Tag Archives: Robert Reich

Blue City, Red State, Home Rule

In the wake of Amazon’s choice of location for headquarters #2 (and the announcement that it was breaking the choice into two, one to be located in Queens and one in Crystal City–essentially, Washington, D.C.), Robert Reich wrote a provocative essay for Newsweek.

What does Amazon’s decision have to do with America’s political tumult? Turns out, quite a lot.

Amazon’s main headquarters is in Seattle, one of the bluest cities in the bluest of states. New York and metropolitan Washington are true-blue, too.

Amazon could have decided to locate its second headquarters in, say,  Indianapolis, Indiana. Indianapolis vigorously courted the firm. It’s also a Republican city in a bright red state.

Actually, Indianapolis–like every other sizable city in the country–is unambiguously blue. But we are located in a very, very red state.

Reich’s main point was that technology is a process of “group learning,” and it advances best in geographical clusters. Those clusters are primarily found along the coasts, where the digital economy has been a real boon. But Reich says that economy has left behind much of the rest of the country, with the result that we are facing what he calls “the widening inequalities of place.”

As money pours into these hubs, so do service jobs that cater to the new wealth—pricey lawyers, wealth managers, and management consultants, as well as cooks, baristas, and pilates instructors.

Between 2010 and 2017, according to Brookings, nearly half of the America’s employment growth centered in just 20 large metro areas, now home to about a third of the U.S. population.

Relative to these booming hubs, America’s heartland is becoming older, less well-educated, and poorer.

I think the reality of “America’s heartland” is more complicated than Reich recognizes. And that takes me back to his mistaken assumption that Indianapolis is a Republican city.

Cities in even the brightest red states have been blue for some time. We form what has been dubbed an “urban archipelago.” Furthermore, the inhabitants of these cities are engaged in a multitude of creative place-making, job-creating and poverty-reducing efforts.

Here in Indianapolis, for example, Community Development Corporations partner with the City, the Chamber of Commerce and a variety of nonprofit organizations to improve transit, health, education and job training, and to remove barriers to self-sufficiency. People may disagree about the likely efficacy or unintended consequences of this or that initiative, but the range of activity–and the good will motivating it–is impressive.

Indianapolis’ problem (which is not shared by every blue island swimming in a rural sea of red) can be found in Reich’s second descriptor: our red state. It isn’t Republican control of Indiana that’s the problem; it’s the fact that we are a state in which there is no meaningful home rule. Public officials in Indiana cities must go hat-in-hand to the state legislature (currently governed by an unimaginative GOP super-majority) to pursue many of the policy initiatives that other cities have authority to pursue as a matter of course.

Want to charge extra for plastic bags? No can do, sayeth our legislative overlords. In just the last few years, the Indiana legislature has also prevented cities from setting local minimum wages, and  from regulating housing, agricultural operations and worker schedules, among other things.

Perhaps the most egregious example of legislative arrogance involved Indianapolis’ proposal to tax ourselves to upgrade our inadequate transit system. It took three years just to get the legislature’s permission to hold a vote on the matter, and even then, the enabling legislation prohibited us from considering light rail. Why? Who knows?

As a column in the Indianapolis Star noted,  

A move to preempt local rules for services like Airbnb failed to get out of the Indiana House, but it was a rare setback for the never-ending march to scale back home rule. This year legislators successfully banned local zoning rules for certain utility poles and undermined so-called “good neighbor ordinances.”

(“Good neighbor” ordinances hold tenants accountable when they repeatedly inflict crimes and nuisances on their neighbors.)

The attorney who authored the column shared a number of other examples, and made a compelling case for giving greater authority to the people elected to govern municipalities.

The lack of ability to make our own decisions, based on the needs of our own residents, isn’t just making us less competitive for Amazon-sized sweepstakes.It is preventing us from improving everything from education to infrastructure to the quality of life in our city. Legislators who mostly represent the Indiana hinterlands consistently prevent us from reaching our full potential as a thriving urban oasis in a rural state that isn’t doing so well.

Urban residents of Indianapolis suspect that’s intentional.

 

Conspiracy Theories

I’m not much for conspiracy theories.

In my long-ago days in City Hall,   we often encountered folks–sometimes they were neighborhood activists, sometimes representatives of organizations aggrieved about some action–who were absolutely convinced that city officials had cleverly and surreptiously implemented a plan to screw them. What they didn’t understand was that we lacked the cunning and imagination needed to carry out the nefarious plots they attributed to us. As a former co-worker used to say,  incompetence explained so much more than conspiracy.

But just because most accusations of intentional conspiracies tend to come from paranoid folks doesn’t mean that  bad behavior is never intentional.  (As the old saying goes, even paranoids have enemies.)

Which brings me to an unsettling theory advanced by Robert Reich in a recent blog post.

Robert Reich, as most readers know,  was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration. He now teaches at Berkeley. His politics tend to be considerably to the left of mine; that said, however, his is a credible and very respectable voice, and he is not given to conspiracy theories.

Reich writes about persistently high unemployment, and the unwillingness of Congressional Republicans to do anything about it. These are facts. Unemployment remains high, and the House GOP remains stubbornly opposed to even the most reasonable measures to address that problem. The question is, why? Reich dismisses the notion that Republican obstinacy is entirely due to hatred of President Obama (aka the black guy in the White House).

First, high unemployment keeps wages down. Workers who are worried about losing their jobs settle for whatever they can get — which is why hourly earnings keep dropping. The median wage is now 4 percent lower than it was at the start of the recovery. Low wages help boost corporate profits, thereby keeping the regressives’ corporate sponsors happy.

Second, high unemployment fuels the bull market on Wall Street. That’s because the Fed is committed to buying long-term bonds as long as unemployment remains high. This keeps bond yields low and pushes investors into equities — which helps boosts executive pay and Wall Street commissions, thereby keeping regressives’ financial sponsors happy.

Third, high unemployment keeps most Americans economically fearful and financially insecure. This sets them up to believe regressive lies — that their biggest worry should be that “big government” will tax away the little they have and give it to “undeserving” minorities; that they should support low taxes on corporations and wealthy “job creators;” and that new immigrants threaten their jobs.

I suppose this theory doesn’t really amount to a conspiracy, but it does suggest that the GOPs blocking maneuvers are prompted by actual reasons, no matter how much their behavior resembles a two-year-old’s tantrum.

If Reich is correct–and I’m still dubious–members of the House GOP are both smarter and much more despicable than I had previously imagined.