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Monthly Archives: December 2012

It looks like we are about to “go over” the fiscal “cliff.” I wish I had come up with these three rules for discussing the fiscal cliff months ago, but I had a good chance to think about the whole debacle on the flight from Miami back to Dulles. I sat next to a (very patient) person who asked me to explain the whole situation, so I tried as best I could given my non-econ background. Here’s basically what I told him:

1. It’s not a cliff. It might be a slope. But it’s not a cliff.

2. Anyone who tells you they really, really care about the deficit is lying.

3. The fact that there is bipartisan freakout about the effects of the fiscal cliff is proof that in their heart of hearts, even Republicans know that government spending helps the economy.

Basic reasoning behind each of these:

1. “Cliff” is the wrong metaphor for a series of changes that unfold over time. If all of the proposed budget changes were to take full effect, that would be a disaster. But it would take at least a year for that to happen. I think Jonathan Chait had the best metaphor for this: If you go three weeks without eating, you will die. That doesn’t mean that being at the table right when dinner is served at 6 p.m. tonight is a life-or-death matter. You can wait until tomorrow and it may make you a little cranky…but you’ll be okay.

2. If closing the budget deficit were your #1 priority, you’d welcome Jan 1 with open arms. Deficit reduction is what happens, after all, when you raise revenues and cut spending at once (N.B. I’m aware that in the long term, the fiscal cliff would lead to massive revenue shrinkage, but the deficit-scold argument is basically about closing the budget deficit as quickly and dramatically as possible). People hear “fiscal cliff bad” and “deficits bad” and assume (quite naturally) that the fiscal cliff will lead to greater deficits, but the truth is that it will cut the hell out of the deficit.

3. The “sequester,” or series of massive automatic spending cuts that will occur beginning on January 1, might be the part of the fiscal-cliff package that everyone finds most scary. Democrats are super into raising taxes on the wealthy and Republicans are grumbling about it, but ultimately, its effect is more symbolic than anything else—it won’t raise THAT much revenue. The prospect of huge cuts to unemployment insurance, infrastructure, and (yes) military spending is freaking everyone out. Republicans will never admit that this is proof that government spending is necessary during an economic slump, but it is.

 

I know I said it’s not really a cliff, but…go over. Better that than to pass a bill tonight that caves on taxes AND forces us to fight over the debt ceiling again in three months. We can let tax levels reset in about six hours, pass a new set of cuts as needed, and everyone will be just fine.

I just returned from a trip to Miami, where I was visiting my father (who was down in the city for the holidays). It was my first time there and I thought it would be useful to think about the city from an urban planning perspective—something I’ve tried to do more in the past year and that I’ve found helpful in understanding how cities work and what they’re like from day to day. This will (I hope) be the first of many entries on cities and urban planning, but for the record I should note that I have no formal background in the area and would definitely value suggestions/thoughts from those who do.

So with all that in mind, my basic impressions:

1. The city feels extremely new. Part of it, I think, is the fact that almost all the buildings downtown are white. This gives the skyline a really striking look when seen from afar, and the effect is really beautiful—gleaming white skyscrapers up against a very blue body of water. But the clean look of the skyscrapers means the downtown area doesn’t feel worn in.

I realize that downtown might not be the best neighborhood to judge a city by, so let’s take Little Havana, which is probably the city’s most famous area along with South Beach—certainly, from an outsider’s perspective, the one that has the most historical cachet. The city’s Cuban community largely dates to the Cuban Revolution in 1959; the first wave of Cuban exiles came soon after Castro took power. When you’re used to older Northeastern cities, this seems like almost no time at all.

2. Everyone speaks Spanish. I don’t really have a problem with that since I do too, but in most shops or restaurants I walked into, staff immediately said “Hola, qué tal?” and went from there. I generally think gringo paranoia about “Press 1 for English, para español marque 2” is very overblown—see this Junot Diaz quote for a funnier version of how I feel—but whereas in other cities Spanish might be the working-class lingua franca, in Miami it seems to be the default for almost everyone.

3. Transit and density: There’s no way around it. Miami is a car city. In this sense it’s very similar to the rest of Florida, which has massive amounts of open space and no transit infrastructure. But Miami’s urban core has a NYC-style level of density, with huge skyscrapers and lots of people packed into a fairly small space. If you travel three miles outside downtown in most directions, the zoning turns suburban (detached houses, separated residential and commercial uses, etc), so this combination of suburban sprawl and a very dense downtown leads to traffic and excruciatingly high parking costs because there’s no space for surface lots. The city has one above-ground subway line that links the suburbs, airport, and downtown, and a free monorail system that loops around the downtown area. But some sort of train between downtown and the Miami Beach area seems like a no-brainer, and there is none—you either cab it, or take a slooow bus. Check out this chart, which shows that Miami’s combined housing and transit costs are the highest in the US.

4. Exclusivity. There’s no denying that the city’s main attraction is its gorgeous beaches, but prompted by this post-Sandy op-ed, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of beaches in or near cities. I think there’s a compelling case to be made for treating beaches as a public good, but while a park down towards the southern tip of the island provides public access to that part of the beach, Miami Beach is a long island and most oceanfront property is owned by swanky hotels along Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue. You have to walk through the hotels in order to access the beach.

Other cities have things to mitigate this sort of exclusivity: New York has solid public transit to its beaches, for example, and San Francisco and San Diego have much of the best beachfront land set aside for state parks. Miami Beach is an expensive area with high parking costs, exclusive hotels, and very little public transit to its most valuable resource. The whole thing is really a shame.

I should clarify that that the city has a lot going for it—great food and weather, wonderful Cafe Cubano, and a world-famous clubbing culture (if you’re into that sort of thing—I’m not). And I really did enjoy my visit, since I almost always have fun getting to know new cities and spending time with the fam. But I don’t write this just to kvetch—I really do hope it can be the jumping-off point for a broader conversation on this blog about what makes for dynamic, interesting cities.

Newtown disclaimer. There’s really nothing I could say that hasn’t already been said much more eloquently by someone else. The only thing I’ll note is that Newtown is about 25 minutes from where I grew up. I went to a number of my first punk rock shows at the Newtown Teen Center when I was 13 or 14. Later on, I worked at a summer camp in New Milford, CT, and we’d go to the Blue Colony Diner after late nights. That was the diner where members of the press went all this past weekend, while they waited for updates from police and the medical examiner. So the whole thing is surreal.

Moving on. The topic of voter fraud is rearing its head again in a number of states. The phrase “voter fraud” itself usually describes dirty tricks that are imagined to be taking place on the left. Liberals tend to accuse conservatives of “voter suppression” instead. But this plan making its way through a number of GOP-controlled states is so transparently fraudulent that there’s no other word for it.

Basically, In a number of states that went blue in 2012 but whose state legislatures are controlled by Republicans (e.g. Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Virginia), there are plans afoot to start allocating the state’s electoral votes proportionally. National Journal has the story here. This seems pretty innocuous at first, because the need to replace the Electoral College seems like a no-brainer. Everyone hates the winner-take-all system, so awarding votes proportionally would mean, for example, that if Pennsylvania has 20 electoral votes and Obama wins 55 percent of the vote, Obama would get 11 EVs and Romney would get 9. Percentages!

Except…this is not all what these state legislators are trying to do. The plan is to award a candidate one electoral vote for every Congressional district he/she wins. It’s hard to overstate just how sneaky this plan is. In most of these states, districts have been designed to group Democrats into as few districts as possible. In Michigan, which has 14 districts, this would entail grouping metro Detroit into, say, four or five districts that a Democrat will win with >70 percent of the vote, and then ~9 districts that a Republican will usually win by a smaller margin. This would leave each state with two more electoral votes to allocate—more on that in a minute. The upshot is what we saw in Pennsylvania this year, where Obama won the state by five points but only won 6 of its 18 Congressional districts. His margin in those 6 districts was simply so immense that it carried the state for him.

As for those extra two electoral votes I mentioned? Michigan and Pennsylvania, in a sop to the candidate that actually, you know, won the state, would award them to the candidate who wins the state’s popular vote. Virginia plans do them one better: They would give those extra two votes to the candidate who won the majority of the state’s Congressional districts. If that plan had been in place this year, Obama’s 52-48 victory in Virginia would have netted him 4 of the state’s 13 electoral votes. There is definitely an evil-genius vibe to this sort of plan because it seems so reasonable until you look at how, exactly, Congressional districts have been drawn.

The best part is hearing state lawmakers try to justify it. Here’s Saul Anuzis, the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party: “Congressional districts are divided equally based on population. This is the question: Is the one man one vote principle more important than the overall state vote? If you move away from that, and into something proportional, then the city of Detroit’s votes don’t distort the rest of the state. Each area is represented.”

And Charles Carrico, the guy pushing the plan in VA: “People in my district — they feel discouraged by coming out because their votes don’t mean anything if they’re outvoted in metropolitan districts. … When they come out to vote, they know their vote counts instead of a winner-take-all.”

Wait a minute. How exactly could results from Detroit “distort” the rest of the state? Last I checked, a vote from Detroit and a vote from rural Michigan are each worth one (1) vote. The Virginian complaint strikes a similar tone: that there is something insidious or not “right” about urban voters who actually vote. This is the same kind of logic that Republicans use when they dismiss Democratic victories by saying “Yeah, but they only won the cities.” The idea that non-urbanites deserve to have their votes counted “differently” (i.e. more) is part and parcel of modern Republican identity politics, of a piece with the GOP’s insistence on these Americans’ higher moral virtue and right to farm subsidies.

The logistical problems of the voting system in populated urban areas—long lines, broken machines, mismanged voter rolls, etc—are well documented by now. But at least when these people get to vote, it actually counts as a vote. Even that consolation prize is now in danger.

This, obviously, is my blog.

I’m Jordan Fraade, a writer and editor living in Washington, D.C. I’ll mostly use this space for my assorted thoughts on things going on in the world—the focus will probably be politics and current events but I’m sure I’ll veer into books, pop culture, music, food, Bob Dylan, urbanity, baseball, and anything else that I find interesting.

All of my published pieces can be found on the “Work” page, along with some of my essays that have never been published anywhere. In general, anything in that space will tend to be longer and more polished, while the main space of the blog will be devoted to more off-the-cuff thoughts.

Find me on Twitter at @schadenfraade.