 10 engineers for every 1 planner, optimistically on the planning side. Engineering has rolled forward out of urban renewal and highway-building (something else blamed on planners rather than engineers) largely unchastened by the failures of the era to market themselves as the *competent* technocrats, unlike planners. Reflexive modernism in play.

The argument: Jane Jacobs was against central planning so planners must be wrong to plan.

The response: Okey dokey, Jacobs-follower, then stop planning. Go right ahead on. Don’t do it anymore. Swear it off, like donuts and cigarettes.

The argument: Have YOOOUUUUUU read the entire Jacobs corpus?

The response: Yes, yes, I have. And I still challenge you to go ahead and start your urban libertarian utopia. Go get ’em, Tiger. Far be it from me to hold anybody back from bold social experiments. But in the end when all that goes ‘phut’ you might find Hobbes was right and Jacobs guilty of exactly the blame projection that I described above. (I think Jacobs wrote very fine books and made really important contributions. I think she was right about a bunch of stuff. I also think she was wrong about a bunch of stuff, too, that people seldom talk about because they are too busy cherrypicking what they like. That’s fine as far as it goes, but plaster saints bore me.)

If Robert Moses was a planner by the standards of “functioning,” Jane Jacobs was, too. She made big normative claims about how cities should be. Planners do that *all the time.* And people like me argue that those normative claims are central to the profession and to the practice (two separate things).

Does it ultimately matter if Moses was a planner? Or Jacobs? I do not know. Labels really are not important, except to the degree that they come with a set of assumptions, and it’s those assumptions that make me squiggly.

That said, if you get a Robert Moses question on Jeopardy! you should say “urban planner” just to be safe.

I think the real lesson of the Power Broker isn’t about central planning, which has its own internal problems and contradictions the way everything in grown-up life has. The central of the power broker concerns institutions and the power of the state, which anybody associated with the state would do well to approach with fear and trembling if they want to be an ethical practitioner in the public professions.