Texas Cities Prevented from Exercising Democracy

Governor Greg Abbott has signed a bill preempting Texas municipalities from regulating natural gas drilling or “fracking” activities below the Earth’s surface.

The language the Governor used to describe this law is telling:

“This bill is so incredibly important,” the Republican said at a state Capitol ceremony. Flanked by the measure’s sponsors, he said House Bill 40 does a “profound job of protecting private property rights.”

I’d like to just state that Abbott views property rights as superior to political democracy as an abstract proposition, then dust my hands off having demonstrated the essence of modern conservatism.

I wouldn’t be wrong doing that, of course, but the reality is both more nuanced and no less horrible. After all, Abbott is not actually defending property rights in the abstract. He’s defending the right of oil and gas companies to exploit property rights to subsurface minerals (severed from surface property rights, and 80% owned by industry in Denton) at the expense of surface landowners’ rights to their own property and groundwater and against the right of citizens (with or without property) to be free from public nuisances. According to the city’s legal briefs filed in response to industry suits to overturn the ban, these nuisances include

conditions that are subversive of public order and constitute an obstruction of public rights of the community as a whole,” Denton’s attorneys wrote in a legal brief filed Monday. “Such conditions include, but are not limited to, noise, increased heavy truck traffic, liquid spills, vibrations and other offensive results.”

and helped motivate 59 percent of participating voters in Denton to decide that their city would be better off without fracking.

And, while Denton’s ban on fracking was the immediate spur for the industry’s legislative allies to introduce the preemptive bill, the new law covers not only bans on fracking, but any local regulation on the practice whatsoever. Restricting fracking near schools? Near reservoirs? Near parks? Near commercial centers, churches, or homes? No locality can supersede the state’s regulations to suit local preferences.

The bill exposes the absurdity of the ongoing devolution of authority under the “new federalism,” which in principle purports to devolve decisions to the level of government that is most accessible to the public, but in practice seeks to vest more power in the states at the expense of both federal and local authority.

“We have sued the federal government multiple times because of the heavy hand of regulation from the federal government – trying to run individuals’ lives, encroaching upon individual liberty,” [Abbott] said. “At the same time, we are ensuring that people and officials at the local level are not going to be encroaching upon individual liberty or individual rights.”

Maybe it’s just about the fact that the state is the level of government most susceptible to the influence of industry (Eric Lipton just won a Pulitzer for his work on this)?

Interestingly enough, when the property rights oil and gas executives hold in their homes are threatened by the rights the industry holds in subsurface minerals, things work out a bit differently, as Dan Solomon writes for Texas Monthly:

How do we know this? Because one of the opponents of a fracking project in Denton County is Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil—a company that proudly touts fracking as an essential part of American energy development. As WFAA.com reports:

Rex Tillerson  has joined a lawsuit to stop construction of a water tower near his estate on Dove Creek Road. That water would be used in fracking, a process to drill oil and gas.

Tillerson even appeared at a Bartonville Town Council meeting to speak against it last November, saying that he and his wife moved to the area for its rural lifestyle. Tillerson told the Council that he had invested millions of dollars into their property to turn it into a cutting horse facility.

To be clear, Tillerson’s stated reasons for the suit that would prevent the fracking water tower from being built aren’t environmental, but cultural: He doesn’t want the noise, traffic, or heavy trucks to disturb his horses or lower his property values. (That didn’t stop folks on websites like Reddit from treating Tillerson’s suit as proof that fracking is unsafe.)

The moral of the story is that any residents of Denton who want to exercise similar control over other people’s property should just get an army of private lawyers and not mess with democracy. And it underscores my contention here that the municipal arena is the most vital place for a revival of democratic politics.

Uniting Citizens after Citizens United: Open Access Article in AMSJ

American Studies and University of Kansas Press have generously supported open-access online publication of my article, which is now in press in the current issue of American Studies.

The article is a think-piece about recovering traditions of public democracy in American cities prompted by two observations I made when the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC was announced in 2010. First, the way that liberal commenters on the decision talked about the problem of money in politics (that corporate political expenditures were somehow much worse than those made by rich individuals) made little sense, and the solutions they proposed (empower “small donors” to make more contributions) less sense still, since, anecdotes of grandmothers sending their dimes to campaigns aside, the donor class is roughly coterminous with the wealthiest 10% of Americans. Hardly a triumph of democracy. Second, that there was a major blind spot in the ways that commenters were imagining corporations. While business corporations were set up as antagonists to the non-profit corporation set up as an issue-advocacy group (the latter being legit as a political player in the liberal critique), this position was rooted not as much in an argument about equalizing influence, but in an argument about ensuring the rights of shareholders to keep owning stock while ensuring that the companies they invest in don’t support political speech they oppose. While this is a sort of democracy, it’s not really very satisfying.

So, what else could be done? Because I’ve had a longstanding interest in the legal status of cities and its relationship to spatial forms of inequality, one line of inquiry that occurred to me was that no one, whether liberal nor conservative, nor lefty, was discussing some of the most important corporations of all: cities. Rather than condemning the recognition of a corporate right to speech as applied to businesses (whose owners can speak quite loudly enough as individuals), why not ask what would happen if the rights of cities as corporate speakers were recognized, and if the substance of city speech became an object of public politics?

I wanted to see if I could connect the role of cities in today’s political economy to the diminishment of democracy. After a lot of reading about local government law, the history of urban home rule movements, and the legal theory of government speech, I think I did. You can judge for yourselves. Here’s the abstract:

The 2010 Citizens United ruling has been misunderstood. This essay argues that the FEC’s arguments, which shaped the dissenting opinion and subsequent reform proposals, were deeply rooted in a neoliberal, individualistic, and undemocratic conception of shareholder citizenship that fetishizes the ability of individuals to spend money to influence elections. More democratic politics must come not from rejecting the principle of corporate political activity, but extending it to include cities. Historically, broader doctrines of city power helped to solve common problems and establish the concept of the public interest in diverse urban areas. Social, spatial, and ideological developments associated with suburbanization have helped a neoliberal notion of shareholder citizenship to supplant this public democracy. Recent events demonstrate that new urban social movements might leverage city power to make cities not just venues but instruments of politics.

And you can access the full-text here, again, for free and without an institutional subscription, thanks to AMSJ and KU Press.

“Segregation’s New Geography” by Karen Beck Pooley

This piece is up on Southern Spaces, a reviewed electronic journal published by Emory University. Pooley explores the overlaid geographies of housing equity wealth, school achievement, and racial segregation in metro Atlanta. In light of the recent publicity around the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, it’s important to recognize that the vast majority of African American students in the region live outside of central Atlanta, and the binary between city and suburb no longer effectively describes racial segregation patterns that are considerably more complex.

The Atlanta region provides an important and instructive study of recent national trends. The migration of black Americans back to regions of the South, the suburbanization of blacks and the exurbanizing of whites, the persistent residential segregation, and the increasing segregation in schools, have all played out with particular force in Atlanta. Metro Atlanta’s segregated neighborhoods and schools, which now extend well into suburbia, are not only underserving the current generation of minority homeowners and students, but stand to undercut the life chances of future generations of minority residents as well. As it booms and continues to sprawl, metro Atlanta shows how segregation puts limits on minority homeowners’ ability to build wealth, minority students’ ability to excel in school, and low-income families’ ability to achieve upward mobility.

Baltimore Linkage: Updated 5/4

I am going to leave the hot takes to the professionals, updating this post with links to content I find compelling. Will every perspective be represented? No. Do I endorse every finding? No. Do I think all of these are worth a read? Absolutely.

Many of my links emphasize the media’s (and the white-led political establishment’s (though that can include Black officials like Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, as Brittney Cooper notes)) enthusiasm for separating respectable and non-respectable modes of protest and being-in-public.

I should probably just start a fan site for Ta-nehisi Coates who so regularly pulls off the trick of developing deep and frequently historical analyses seemingly on the point of current events:

When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.

Jeb Lund watched CNN so I didn’t have to:

This is an old trope, one in which the American media demands that any non-hegemonic group leaders — from any racial or gender or social minority — condemn the actions of any hammershit fool who does anything ugly while existing within their demographic. This is often the initial engagement of any minority, regarding any minority action, regardless of the merits of that minority action. Thank you for being on our show, and we’ll get to your concerns in a moment, but first, apologize and explain yourself. Like the old political line, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” By the time they’re done defending their mere existence, there’s no time left for their points. You can silence any problem by running out the clock.

But maybe this is all rather abstract, so let’s make fun of Wolf Blitzer.

Radical Faggot (his blog, his name, read his explanation) on the political utility of rioting:

The political goals of rioters in Baltimore are not unclear—just as they were not unclear when poor, Black people rioted in Ferguson last fall. When the free market, real estate, the elected government, the legal system have all shown you they are not going to protect you—in fact, that they are the sources of the greatest violence you face—then political action becomes about stopping the machine that is trying to kill you, even if only for a moment, getting the boot off your neck, even if it only allows you a second of air. This is exactly what blocking off streets, disrupting white consumerism, and destroying state property are designed to do.

On the media’s unwillingness to consider the role of police violence not only in the death of Freddie Gray, but in the eruption of violence during protest marches or everyday life:

Meghann Harris, a teacher at a nearby school, described on Facebook what happened:

Police were forcing busses to stop and unload all their passengers. Then, [Frederick Douglass High School] students, in huge herds, were trying to leave on various busses but couldn’t catch any because they were all shut down. No kids were yet around except about 20, who looked like they were waiting for police to do something. The cops, on the other hand, were in full riot gear, marching toward any small social clique of students…It looked as if there were hundreds of cops.

The kids were “standing around in groups of 3-4,” Harris said in a Facebook message to Mother Jones. “They weren’t doing anything. No rock throwing, nothing…The cops started marching toward groups of kids who were just milling about.”

It’s worth mentioning that if a category of alleged police abuse–driving unbelted suspects around sharp corners and through sudden stops in the back of a police wagon–has a name that is known among non-cops, and if that category of alleged police abuse has a name that dates it to the days when a roller coaster cost a nickel to ride, it’s most definitely  a real thing.

Credit where it’s due, Conor Friedersdorf has taken an honest look from right-of-center and identified police lawlessness as a significant cause of Baltimore’s problems. I think he still confuses causes and effects, but I’ll credit any conservative condemnation of police lawlessness wherever I find it.

And, as the 50th Anniversary of the Watts uprising approaches (as well as the 50th of the Moynihan Report), we can reflect on what has changed and what has not.

Consider the cultural phenomenon of  Toya Graham, the West Baltimore mother seen chasing and hitting her teenaged son, presumably to punish him for participating in a “riot.” Pace Moynihan, one thing that’s changed is that, so long as black teenagers are getting the shit disciplined out of them by somebody, mainstream opinion is satisfied. Stacey Patton disagrees:

This celebration of Graham reflects a belief that black youths are inherently problematic, criminal and out of control. The video also supports the idea that black fathers are absent, suggesting that all we need is an angry black mom to beat the “thug” out of an angry young man – and everything will be fine.

What is so disturbing is that white supremacy is let off the hook. A militarized and racist police force is not the problem. Systemic racism — from the War on Drugs to racial profiling, from hyper segregation to community divestment — is not the issue. The message becomes: Black children’s behavior is the true enemy of peace.

It gets a little more complicated, too, when Toya Graham starts speaking for herself, and refusing to play her assigned part in the morality play of Black Discipline (or to play it verbatim, anyhow), connecting her actions to her principal fear–that the police would kill her son:

We haven’t received any information about what happened to [Freddie Gray]. It seemed like he was harmed…We can’t talk to the police. The news keeps showing how he was dragged to the paddywagon…as a mother, that was just devastating to see.

Other commenters have noted the core hypocrisy: while denouncing “violence” (that is usually conflated with “property damage”) by Black Baltimoreans, the media have rushed to laud a woman who desperately used violence to protect her son from harm in order to promulgate an odious narrative that further justifies the violence of the state on Black youth. Goldie Taylor’s is particularly worth a read:

On the one hand, we lift up and celebrate the non-violent legacy of Dr. King. On the other, we want to know why aren’t there more mothers, like the one in the video, willing to beat their children into submission. Forgive me cable pundits, if I am not able to hear you talking out of both sides of your neck.

On the enduring nature of Two Americas, Gawker’s Collette Shade takes in the Hunt Cup in the County and experiences the deep engagement and empathy of Baltimore’s wealthy whites:

I stopped a boy in yellow shorts and a pastel plaid shirt and a girl in a white dress.

“Do you know about the protest?” I asked.

“It’s kind of stupid,” the boy in the yellow shorts said. “I think it’s a racial thing. Just because one African-American man died, they all team up. But we’re all the same.”


There’s plenty more, if you can stand it. I wonder if these white kids flagrantly breaking the liquor laws need someone like Toya Graham to start smacking them around. Would Rand Paul agree to that?

And The Onion kills it again:

BALTIMORE—Calling it an emergency measure designed to ensure public safety and order, Baltimore officials held a press conference Wednesday urging all residents to stay indoors until the natural evolution of social progress takes shape over the next century.

The funniest part of the joke is that that’s our actual policy for racial justice and reconciliation!

And, as a metropolitan historian I should say that I find Matt Weurker’s cartoon at Politico to be a gross oversimplification of multiple intersecting historical trends. But nah, it’s pretty much right on:

Matt Wuerker, Politico

Matt Wuerker, Politico



Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in Jacobin on the confusion (deliberately sown, I would say) produced by the fact that the mayor of Baltimore and much of the city’s police leadership is indeed Black. It shouldn’t be necessary to write this, but racism is a social system of categorical disadvantage that is organized spatially and that works in part through actions taken to marginalize, police, repress, or render threatening particular (Black, young) bodies. If that seems to be a sweeping generalization, look at the praise heaped on Toya Graham. Her son’s body is the object of repression and fear, making her actions laudable within the system of racism. Point being, the presence of some, or even many, Black people in positions of leadership in Baltimore or in other cities does not cancel the presence of systemic racism, particularly as the political-economic forces of deindustrialization, casualization of labor, reentrenched racial and economic segregation, and corporate school reform reflect the political imperatives of austerity and mass incarceration. Taylor writes:

Today, we have more black elected officials in the United States than at any point in American history. Yet for the vast majority of black people, life has changed very little. Black elected officials have largely governed in the same way as their white counterparts, reflecting all of the racism, corruption, and policies favoring the wealthy seen throughout mainstream politics….

Black political operatives operate in the same terrain as their white competitors. They compete to stay in the good graces of wealthy donors while maximizing political connections to bolster their campaign war chests. They, too, rely on aggressive policing to make up for the social problems created when poverty, gutted social services, and no prospects for success in American society converge and eventually combust.

The uprising in Baltimore has crystalized the deepening political and class divide in black America. This is a new development in the black freedom struggle that historically has been united across class lines to fight racism.

Also worth checking out: this piece in the Guardian, in which geographer Ruthie Gilmore discusses the political economy of mass incarceration and urban austerity. Although I know Gilmore would be mildly horrified by the reporter’s implication that she’s an intellectual descendant of W.J. Wilson, it is a good distillation of her discussion of racism in terms of differential vulnerability to premature death.

And, while I am a huge fan of The Wire, Dave Zirin raises a couple of important critiques of the show that bear on whether the show’s fans get what’s going on in places like Baltimore.

I am now seeing what the The Wire was missing, despite its much lauded, painstaking verisimilitude: the voices of people organizing together for change. Everyone on The Wire seeks individual solutions for social problems: the lone cop, the lone criminal, the lone teacher, the lone newspaper reporter. Yes, it is certainly true that when entrenched bureaucracies battle individuals, individuals lose. But when bureaucracies battle social movements, the results can be quite different.

I think Zirin’s right here. One thing that David Simon nailed in the show was the way that the dysfunction of public and public-serving follows from a politics of austerity and disinvestment. But, perhaps because the series’s essential structure as a cop show demands individual narrative arcs, there are no social movements challenging those institutions to change.

Zirin also calls out Simon’s moralizing over the Freddie Gray protesters:

It’s always cringe-worthy when a wealthy middle-aged white guy lectures young black people about who they are and what they should do. In other words, if you had said two weeks ago—in the battle of prominent Baltimore Caucasians—that Orioles Manager Buck Showalter would represent himself better than David Simon, I think many would have been surprised.


Walter Johnson on Ferguson: Displacing the Disinvestment Narrative

Walter Johnson isn’t an urban historian, having made his mark with a couple of outstanding books on American slavery and its connections to capitalist development. But this piece at The Atlantic is well worth a read, although it’s long. Part of Johnson’s story is familiar–the relationship between Ferguson police and city government and the city’s black population have been strained by the way that the government has squeezed the black public for fines in order to fund itself. But there’s something Johnson points out that I honestly had never read about before, one of those things that’s frequently hiding in plain sight.

Ferguson’s social and civic breakdown doesn’t really fit the most common narrative framework–that of industrial decline and capital abandonment of the city or the region. In fact, the city of Ferguson itself is the headquarters of a Fortune 500 company, Emerson Electric, which does about $24 billion in business annually. The problem, Johnson argues, is the collision of decades-old Missouri laws restricting the powers of cities to tax and newer regimes of economic redevelopment under which cities, even those strapped for resources like Ferguson, purposefully forego taxing large corporate property owners.

But Ferguson is extraordinarily constrained in its ability to pay for the services that its residents require. Municipal tax revenue is limited by the Missouri constitution. In 1980, Representative Mel Hancock—the founder of a group called the Taxpayer Survival Association—wrote an amendment that required any increase of local taxes, licenses, or fees to be approved by a citywide referendum, with very few exceptions. Along with gun-license fees, which are explicitly exempted from the provisions of the “Hancock Amendment,” municipal fines provide Missouri cities with one of the few sources of revenue they can expand without a referendum.

The Hancock Amendment, like similar laws in other states, radically constrains the possibilities of municipal governance. Unable to raise tax rates, many municipal governments have only one tool at their disposal: lowering them. They cannot raise money, but they can give it away.

This setup is part of what political sociologist Isaac Martin calls The Permanent Tax Revolt and a product of what he elsewhere describes as Rich People’s Movements. The institutionalization of tax revolt politics has created significant political restraints on cities’ fiscal powers at a time when devolution of responsibility for social provision has created new demands on municipal budgets.

What this means is that, unlike in prior eras, capital investment in a community carries few guarantees of quality jobs, and, through abatements, incentives, and book-cooking by tax assessors, often delivers nothing to the local tax base. In the case of Emerson, St. Louis County’s tax appraisals and effective assessments are so low, partly by being pegged to the value of surrounding parcels, that the company actually chose to forego lucrative tax abatements because under ordinary tax policies its bills have been so low that the public relations risk of accepting tax abatements proved an unacceptable tradeoff. Johnson:

The rock-bottom assessment value of the Ferguson campus helps ensure that West Florissant Avenue remains in its current condition, year after year. It severely limits the tax money Emerson contributes to the Ferguson-Florissant district’s struggling schools (Michael Brown graduated from nearby Normandy High School, a nearly 100 percent African American school that has been operating without state accreditation for the last two years), and to the government of St. Louis County more generally. On the 25 parcels Emerson owns all around St. Louis County, it pays the county $1.3m in property taxes. Ferguson itself receives far less. Even after a 2013 property tax increase (from $0.65 to the state-maximum $1 per $100 of assessed value), Ferguson received an estimated $68,000 in property taxes from the corporate headquarters that occupies 152 acres of its tax base—not even enough to pay the municipal judge and his clerk to hand out the fines and sign the arrest warrants.

The problem in Ferguson, and in places like it, isn’t disinvestment, it’s investment on a set of terms slanted egregiously toward private interests. Maybe attaching this tale of screwed up political economy to Ferguson will help draw attention to it, because the political system has shown a remarkable capacity to ignore it. Louise Story wrote a series of articles in the New York Times in 2012 describing Texas’s commitment to tax breaks and the dubious public benefits thereof:

Under Mr. Perry, Texas gives out more of the incentives than any other state, around $19 billion a year, an examination by The New York Times has found. Texas justifies its largess by pointing out that it is home to half of all the private sector jobs created over the last decade nationwide. As the invitation to the fund-raiser boasted: “Texas leads the nation in job creation.”

Yet the raw numbers mask a more complicated reality behind the flood of incentives, the examination shows, and raise questions about who benefits more, the businesses or the people of Texas.

Along with the huge job growth, the state has the third-highest proportion of hourly jobs paying at or below minimum wage. And despite its low level of unemployment, Texas has the 11th-highest poverty rate among states.

It’s time we start taking seriously what a “better business climate” has meant historically. As writers like Kim Phillips-Fein show, the set of tax and regulatory conditions that are taken to constitute such a climate have been defined by the Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers. The “better business climate” is what’s good for business, nothing more, and nothing less.

“Is This the New Liberal Arts?” or an April Fool’s Joke?

It has taken me a while to process this piece enough to write about it, partly because, given its publication date, I initially suspected it might be a prank, or more precisely an act of trolling. Trolling works best when you have a large audience, and when you are sufficiently flexible to rile readers on multiple sides of a debate. So as I started reading Peter N. Miller’s piece “Is This the New Liberal Arts?” in the Chronicle Review’s April 3 print edition (online here) I was initially quite jealous of Miller’s platform, and envious of his apparent skill in simultaneously poking at fusty liberal arts faculty, wide-eyed techies who use terms like “ideate” with a straight face, credulous university administrators contorting themselves into gymnastic rationalizations in pursuit of money and the elusive cachet of “innovation,” and the Stanford students signing on to waitlists and then paying tuition to do things like this (because “physical activities generate unexpected insights”):

Photo Stanford d.school, reposted from http://chronicle.com/article/Is-Design-Thinking-the-New/228779/ (3/26/2015)

Photo Stanford d.school, reposted from http://chronicle.com/article/Is-Design-Thinking-the-New/228779/ (3/26/2015)

It would have been a masterful troll, prismatically pandering to one audience while, often with the selfsame paragraph, encouraging several alternative audiences to knowingly giggle at the others’ silly pretensions. Stuff like this:

That’s why Hennessy’s discussions with Kelley aren’t just about Stanford’s future, but about all of ours. Harry J. Elam Jr., vice provost for undergraduate education, elaborated on Hennessy’s thinking: “The d.school is not unlike a center for teaching and learning on steroids: Pedagogy and design thinking inform how to portray content and learning goals.” In other words, Stanford’s administration put two and two together: If the d.school already represented a kind of insurgent consultancy, why not focus that consulting work on Stanford itself? If collaborative project-based learning, real-world challenges, and multidisciplinary research architectures were already being taught in the d.school, why not leverage that experience for Stanford as a whole?

Asked whether the administration was aware that the d.school was furnishing the university with nothing less than a new educational model, Elam answers, “Yes. The simple answer is yes.”

Is this an example of Royal Nonesuch administrative jargon concealing an intellectual vacuum, or of bold rebellion against the hidebound strictures of the all-powerful liberal arts faculties, who, perhaps for spite (since they make no money), are blocking these awesome reforms? Yes. The simple answer is yes.

Elsewhere, we learn that “prototyping” is “human-centered”:

Standing next to a poster of the animated character Bob the Builder, Leiffer explains that at the d.school, “We build people first, then things.” Indeed, the emphasis has shifted from traditional product design to the process of designing, and now to the process of designing producers, and even people — all with the aim of “social innovation.”

Is this a techno-utopian engaging in deep philosophical thought about the malleability of the human mind and spirit through material culture? Or a techno-utopian whose operating code is not written to recognize the fundamental fact that an animated character created to embody one occupational role is not an actual human being? Yes. The simple answer is yes.

And that, in turn, gets at the core of what is significant about the d.school’s work for the rest of academe, and for the humanities in particular: Human-centered design redescribes the classical aim of education as the care and tending of the soul; its focus on empathy follows directly from Rousseau’s stress on compassion as a social virtue.

Is this a sincere expression of the novel idea that the production of things corresponds to the “tending of the soul?” Or a spot-on parody of the compulsion of technolibertarians to relate their self-interested projects to the presumptive universalism of Enlightenment values? Yes. The simple answer is yes.

Aside: nothing speaks to compassion quite like a call for designing people to be producers of economically productive “social innovation” (anyone ask a historian of the Soviet Union or China how well the New Soviet Man or Cultural Revolution projects of designing people worked out? Anyone read Wendy Brown’s new Undoing the Demos, which speaks to the “design” of these entrepreneurial neoliberal political subjects? No? Carry on, then.).

Top-notch trolling, right? Something to irritate everyone? Perhaps not. As I read on, it became clear that Miller was actually quite serious. And, in all fairness, I must acknowledge that as a historian, he speaks from a position of concern about the kinds of intellectual activity that can thrive in a university environment that is being rapidly reorganized around the values of entrepreneurialism and disdain for non-monetizable thought (See Christopher Newfield’s invaluable review essay on Michael Crow’s Designing the New American University). Implicit in Miller’s discussion is a “fight or switch” imperative. Neither one is a great option, but Miller thinks “switch” is preferable.

I’m not sure the rest of his analysis supports this conclusion.

Miller begins (after a descriptive tour of the premises) with a deep institutional history of the d.school, which chiefly harkens back to the days when Stanford engineers focused on consumer products met the proto-New Age spiritualists of the Esalen Institute. Basically an update of Romulus and Remus and the She-wolf for our coming TechBro empire.

While the d.school is presented as an intriguing model for future undergraduate education, description of how students actually participate in this education–what they do, how they are evaluated, what they learn, what critical concepts they engage– is almost completely ignored. We’re told lots of students want in to the courses, which, at Stanford, probably shouldn’t be surprising, and we’re told that they’re team taught, and we’re offered aspirational examples of student outcomes by analogy–making the next Apple mouse, for example. But, if this isn’t the Silicon Valley iteration of the South Park Underpants Gnome plan (sorry, there’s fat-shaming at that link, but it is directed at Cartman), what’s step 2–in between group twister games and whiteboard drawings and profit? You’re gonna have to draw your own conclusions from illustrations like this:

Photo Stanford d.school, posted in http://chronicle.com/article/Is-Design-Thinking-the-New/228779/ (3/26/2015)

Photo Stanford d.school, posted in http://chronicle.com/article/Is-Design-Thinking-the-New/228779/ (3/26/2015)

But Miller helps us to read through the lines a bit. While “design thinking” is a sufficiently nebulous concept to appeal to pretty much any constituency, it slants hard toward the individual.

John L. Hennessy, president of the university, and David Kelley, head of the d.school, have been having a conversation about what the d.school and design thinking mean for Stanford. Hennessy sees them as the core of a new model of education for undergraduates. Two such classes on design thinking have already been created: “Designing Your Life,” which aims to help upperclassmen think about the decisions that will shape their lives after graduating, and “Designing Your Stanford,” which applies design thinking to helping first- and second-year students make the best choices about courses, majors, and extracurricular activities. Both are popular.

Those curricular choices? Forget about being forced to read anything you don’t want to read! The “future of liberal arts” is

fact-based expertise giving way to skills-based expertise.

Aside: Getting credit for thinking about your personal path from Stanford to Google as a world-historical problem proves popular among Stanford undergrads. Knock me over with a feather.

As a historian, Miller recognizes the fundamental present-centeredness of the entire enterprise, and makes some moves toward a critique of its fundamentally mercenary nature–after all, this “new liberal arts” model is replacing activities like reading, writing, and thinking about things with a goal to unsettling received ideas with activities like “imagining stuff that can be made into products and sold”–unsettling prevailing markets without touching on ideas or questioning the need for consumption, economic growth, or market relations:

On the other hand, as university-based readers of the IDEO tool kits would immediately see, research in the design world is very closely linked to action-oriented solutions, i.e. to client needs. In fact, close attention to the way “research” is described in IDEO’s own publications shows that it is all conducted in the present tense, with no sense that the past matters to the present. Everything is ethnography. Libraries, archives, museums, the great repositories of the human past are rarely called upon for help.

For a historian, this ought to be a big problem. But Miller’s tone is less critical than wistful, hoping that historians can prove themselves worthy to pledge this wonderful fraternity. Rather than emphasizing the inherent merit of the habits of mind of historical thought, which might include an awareness of unintended consequences, a humility about the possibility of human action to create new social worlds, or the frequent tendency of technological innovation under elitist political rule to engender new and more savage forms of inequality, Miller hopes that historical understanding, reduced to knowledge about stuff that happened in the past, can justify its place in the new tech university by offering some insight on the complexity of human society and its relationship to the natural world in time and place. This is certainly what many environmental historians have been doing for years. But I’m suspicious that in the tech milieu, that kind of boring crap about dead people is going to give way to trivia about the how yesterday’s disruptive technologies were made. Here’s ideation and design and skills-based expertise in the service of disrupting the hell out of somebody’s house so you can take their gold (jeez, this is starting to sound like tech after all):

I gotta admit that trebuchets are pretty cool, and would make some of the social conflicts unfolding in San Francisco over the colonization of the city by techies considerably more interesting, but this is not what academic historians do.

Rebecca Solnit’s piece “The Octopus and Its Grandchildren” from the August 2014 issue of Harper’s shows that “pastness” is not an intellectual virtue that is assimilable to the worldview of “design thinking,” whatever the hell it actually is. I’ll quote at length from Solnit’s critique of the technolibertarian fantasy of “seasteading”–establishing private microstates on ocean platforms.

Google, Facebook, and Apple use offshore shell games to largely avoid paying taxes, while the billionaire former PayPal CEO Peter Thiel co-founded (with none other than Milton Friedman’s grandson) a nonprofit pursuing the pipe dream of building artificial islands to which individuals and businesses can relocate to be free of regulations and taxes. “If we can solve the engineering challenges of Seasteading,” Patri Friedman explained to n+1, “two-thirds of the Earth’s surface becomes open for these political start-ups.” Another billionaire, the venture capitalist Tim Draper, is funding a ballot initiative to divide California into six states, one of which would comprise the whole Bay Area under the name Silicon Valley. Secession from the United States, rather than retreat to Friedman’s proposed islands, has also been a popular idea. A Stanford lecturer/startup maven named Balaji Srinivasan gave a talk last year entitled “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit,” in which he proposed showing what “a society run by Silicon Valley looks like without affecting anyone who still believes the Paper Belt is actually good.” “The Paper Belt” is his sneering expression for everything that came before about 1994 and isn’t run by the tech industry. The pervasive fantasy that Silicon Valley doesn’t need the government obscures the role of that government in funding much of the research that built it. The Internet itself, of course, was developed by the Department of Defense, and Silicon Valley is still key to the military and vice versa. The Office of Technology Licensing at Stanford estimates that the U.S. government funds 85 percent of research at the university, though the OTL insists the government is in turn a “significant beneficiary” of this research.

Historians are Paper Belt, and that is how it should be. Solnit points to historian Richard White’s Railroaded, which tells the story of Leland Standford’s railroad fortune, one acquired less by the functionality of his enterprises than by the extent of his political influence.

This kind of history is Paper Belt. Paper Belt threatens the myths of innovative genius that fuel the ridiculous accumulation of wealth and power over cities like San Francisco and universities like Stanford that the tech industry has arrogated to itself. It’s pretty much impossible to see how history can “switch” to a form that integrates with the structure of the d.school while maintaining any critical function. If historians “switch” they will almost certainly cease to exist in any meaningful sense as component parts of “design thinking,” and I think they and other humanists should fight instead.

Participating in an enterprise based on such an instrumental understanding of knowledge might result in historians being the last humanists eaten, but it’s not going to save us.

In completely unrelated news that makes the delayed completion of this post quite fortuitous, the Chronicle has just posted this profile of Michael Crow (authored by Jack Stripling), the much-ballyhooed president of Arizona State, the prototype of the “New American University.” There’s a lot to chew over here, but a key point, occasionally lost in discussions of Crow’s and ASU’s relationship to supposedly elite and elitist old-line universities, is the way in which Crow’s drive to reorganize the university proceeds from the same technoutopian launching point as the d.school, and advances in a way that’s just as unmoored from the historical concern with pastness and the humanistic concern with, well, humanity:

The ideas come from untraditional places. One night during Ms. Burns’s fellowship, Mr. Crow took in a midnight showing of Elysium, a science-fiction film that imagines a future in which the planet’s wealthiest inhabitants live on a utopian space station while the rest of humanity toils back on Earth. The president was so enthralled by what he saw that he insisted Ms. Burns check it out for herself.

“Don’t watch the movie for the story,” she remembers him saying. “Watch it for the technology. I want you to think about the technology needs of the future and call me back.”

Any first year PhD student in film studies or urban history could tell you that Elysium is a futuristic retread of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and that watching Metropolis to be inspired by its depiction of future technology, which facilitates gruesome exploitation and emmiseration, pretty much misses the entire point. Which isn’t to say that plenty of people, the TechBros of mid-century, didn’t miss the point and run with it–like with Norman Bel Geddes’ Futurama exhibition at the 1939 World’s Fair.


Freeway-connected megacities were a prior instantiation of the promise of technological innovation, conceived then as transportation, to wipe away social conflict. How’d we do with that?



Is there any place in the techno-utopian design-driven university for thinking about the continuous failure across the nine decades between the two films of technological solutions to the problems of social justice? Or is the joke on all of us?

It’ll Do Till a Perfect Example Gets Here

Scott Lemieux has a good take at The Week on the absurdity of sentencing in the Atlanta Schools cheating scandal. He’s also right on in noting that the cheating has been a highly predictable consequence of corporate education reform.

The legal context of the testing should also serve to mitigate the offense. In theory, standardized testing can be a useful tool in evaluating teachers and schools, but the regime established by the No Child Left Behind Act does not use it well. The statute sets up very rigid standards derived from single high-stakes tests. The unrealistic performance targets ensure that even competent teachers run the risk of being branded failures and getting sacked, while decent schools are in danger of being declared failures and closed.

I’d go a step further and note that if the Atlanta scandal (and the sentencing is part of that scandal) isn’t a perfect example of the historical convergence of white abandonment and property tax inequity, corporate education reform, ingrained distrust of Black people in positions of authority, and criminal justice run amok particularly against Black people, then it’ll do until a perfect example gets here.