Special Issue of JAH on Mass Incarceration

The current issue of Journal of American History centers on a much-anticipated special section on the history of mass incarceration in the United States. Edited by Kelly Lytle Hernández, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, and Heather Ann Thompson, the issue is at its most effective when, whether explicitly or by implication, the assembled authors’ findings address the current policy debates around incarceration that have been catalyzed by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Many of the contributions also promote understanding of the particular spaces created and transformed by mass incarceration, including the sun belt, the US-Mexico border, and, in telling shadows of each other, America’s urban neighborhoods and its affluent suburbs.

As the editors note in an effective introduction to the section, understanding incarceration is essential to understanding many of the problematics that previous generations of scholars have framed, particularly for the post-WWII period.

Needless to say, when a nation chooses to police and cage many millions of people who reside within its borders, the implications for everything else that takes place in that country are vast. Mass incarceration has had a major impact on everything from how urban and suburban spaces have evolved to how electoral maps are drawn to how national borders are defined and maintained to how state and federal resources are distributed to how social movements are made and unmade to how gender roles are bolstered and undermined to how cultural norms and identities are forged and reinforced to how sexuality is profiled and policed.

Or, as Alex Lichtenstein argues in “Flocatex and the Fiscal Limits of Mass Incarceration,”

Pick up any recent textbook on modern U.S. history, turn to the last few chapters, and you will find an outline of key developments that have shaped the past four decades or so of the nation’s domestic history. Some chapter headings include “The Decline of Manufacturing,” “Retreat from Liberalism,” “The Beleaguered Social Compact,” “The Rising Tide of Conservatism,” “The Problem of Inequality,” “The End of the Long Boom,” and “Conservatism in the Courts.” Yet few of these textbooks pay attention to one of the most dramatic social transformations of this period. Only Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty! includes as subheadings “The Spread of Imprisonment” and “The Burden of Imprisonment,” signaling to students that one of the changes that makes the world they inherit radically different from that of their parents is the huge numbers of Americans behind bars.

The claims for the significance of mass incarceration are bold, and it’s not always the case that the connection of mass incarceration to just about everything else is compellingly articulated. As the editors note,

The essays in this volume provide only a brief sketch of new work by historians mapping the terrains of a burgeoning field.

Indeed, some of the articles read like distillations (but intriguing ones) of book-length research projects, which suggests that many historians are poised to register significant contributions to the debate, enriching knowledge of the process of building mass incarceration and complicating analogies between old and new Jim Crow. As a metropolitan historian, I’m particularly drawn to the accounts of how urban and suburban places figured in the development of the carceral state and how those places were transformed by it.

On this score, Donna Murch’s “Crack in Los Angeles: Crisis, Militarization, and Black Response to the Late Twentieth-Century War on Drugs” is particularly effective. Murch exposes the complexity of intraracial political activity around the emergence and social costs of the cocaine trade in communities of color in and around Los Angeles, particularly the role of Black elites in elevating policing as a response in the early stages of the crisis and of left and working class activists in responding to the harms to individuals and communities created by Chief Daryl Gates. Although Murch is clear that Black and Brown communities in Los Angeles were irreparably harmed by the escalation of the Drug War, her analysis, which is of a piece with recent work by Michael J. Fortner, shows that a narrative of imposition, or of a “New Jim Crow” imposed unilaterally by white law-and-order conservatives, is reductive.

In hindsight, it is clear that the state appropriated real anxieties from black urban areas (such as Harlem and South Los Angeles) that were experiencing rapid economic decline and used these concerns to rationalize its war(s) on drugs. Not only did this strategy appeal to racial antipathies among white voters but it also hindered political opposition to the drug war by African Americans who were desperately seeking solutions to the public health and social crises facing their neighborhoods.

What has remained poorly understood about the rollout of LA’s notorious anti-gang and militarized police tactics is

how deeply divisive punishment campaigns proved for African American populations.

Particularly as the transformative impact of militarized policing on individuals and on Los Angeles became apparent:

Punitive campaigns against drugs and gangs in Los Angeles rationalized a new martial infrastructure. The state applied militarization unequally by focusing on historic African American and Latino neighborhoods in the south central part of the city. As in counterinsurgency strategy, the geographic application of force meant that particular populations were at high risk not only because of their age and race but also because of their location. Indeed, by 1992 city sheriffs listed nearly half of the African American men under age twenty-five in Los Angeles County as gang members. The ultimate carceral effects of this mass criminalization can hardly be overstated. The California Department of Corrections (CDC) prison population increased from 19,623 in 1977 to 162,000 in the year 2000 with over 40 percent drawn from Los Angeles and 70 percent from southern California.

The spatial inequality inherent in counterinsurgent policing within the context of a Drug War is demonstrated in Matthew Lassiter’s contribution, “Impossible Criminals: The Suburban Imperatives of America’s War on Drugs.” Lassiter shows the ways that spatial referents of urban and suburban communities, freighted with racial and social class assumptions about their inhabitants, worked to in effect police policing of drugs. The strongest claim Lassiter makes is not a rejection of but certainly a complication of the ideas driving The New Jim Crow: the drug war and the police state it has justified are not only about the project of criminalizing minorities, but also about the project of preemptively de-criminalizing whites, a project enabled by the cultural currency of suburban community as morally legitimate.

Closer attention to the suburban imperatives of the war on drugs helps explain why policy formation in this area generally has operated within a framework of consensus, especially when political and cultural forces converge around the issues of protecting middle-class communities from external threats, subduing narcotics traffickers in urban and international markets, and keeping law-breaking white youth out of prison.

Inasmuch as affluent outer-ring suburbs are marked as places from which the poor and black are appropriately excluded, those areas have likewise been marked as places from which the aggressive tactics of police and prosecutors have also been excluded–except, as recent events have shown, when such aggression targets perceived intruders.

Exploration of the deep historical roots of these contemporary disparities demonstrates that the exemptions created for white middle-class participants in the underground marketplace were not merely epiphenomenal but rather constitutive of the expansion of the carceral state. Situated on the real and imagined landscapes of affluent suburbia, white teenagers have represented the most sympathetic victims of the narcotics trade, the distinctively illegitimate targets of law enforcement crackdowns, and the chief beneficiaries of public health prevention campaigns.

In other words, as Lassiter demonstrates, successive waves of drug-related panic have inspired and necessitated particular political responses. In circumstances where the core behavior–drug use, and particularly recreational marijuana use–has promiscuously crossed spatial and social borders, legislation has been crafted through the deliberate and conscious political efforts of empowered suburban politicians to steer a course between two unacceptable political alternatives: ignoring drugs entirely, or subjecting white suburban youth to the same punitive system as youth of color.

The racial and spatial logics of the drug war reflect not only the bipartisan mandate for urban crime control but also the balancing act required to resolve the impossible public policy of criminalizing the social practices of tens of millions of white middle-class Americans.

This tension was resolved in many cases by assigning differential roles to the white and nonwhite, suburban and urban, participants in drug transactions. Although suburban conservative politicians embraced a broad view of the market as an organizing principle of society, in this case they refused to recognize suburban drug deals as exchanges between rational actors seeking the mutual benefit (of getting high or making money). Rather, those marked as “other” by racial identity or urban residence, were cast as corruptors and suburban youth as innocents. And, although it takes little faith to imagine that the apparatus of the American state would adopt a punitive stance against urban minority drug dealers, the particular shape of the state’s response–particularly the refinement of criminal law to separate, with room for police and prosecutorial discretion, the acts of possession and distribution–was conditioned by the imperative of protecting both suburban “innocents” and the political illusion of suburban innocence.

Julilly Kohler-Hausmann’s “Guns and Butter: The Welfare State, the Carceral State, and the Politics of Exclusion in the Postwar United States” explores  how

Welfare policy and criminal policy were principal sites where society negotiated the state’s responsibility to poor and socially marginalized people, and these policy areas became central staging grounds for the post-1960 chapter in the long historical struggle over the terms of citizenship.

finding that

Despite the racial and social diversity of the populations subject to penal and welfare administration, Americans typically imagined welfare and crime as problems emanating from the same places: low-income African American and Latino urban communities.

Noting that historians have been slower than social scientists to interrogate the inverse trends of social welfare spending and criminal justice and punishment spending, Kohler-Hausmann proposes an investigation of the ways both trends, and perceptions of both, figured in the political and social processes of stripping the social welfare state while building the carceral state. Are the two, in fact, purposefully connected? Though it seems like a fine distinction, the key historiographical intervention of the work, indeed its key demand on other scholars, is to resist a reflexive assumption that the rise of the latter necessarily followed from or was a product of the former.

This perspective also reveals the limitations of relying on a series of oppositional pairings in our analysis of these transformations: liberal/conservative, welfare state/carceral state, rehabilitation/punishment, or big government/small government. These binaries structured the historical debates, but reproducing them in our scholarship risks overstating polarization and ruptures, obscuring continuities and overlaps, and masking the imprecision and political assumptions of the categories. I propose understanding the relationship between these institutions not as separate or sequential, where the carceral state supplanted the welfare state, but as deeply integrated. The penal system and welfare system have long coexisted—sometimes symbiotically—and their gendered systems interacted and developed together. Elites have deployed these systems together in various combinations, especially when faced with disorder or political insurgency, to secure social stability. Instead of stepping into the welfare state’s void or representing its antithesis, the growing carceral apparatus often built upon the welfare state, particularly through its efforts to enforce social norms through coerced rehabilitation and treatment.

This view encourages thinking not of one mode of state activity supplanting another, or of a sudden shift from “soft” to “hard” policy, but of the ways in which both the welfare state and the carceral state grew out of specific political circumstances in response to particular sets of questions about who would control and who would benefit from social resources. Kohler-Hausmann’s analysis of New York State’s notorious Rockefeller Laws is compelling. Rather than viewing the laws as a divergence from a treatment-oriented approach to drug abuse, the Rockefeller Laws proceeded from a common logic that drug abuse was an individual failing, and that, whether through treatment or incarceration, the most useful social response was isolation of the drug user. Of course, these laws intersected with the racial, socioeconomic, and geographic assumptions with which policymakers had freighted the drug issue, meaning that the full draconian impact of the laws fell on the usual suspects. And, both the Rockefeller Laws and the regime of treatment that they nominally replaced asserted the power of the state to isolate individual drug offenders through penal or quasi-penal institutions, rather than through democratic and community-based ones.

From this perspective, the rise of punishment appears less as a radical break than as a redirection of the state’s power to classify and control. And, the collateral impacts of punishment on individuals and communities, including economic exclusion and disenfranchisement, justified a growing social cognition of welfare recipients as criminal and non-integrable elements.

Increasingly, policies helped produce the political reality they purported to reflect, erecting barriers to the civic and economic participation of poor people, particularly in urban African American and Latino communities.

On this point, it seems fitting to conclude. There are plenty of apt bases for comparison between today’s carceral state and Jim Crow caste society. But one has not followed directly from the other. It will be the task of future historians, building on the work presented in this issue, to explore how particular impulses: to control, to contain, to protect, and to punish, were expressed in the state, local, and federal context of American politics, and how a country that locks up a historically unprecedented proportion of its people differs from the country we might inhabit if it hadn’t.



LaCour and the Neoliberalization of the Academy (Update 6/5)

I’m not a political scientist, and I had somehow missed the initial wave of press for the now-retracted Michael LaCour/Donald Green article in Science on the persuasive power of canvassers to increase support for gay marriage. So I can’t really discuss what the findings, had they been legitimate, import for the issue of gay marriage, for the general prospect of canvassing as a persuasive technique, or for experimental methods in the social sciences.

But as an academic, I’ve been pretty much unable to avoid the controversy that has erupted so quickly about the apparent fraudulence of both the study and of LaCour’s academic credentials. I’m trying to avoid gratuitous schadenfreude at LaCour’s downfall. There’s certainly enough of that already. But one thing I’ve noticed that bears some analysis is the way that critiques from both the non-academic right and from within the academy miss the point.

For right-wingers, the low-hanging fruit has been LaCour’s focus on public opinion on gay marriage. Although the impact of the article in disciplinary terms touched on research methods, and in broader political terms touched on general methods of persuasion, conservatives have identified LaCour with a normative support for the liberal cause of gay marriage, and, in commentary that I don’t feel like excerpting, have suggested that academic research is simply propaganda for gay/environmental/minority/feminist causes.

And, within the academy, concern has centered on the personal integrity of LaCour, his co-author Green, and the peer reviewers who apparently failed to exercise critical judgment over the findings and methods. There’s something to this, and there’s certainly resentment to spare for the young academic who achieved mainstream media attention and a tenure-track job at Princeton. Tom Bartlett’s article here at the Chronicle is eye-opening for putting the scope of LaCour’s apparent deception in a concise summary. If Bartlett’s right, this was a complex and well-orchestrated long con. And, if you can’t cheat an honest man, its success raises questions about those proximate to the con:

Who, if anyone, was supervising Mr. LaCour’s work? Considering how perfect his results seemed, shouldn’t colleagues have been more suspicious?

But the elements of that con are noteworthy in that, had they been legitimate achievements, they would reflect perfectly an emergent script for professionalization in the neoliberal academy. Bartlett hints at this more structural problem

Is this episode a sign of a deeper problem in the world of university research, or is it just an example of how a determined fabricator can manipulate those around him?

but orders his clauses in a way that draws attention to the latter half of the sentence. It’s the front half that ought to concern us.

I’ve just been reading Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (about which more in the future), and, among many other areas the book discusses, its evaluation of professionalization in an academy shaped by the values of the market is astute.

One irony of neoliberal entrepreneurialism and debt-financed investment is that it often draws producers and investors into niche industries and products that are unsustainable over time-derivatives, bubble markets, and so forth. Current norms and metrics for academic success are an example of this. Faculty gain recognition and reward according to standing in fields whose methods and topics are increasingly remote from the world and the undergraduate classroom. Graduate students are professionalized through protocols and admonitions orienting them toward developing their own toeholds in such fields. This professionalization aims at making young scholars not into teachers and thinkers, but into human capitals who learn to attract investors by networking long before they “go on the market,” who “workshop” their papers, “shop” their book manuscripts, game their Google Scholar counts and “impact factors,” and above all, follow the money and the rankings. “Good investment” is the way departments speak of new hires, and “entrepreneurial” has become a favored term for describing exceptionally promising young researchers; it is deployed to capture both a researcher’s capacity to parlay existing accomplishments into new ones and the more quotidian business of grant getting. These commonplaces in the sciences, social sciences, business, and law schools will soon dominate the entirety of university and scholarly activity. (195)

Back to Bartlett’s account, then. What’s amazing about it, read against Brown’s summation of neoliberal professionalization, is how many of the bases LaCour’s story illustrates. If Wendy Brown, or any critic of the neoliberal academy/political science within it, wanted to find a better parable, they’d have to, uh, fabricate it themselves.

Let’s start with the attention given to LaCour’s initial findings. Ethnographers have long discussed how social interactions can highlight differences in perspective and modify behavior. I don’t think that any of them would find the conclusion that canvassing can produce some shifts in opinion to be controversial (though a good ethnographer would find it extremely simplistic). LaCour’s and Green’s article got traction because it was published in Science and assumed the mantle of experimental quantitative methodology. As Malcolm Gladwell, Freakonomics, and sports analytics have demonstrated, the media has an insatiable appetite for any analysis that can be expressed in a number, and to be “data driven” is a lazy, but widely accepted synonym for credibility. As the New York Times reported on LaCour and Green’s article on publication, their method was more reliable than the fuzzy suppositions of psychologists about persuasion:

Psychologists have long suspected that direct interaction, like working together, can reduce mutual hostility and prejudice between differing groups, whether blacks and whites or Christians and Muslims. But there is little evidence that the thaw in attitudes is a lasting one.

The study, published Thursday by the journal Science, suggests that a 20-minute conversation about a controversial and personal issue — in this case a gay person talking to voters about same-sex marriage — can induce a change in attitude that not only lasts, but may also help shift the views of others living in the same household. In other words, the change may be contagious. Researchers have published similar findings previously, but nothing quite as rigorous has highlighted the importance of the messenger, as well as the message.

It’s not an accident, therefore, that LaCour’s credibility hinged on his association with Green, who, as Bartlett notes,

 is well known for pushing the field to become more experimental.

What does that mean in practice? Per the Times,

Mr. LaCour and Donald P. Green, a professor of political science at Columbia, designed an experiment that mimicked a drug trial. They recruited 972 voters from these precincts, broadly surveyed their attitudes — including on same-sex marriage — and then randomly assigned them to receive either the “treatment” or a placebo.

There’s of course nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but praising the importation of methods from pharmaceutical trials is problematic. The placebo/treatment model even in medical research can yield highly dysfunctional results if the complex interaction of multiple factors is not accounted for, a tendency that is exacerbated by the fact that the purpose of most of these studies is to bring drugs to market. And, of course, people don’t respond to social interaction in the way they respond to pharmaceuticals. Yet, despite these weaknesses, the application of industry methods is regarded as inherently “rigorous.”

Which means that, structurally, studies that produce counterintuitive findings through the application of the sort of methods that are emerging as “best practices” through transferal into new fields and disciplines, are ripe to create the kind of buzz and “impact” that are valuable in the market. Consider Bartlett’s description of the piece’s media reception:

That paper, written with Donald P. Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University who is well known for pushing the field to become more experimental, had won an award and had been featured in major news outlets and in a segment on public radio’s This American Life. It was the kind of home run graduate students dream about, and it had helped him secure an offer to become an assistant professor at Princeton University. It was his ticket to an academic career, and easily one of the most talked-about political-science papers in recent years. It was a big deal.

Why would LaCour initiate this kind of fraud? Because he clearly recognized that a fraudulent publication, if not discovered, would accomplish as much for him in terms of professionalization and his own human capital as an academic as would a legitimate one.

Other parts of LaCour’s long con flow from this basic shift toward market norms in academe. If the value of research is measured by the money thrown at it in the form of grants, forcing the social sciences to catch up to fields with close and lucrative ties to industry, then the professional value of grants increases. LaCour apparently went on the job market with nearly $800,000 in research grants listed on his CV. Grants that he never received, in some cases from organizations that don’t actually exist. And, while on one level, it’s tempting to dismiss this sort of lying as pathological, is it, really? LaCour was astute enough to observe that claiming the grants was the next best thing, and in one of those displays of hubristic recklessness that came thiiiiis close to being converted by success into genius, he doubled down on–and nearly cleaned up on– the bet that no one would check. When entrepreneurialism becomes the highest value in academe, junior scholars are encouraged to pad their human capital portfolios. When funding for research is devolved to proliferating foundations and agencies outside the walls of the university, the better to encourage that competitive entrepreneurialism, is it any surprise that, like subprime mortgages in a derivative, the individual grants get tough to track down for due diligence?

Back to Bartlett. Where, then, do we go from here après LaCour? What is there to be learned?

Several of those who have worked with Mr. LaCour say that they are still waiting for an explanation, that they hope he will answer some of the outstanding questions. There are a host of factual issues — like why he didn’t try harder to obtain funding, or why he offered multiple accounts of what happened to the raw data — but the overriding question is simple: Why do this in the first place? Was it ambition run amok? Was it one minor deception that grew into a tapestry of falsehoods?

I don’t doubt that if Michael LaCour elects to tell his own story in the future, the answers to those questions might prove very interesting, even if only from a voyeuristic point of view or for schadenfreude. 

Maybe though, instead of continuing to interrogate Michael LaCour, or to ritually stone him for his crimes, we should consider saving some rocks for the institutions that enabled him and that articulated the incentives that drove his fraud in the first place. If LaCour’s story is How to Succeed in Academe Without Really Researching, then understanding what exactly constitutes “success” ought to be the first step.


This article by Steve Kolowich in the Chronicle illustrates another point of connection to the problem that adapting the methodology of a pharmaceutical trial to social science research sometimes entails adopting both the impacts and the purposes of pharmaceutical trials. To wit, the experiments may in fact influence rather than simply evaluate political behavior, and, more troublingly, the method accordingly sets itself up for sponsorship by organizations outside academe who are willing to pay for whatever possible impact the experiment creates. While researchers may genuinely approach whether canvassers can persuade skeptics to vote for gay marriage as a research question, if this method gets adopted, it will increasingly give power to the funders to determine the questions based on the instrumental value of the impacts.

Kolowich is attuned to the disciplinary shifts in political science toward experimental methods:

Still, the fact that Mr. LaCour had embraced an experiment-based approach to political-science research was no accident. Such methods have “captured political science’s imagination,” says Arthur Lupia, a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, especially among ambitious young scholars

And, he also explains one aspect of the institutional relations driving the shift: as academic researchers are pushed by neoliberal adminstrative rationality to become “entrepreneurial,” the rational response is to align with sources of funding and to accommodate to their priorities. In some fields, the logical partnership is with industry. For political scientists, the logical partners are parties and increasingly wealthy issue advocacy groups. Kolowich:

The embrace of field experiments in political science marks a historical shift, says Mr. Lupia. For centuries, scholars relied on qualitative methods, and later statistics, to understand how politics works. Since the turn of the century, however, scholars have increasingly teamed up with campaigns and political-action groups to run field tests on the American electorate.

Isn’t it proper for political scientists to impact electoral politics? Kolowich quotes Notre Dame Associate Professor David Nickerson, who enthuses about the way that involving researchers in campaigns is a win-win.

“The fact that you’re looking at real-world outcomes and working with real-world organizations means that you’re going to have a more direct effect and policy significance.”

But as with many questions of academic freedom and public involvement, the question really hinges on the means by which academics are engaging the public, and how the research questions are formed. If researchers are along for the ride measuring the impact of poll-tested issues or phrases developed by campaigns, how free is the inquiry? And how beneficial to society is the public outreach of academics?

Here’s where I don’t think Kolowich really gets it, because, after arguing that the discipline of political science should come up with rules and standards for how much research can interfere with the ecosystem of politics, he defines the question as one of research ethics:

The unraveling of Mr. LaCour’s study and the problems with the Montana experiment have important differences. The Montana case has to do with the question how much of a footprint researchers ought to leave. Meanwhile, “the LaCour story has really nothing to do with experiments,” says Mr. Krosnick. “It’s a guy who made up data.”

And yet the alleged sin, in both cases, has been deception. In politics anything goes; not so in academe. Researchers who take the tools of experimentation out of the laboratory and into the field walk a fine line between observing the game, and playing it.

Again, what this misses is the way that the institutional transformation of academe has created significant pressures for researchers to seek out sources of funding and align themselves with the questions that matter to the funders. Put it another way: The Supreme Court decision in Caperton v. Massey involved a West Virginia Supreme Court decision in a mining industry controversy. The US Supreme Court got involved because Don Blankenship, the owner of Massey Energy, inserted himself into a campaign for a state Supreme Court seat by paying for ads insinuating that one candidate was friendly to child molesters. These ads contributed to the election of the Massey-friendly candidate and Massey prevailing in the lawsuit (the USSC ultimately ruled he should have recused himself). Now, think of what could be learned if political scientists were brought on board to participate in Blankenship’s independent media blitz? We might be able to learn from the inside precisely how much voters are persuaded by ads suggesting a candidate will give free rein to pedophiles. If political scientists had been brought on board by Karl Rove for the 2000 South Carolina primary, maybe we could have learned from the inside exactly how much voters were influenced by Rove’s push polls that insinuated John McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock. In the coming election cycle, political scientists could run all kinds of experiments to see whether voters respond to the message that Hillary Clinton murdered Vince Foster or that the government is using chemtrails for mind control.

We could know. Would we be better off? Would this indicate the discipline of political science engaging with the public or simply with interested non-academic actors?

“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?

Net Neutrality is an Urban Issue Too

We tend to think of the internet as a placeless space–an experiential reality that transcends geography in connecting people and information globally. However, the internet is really a place (warning: somewhat crude humor). And, apologies to Mr. Chappelle, it’s a real rather than a metaphorical place in the sense that its traffic is handled by servers and transmission facilities that occupy space on the earth. The internet is also a place in the extent that its usage varies among human beings occupying space on the earth. More to the point, places are (or are not) on the internet to the extent that their populations use (or don’t) the internet. The digital divide is a geographical divide as well as a social one. As the Pew Center for Research reports, rural areas have disproportionate numbers of people who don’t use the Internet. In the aggregate, urban and suburban areas have the same proportion of non-users, about 14%. However, this aggregation ignores the tremendous socioeconomic variation within cities and among diverse suburbs. Consider another risk factor for the digital divide: wealth.

If you have a college degree or live in a high income household, you’re much more likely to use the internet. Only 4% of college graduates do not use the internet compared with 41% of those without a high school degree. And only 4% of those with a household income of $75,000 or more don’t go online, versus 24% of those earning less than $30,000 per year.

These differences suggest that there are many suburbs and urban neighborhoods where Internet usage is virtually 100%, and many where it is very low. Further, statistics about internet usage obscure something more important: members of minority groups and low-income internet users are much more likely to use the internet in facilities like public libraries.

Which is why today’s decision by the FCC to regulate the Internet as a public utility is so significant. Most people rightly argue that Net Neutrality is important for the free flow of ideas, without restriction by network providers. But the decision also took a stand that truly recognizes that the internet is a public utility like drinking water or roads. Denial of access to that utility equals a denial of full participation in the society. It affects individuals and it affects communities that incur the costs of that denial on a social level.

Carl Smith’s wonderful book City Water, City Life made the point quite elegantly that part of the political movement to create public waterworks in American cities was the recognition by elites that they bore the cost (materially and physically from disease, and aesthetically from “filth”) that accrued when the public lacked access to clean water.

If cities bear the human capital and employment costs of the digital divide, why shouldn’t they likewise act to provide broadband access to their residents? Per Rebecca Ruiz and Steve Lohr at the Times:

Also at the Thursday meeting, the F.C.C. approved an order to pre-empt state laws that limit the build-out of municipal broadband Internet services. The order focuses on laws in two states, North Carolina and Tennessee, but it would create a policy framework for other states. About 21 states, by the F.C.C.’s count, have laws that restrict the activities of community broadband services.

Here, you can see where municipalities have acted to create public broadband, and where they have been preempted from doing so by state legislation, frequently aided by the templates helpfully provided by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

This interference with municipal power to provide needed utilities is nothing new. It’s been a recurrent response to cities asserting broader powers in order to provide for their residents’ needs. Want to know more? Gerald Frug’s book City Making: Building Communities Without Building Walls is a pretty good place to start, and his discussion of the idea that limits on city power have served as limits on the ability of particular classes of city residents (minorities, the poor, immigrants) to make claims on public resources leads to an interesting discussion of the legal architecture of spatial injustice in metropolitan areas. Though, if you want something more recent, Frug and fellow law professor David Barron have produced City Bound: How States Stifle Urban Innovation. Looks like I’ll have to read it now, particularly since it addresses Atlanta’s relationship to the State of Georgia, a particular interest of mine.


This post was occasioned by a confluence of two events. I recently finished Carl Smith’s wonderful book City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago, and a 93 year-old water main in west Los Angeles ruptured, sending up to two feet of flood water across Sunset Boulevard and parts of UCLA’s Westwood campus, including the famous Pauley Pavilion basketball arena. Although I’m sure my reading of Smith had no causal effect on the water main rupture (that would be a result of the combination of chemistry, physics, and systemic neglect of public infrastructure), I can’t let such a wonderful coincidence go by without comment (for somewhat more pointed comment, see Charlie Pierce).

Smith’s book is a clever and well-developed synthesis of several strains of urban historiography. He connects the kind of infrastructural history of waterworks and institutional history of public health and sanitary movements associated with Joel Tarr’s pathbreaking work to the analysis of the creation of a public city through infrastructure and governance developed by reform intellectuals like Frederic Howe and later historians like Thomas Bender. Smith further considers the way that ideas, expressed in public through polemic, the rhetoric of water boards’ annual reports, and even art commemorating and monumentalizing the establishment of municipal water service as a kind of secular urban miracle, drove the development of infrastructure and governing authority and helped to make clean and safe water a taken-for-granted part of American urban life.

This is no mere history of waterworks (though it does shed new light on the efforts to establish them in three cities). Smith makes insightful arguments about how the struggle to provide water changed the meaning and experience of urban life, physically, politically, and ideologically. One key way, Smith argues, that it did so was through changing the way that urban dwellers related to time. Specifically, when cities committed resources through bonded debt to build waterworks, they compelled their residents to accept a financial burden on behalf of future generations of residents (as well as on behalf of other members of an urban collective in their own day), and the elites who frequently championed and shepherded the idea of waterworks to fruition developed novel and sophisticated appeals to historical immortality, family morality, and self-interest to encourage residents, and especially those of means, who would bear much of the financial cost, to embrace that burden, and to justify extending it to the future.

 The borrowing demanded by waterworks inspired bold and ingenious invocations of history and time that characterized a debt as a bequest or endowment for which future residents should be grateful, not as a burden they should resent…. The Watering Committee [of Philadelphia, in 1799] pointed out that people living in the city in years to come would be “justly made to pay, in some proportion, for the benefit they would receive.” A water loan should be viewed as a gift to them, not an encumbrance, since it did no less than make a greater Philadelphia possible. (211-12)

Smith’s work takes on a particularly tragic resonance in light of the LA rupture which, to be honest, is receiving attention mostly because it flooded a famous sports arena, rather than for what it says about our collective capacity to connect our own interests to others in our place and time and those whose lives will be shaped in the future by our present actions. In California and across the country, Americans have turned the idea of committing future generations to public infrastructure on its head, deciding now to abandon our water, sewer, road, and communications systems and tell our progeny to decide on their own if they want to fix it. Today, with near-zero interest rates, we could be deciding on behalf of our grandchildren to issue infrastructure bonds that would help guarantee the movement of people, goods, and ideas, and ensure the provision of clean water and the safe evacuation of sewage from our homes. I don’t think they’d resent us for it, even if we used some of the money to make some self-congratulatory statues in our own honor (which the Philadelphian waterworks champions of the late 18th century certainly did). Imagine if Philadelphians in 1799 had watched Fox News….

It’s also worth noting that the development of water works required urban elites and ordinary residents to wrestle with and find pragmatic solutions to allocating costs for water service. While home usage was amenable to a user fee model that continued the idea of private responsibility, building capacity for public uses of water like fire protection defied all efforts to assign costs to individual beneficiaries, becoming a true public good. Further, while many debated how to link payment to usage, the public health promises of clean water in an age of deadly epidemic disease raised an opposite point–that access to clean water could be construed as a right and entitlement of habitation of a city that couldn’t be denied to individuals for humane reasons and that should not be withheld for the benefit of the city as a whole.

To distribute water without charge was never a serious option…. At the same time, however, no humane community could deny an individual access to water even if that person could not afford to pay for it. In short, figuring out fees for water, while it entailed financial considerations that were challenging for technical reasons, also posed more abstract questions of individual and collective obligations and rights. (93)

In our contemporary terms, residents of nineteenth century Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago established, sometimes unwittingly and not without the recurrent expression of contrary opinion, that access to clean water was a human right. Today the United Nations “recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” The appointed emergency management of the city of Detroit, of course, disagrees, and has ordered the termination of water service to 17,000 homes and businesses for delinquency on water bills. John Nichols estimates that there are up to 90,000 low income Detroit families who may face a water shutoff over water bills that have continued to rise under pressure from bond investors and emergency managers to shore up the finances of the city’s water services. This might mean up to 300,000 Detroiters and 40% of water customers.

Smith’s thesis is that an “infrastructure of ideas” as much as an infrastructure of pumps, pipes, and spigots, brought water into the fabric of urban life. It was once unthinkable to deny access to water because of the inability to pay, as it was once unthinkable to make one generation’s investment in infrastructure a casualty of a later generation’s refusal to pay the upkeep.  Read Smith’s book and reflect on the consequences of abandoning the accumulated infrastructure of ideas of two centuries.

Smith, Carl S. City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Irregularly Recurring Quote of the Day

From the introduction of Christina Hanhardt’s Safe SpaceGay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (Duke, 2013):

[i]n mooring a dominant understanding of sexual identity to place, the promotion and protection of gay neighborhoods have reinforced the race and class stratification of postwar urban space…. this has been enabled by the simultaneously flexible and fixed language of threat, in which violence is imagined as the central risk-and thus the defining feature– of gay visibility: the key term of mainstream LBGT politics since the 1970s. It is therefore impossible to understand LGBT political history outside of the social and spatial restructuring of U.S. cities during this time. Nor can one fully understand changing spatial development patterns apart from LBGT politics, especially as white gay men continue to be evoked as arbiters of quality in urban life. (9)

This seems a provocative use of urban historical analysis to understand not only the seeming absorption of mainstream gay politics within a neoliberal and property-driven urbanism but also the ways that neoliberalism, globalism notwithstanding, has developed by appropriating the material and symbolic forms of the multicultural city.

Irregularly Recurring Quote of the Day

From Clarissa Rile Hayward’s How Americans Make Race: Stories, Institutions, Spaces (Cambridge, 2013):

By the later decades of the century, NAREB’s narrative of Americans as a home-owning people–a people whose good is served by state support for private, profit-driven development–functioned as a frame to many ordinary stories. When prospective home buyers considered moving to Wexner’s New Albany, they did not tell themselves “I plan to take advantage of public subsidies for private housing for the privileged, which I endorse as legitimate,” but instead, “It’s in my interest to move here,” and “I like this place.” (167)

Hayward’s most insightful observations in a work that is provocative throughout are that, contrary to some PoMo ideas that identities are fluid narrative constructions, certain narratives, rooted in individual and group interests, can be materialized and institutionalized so that even when elements of the narrative become “bad stories” that (if we’re being optimistic about society) violate contemporary ethical norms (“blacks lower property values and should be excluded”) or are internally incoherent (“the private market built the suburbs without help from the government”), they continue to frame the stories the privileged tell about their situations, thus depoliticizing what are in fact highly political decisions about the allocation of resources.

Chapter 5, “White Fences,” from which this quote is drawn, is really an impressive piece of scholarship, integrating a critical legal analysis of private school subsidy jurisprudence, a takedown of public choice theory, and a cogent set of thought experiments that demonstrate that public schools in elite suburbs are the functional, moral, and political equivalent of “segregation academies” though of course are unrecognized as such.

OAH Reading: Carlton Basmajian on the Atlanta Regional Commission

I’m here at the OAH meeting in Atlanta, getting ready to give a talk on the complexities of black political positions on metropolitan consolidation and annexation in the 1970s. The typical discussion on the matter frames it as a conflict between the need to take in more territory and tax base and the black political imperative to avoid diluting the black vote as it became a majority in the city electorate. This framing is too binary and simplified, because it ignores the way that taking positions and advancing policies on annexation was a strategic maneuver that could demonstrate the bona fides of black politicians to compromise “black” interests and support policies the business elite favored. It also conceals the fact that many black politicians believed that a properly tailored annexation plan could both expand the city’s fiscal base and preserve black power even if it took in tens of thousands of affluent whites. And, even more subtly, black politicians had to avoid playing up that belief in order to make it look like they were actually making a political sacrifice.

My talk sort of tails off at the point where black city and state politicians drift apart on the annexation question. After the 1970s, a window closes, and the region and the state government become less interested in annexation and political boundaries (until relatively recently, with the push to split Fulton County).

A new book, Carlton Wade Basmajian’s  Atlanta Unbound: Enabling Sprawl Through Policy and Planning (Temple, 2013) helps to explain why in a clever and provocative way. The reason that the metropolitan area has fragmented more and momentum for consolidation has failed, Basmajian contends, is successful regional planning.

Wait, you might say. Successful regional planning in Atlanta, the land of sprawl? Yes. In fact, that landscape of sprawl is the purposeful creation of the Atlanta Regional Commission, chartered by the state in 1971 to coordinate the planning required to secure state and federal funding for the key infrastructural supports of growth: water and transportation. In both areas, the ARC managed information, planning, and political lobbying to create infrastructure that supported sprawl beyond Atlanta and Fulton County. This cemented a growth coalition that was not dependent on either the downtown business and financial leadership or the black political regimes that followed Maynard Jackson’s election. It also ensured that the demographics of Georgia shifted decisively. Instead of Atlanta becoming a dominant bloc in the legislature, its suburbs grew to hold significant power.

ARC was particularly effective in steering growth, Basmajian argues, by representing itself as an objective analyst of growth (presumably a natural process), and not as an advocate for any particular pattern. Technology was a key tool not only for planning, but more importantly for politics. In a section that should be eerily familiar to anyone concerned with the vogue for “big data” and “analytics” today, he demonstrates that the ARC constructed its 1976 Regional Development Plan with computer modeling, and stressed this fact as a source of credibility. This technology, at the cutting edge at the time,

reduced the complexity of a metropolitan region to a comparatively small set of variables, perhaps a necessary step in modeling complex social systems, [but] their popularity lay in their ability to provide seemingly precise, objective projections of the distribution of the population, employment, and land use at defined intervals of years with apparent objectivity (91).

The consequence, however, was a set of growth models that embedded faulty assumptions and prevailing conventional wisdom to “project” a demographic donut with a hollowed-out Atlanta at its center. This projection justified the formation of water and transportation planning to serve the edges of the donut,

privileging policies that matched projections of sprawling growth while hiding meaningful alternatives (86).


ARC and its 1976 RDP illustrate how federal policy merged with state and local politics to create a regional planning agenda marked by a self-fulfilling prophecy of sprawl (87).

This, as Basmajian ably shows, resulted in drastic changes not only in the region’s landscape, but in its political economy too. The book is well worth a read.


Irregularly Recurring Quote of the Day

From the introduction to Clarissa Rile Hayward’s How Americans Make Race: Stories, Institutions, Spaces (Cambridge, 2013):

Nevertheless, people do not only learn their identities in narrative form. They learn them practically, as well, as they navigate institutional settings structured by identitarian norms and expectations, and as they experience corporeally the material forms in which those norms and expectations are objectified.

I’m intrigued by this formulation both because it places racialization and because it seems to push back against certain forms of soft multiculturalism that insist on the fluidity of identity or its voluntary nature. As a historian, I work to reconstruct the agency and consciousness of people in the past, and am particularly concerned with the racialized metropolis in the post-civil rights era. This was a time when narrative was in flux, and, in places like Atlanta, segments of an urban Black political elite did tend toward the triumphal in the story they told about race and place, while old institutions changed slowly and metropolitan expansion (white flight and the inmigration of a half million whites to the Atlanta suburbs in the 1980s and early 1990s) created new ones with a new set of identitarian norms.


I have occasionally written about the more risible claims of urban transformation advanced by the TechBro elite. But this piece by David Noriega (with a big nod to Nathan Newman) examines the deeper political economy of Silicon Valley as an artifact of the technologically enabled speculation that has driven up housing values for decades. Since Prop 13’s limits on upward reassessment and tax rates took effect in 1979, valley cities have modeled an entrepreneurial neoliberal governance model whose fruits are familiar: an ungodly expensive city without adequate basic services.

Read the whole series, starting with the introduction