The New Chicago Way: The Wholly Surveilled City

22 11 2011

A friend sent me a note asking if the recent Automated Speed Enforcement system (ASES) approved by the General Assembly at the behest of Chicago’s Mayor and Police Superintendent would make Lake Shore Drive fully subject to electronic monitoring, since almost the entire lakefront is a public park, and the bill was pitched as enforcing speed limits near parks and schools, “for the children.” The good news is the answer is no, because Lake Shore Drive is exempted from the enacting legislation, known informally as SB956. The bad news is that Lake Shore Drive may be the only unmonitored bit of the city.

The ASES would not apply to Lake Shore Drive, but it would apply to almost the entire city. Some interesting things about the bill:

First, the way it defines an “automated speed enforcement system.” That is as, “a photographic device, radar device, laser device, or other electrical or mechanical device or devices installed or utilized in a safety zone and designed to record the speed of a vehicle and obtain a clear photograph or other recorded image of the vehicle and the vehicle’s registration plate.”

Which brings us pretty seamlessly to “secondly.” Secondly, the bill defines a safety zone as any “area” that is within 1/8th of a mile (or a city block) from the property line of any public or private school or school-owned facility except central administrative buildings, and any park district owned property, except, again, for central administrative buildings. As you can imagine (see schools map below) that makes up a huge amount of the city–because the cut off isn’t just a block. The bill also provides, “However, if any portion of a roadway is within either one-eighth mile radius, the safety zone also shall include the roadway extended to the furthest portion of the next furthest intersection.” In other words, if a road falls within the a block of the property line of a school district or park district property, then the “safety zone” is extended to the next intersection, and through it.

Take a look at this map:

These are just the elementary schools.
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Your Dissatisfaction Is Your Fault

21 11 2011

There is a segment of the liberal establishment and activist community that is still going through some kind of post-partum depression. For nearly a year, there was this halycyon period, where popular and left-wing revulsion at the right coalesced disparate groups around then-Senator Obama, despite centrist behavior, corporate fundraising, and DC-establishment campaign apparatus. Finally, the liberal establishment was cool, for lack of a better word. The traditional left kaiboshed all the third-party talk and Kucinich-celebrating and everybody came together around a particularly skillful political salesman.

They want it back so badly you guys. So badly. Remember the good old days? Where activists and intellectuals put aside their skepticism and principles and threw their cash and energy at the establishment, and we all watched videos and cried and stuff? It must be that the extent to which the left is dissatisfied with the President (and Democrats generally) is calibrated precisely to the degree that those activist and thinkers are intellectually dishonest, naive, or, my favorite, “emo.”

But this rationalization that dissatisfaction is due to anything besides the facts that President Obama is killing U.S. citizens without due process, uninterested in prosecuting corporate criminals while exporting record numbers of immigrants, bringing Wall Street functionaries into his cabinet, and privatizing public schools is getting confusing.

If my tone seems dismissive, I don’t intend it that way. The impulses are rational. It’s also something of a forest/trees problem. When you spend all day around people who are there in the Committee meetings and halls of power tearing their hair out dealing with obstreperous opponents, casual denunciations of the President and Democrats in general can seem ill-informed or naifish. But take a breath and look at the big picture: either Democrats don’t actually want to pursue fundamental reform of our economy and society, or they do but are so wildly inept at it they can’t communicate it to a public that they insist “really” wants the same thing. In either case, they aren’t worthy of the support (and money) of activists.

The latest bit of this comes from a New Yorker article by Jonathan Chait. Chait is an apologist for the President, though he would consider himself merely a realist in the face of unhinged or intellectually dishonest critics. Chait argues that lefty dissatisfaction with the President comes from…well, I’m not wholly sure exactly what he means. Here’s his thesis statement:

Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president—indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious—but not with the real thing. The various theories of disconsolate liberals all suffer from a failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline. Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president—either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.

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Do We Need Property Rights Over Our Jobs?

17 11 2011

In my various doings, toss-abouts, and private follies, I’ve known many socialists or quasi-socialists. I don’t know how common that is, to know a lot of socialists; nor do I know if I actually do know “a lot,” since there are probably many people who know lots more. Seems like a lot to me. I guess any would seem like a lot.

Anyway, my point is to say that I always profoundly disagreed with them on a lot of things, but the big one—and the reason I could never be a socialist, or even a proper Marxist—is that I’m big on property. I think reasonably strong property rights are not just important, but fundamental to a working democracy and liberty generally. I think it’s so plainly obvious that it’s not even worth arguing about. Property rights are a funny thing though; libertarians—hard libertarian, not the vague Ron Paul-ish ones—take the extreme view that property rights precede all civil society. In other words, they are inviolably ours, to the degree that the state can have no powers that conflict with that right.

This isn’t a very common view; the Constitution itself gives the government the power of eminent domain in its 5th Amendment “takings clause.” The takings clause allows the government to take any property for a “public use” so long as it is done via due process and pays a “just compensation.” So our starting point, as a society, is that the right to and dominion over your property is not 100% absolute. The debate then settles in on what is an appropriate framework, or the optimal limits, for our property rights.

Consider two examples:

In the first, you are you. You work for a firm as, say, a designer of some kind. You lead a team, but don’t have any management authority. You’re there for five years. You get incremental raises every six months. You’re five years in, and you make $65,000 a year now, and pay about $18,000 in taxes. Now, a management position just under the executives, say, two levels above you, opens up. You interview and you get the job. Now you make $174,000 a year, and pay $55,000 in taxes, or a 5% greater rate. Is that fair?
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Obamacare and the Privatized Social Safety Net

16 11 2011

For all my discontent with “left neoliberalism” and its pervasive influence, it’s nice when you get some concrete specifics, as applied.

In my piece on the constitutionality of the individual mandate, I argued that the Affordable Care Act created a distressing precedent, whereby the government addresses inequality-causing market failures through broad requirements of consumers to protect profits as a precondition to regulations and requirements of capital. The administration’s thinking in creating the individual mandate was undergirded by left neoliberal preference for “market solutions,” as much as by an over-cautious political calculation whereby industry had to be placated before social ills could be addressed.

And lo and behold, unbeknownst to me, the Hon. Brett Kavanaugh, a D.C. Circuit Judge appointed by George W. Bush, was saying the same thing, although from the opposite perspective. In his dissent to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision upholding the Act’s Constitutionality, Kavanaugh characterizes the individual mandate as an example of legislative ingenuity in a new era of “privatized social services”:

The elected Branches designed this law to help provide all Americans with access to affordable health insurance and quality health care, vital policy objectives. This legislation was enacted, moreover, after a high-profile and vigorous national debate. Courts must afford great respect to that legislative effort and should be wary of upending it.

This case also counsels restraint because we may be on the leading edge of a shift in how the Federal Government goes about furnishing a social safety net for those who are old, poor, sick, or disabled and need help. The theory of the individual mandate in this law is that private entities will do better than government in providing certain social insurance and that mandates will work better than traditional regulatory taxes in prompting people to set aside money now to help pay for the assistance they might need later. Privatized social services combined with mandatory-purchase requirements of the kind employed in the individual mandate provision of the Affordable Care Act might become a blueprint used by the Federal Government over the next generation to partially privatize the social safety net and government assistance programs and move, at least to some degree, away from the tax-and-government-benefit model that is common now.

Courts naturally should be very careful before interfering with the elected Branches’ determination to update how the National Government provides such assistance. Cf. Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964); NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1 (1937). The significant implications of a Commerce Clause decision in this case – in either side’s favor – lead to this point: If we need not decide the Commerce Clause issue now, we should not decide the Commerce Clause issue now. I therefore would not strain to sidestep the Anti-Injunction Act.

(emphasis added)

In other words, Kavanaugh seems to be saying, the individual mandate may appear unconstitutional in the same way that the Civil Rights Act (Heart of Atlanta Motel) and the National Labor Relations Act (Jones & Laughlin Steel) did because it is novel, as they were. But novelty, or new-ness, isn’t proof of unconstitutionality; it may just augur a new era of legislative instruments. Kavanaugh, rightly I think, sees the Affordable Care Act as the first step in that new era: an era where the government, rather than redistributing wealth or restructuring economic relationships to address social ill, fuels capital’s ability to act on the assumption that the “spontaneous order” of consumer choice and entrepreneurial acumen will cure social ills.

You may believe this to be true, that it’ll work. But if you do, you have to contend with the fact that the empirical evidence for it is thin; for all the Great Society’s many failures, the replacement of tight regulatory regimes with preference for public-private partnerships and market mechanisms has seen an explosion in income inequality, economic insecurity, household debt, and the concentration of political power.

Mayor Emanuel’s First Budget Passes Unanimously

16 11 2011

The City Council voted today to pass Mayor Emanuel’s budget unanimously, 50-0. Chicago News Coop reporters Hunter Clauss and Dan Mihalopoulos described Aldermen’s comments as “near worshipful” though not without acknowledging the necessary pain that will come with cuts to front-line workers, library and mental services, and elsewhere.

The budget affects deep cuts, particularly around staffing, to close the $600+ million budget deficit the city faced. The budget came in at $6.3 billion. Aldermen lauded the Mayor for being inclusive in the planning process. While under Mayor Daley unanimous budget votes were often used as evidence that the Council was a mere “rubber stamp” for the Mayor’s prerogative, a unanimity does not necessarily entail that. Aldermen seemed to feel like they got their words in during the preparation process, which is arguably much more important than voting against the final budget. Tracking how the budget has changed from its initial form to today would be more instructive; unfortunately that process is not particularly transparent, or at least self-evident.

AFSCME Council 31, which represents thousands of city workers, released a statement upon passage of the budget bemoaning the deep cuts to basic and needed social services:

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A Primer on the Individual Mandate and Its Unfortunate Constitutionality

15 11 2011

The Supreme Court has granted certiorari to an appeal from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision holding the individual mandate, Section 1501 of the Affordable Care Act, to be unconstitutional. The case, United States Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida, looks at a number of issues arising from the bill, most of which are not of general interest, such as whether the federal Anti-Injunction Act prohibits challenges to the Affordable Care Act (probably not).

The big constitutional question at issue is whether Congress’ Commerce Clause powers allow it to compel people, “as a condition of residency in the United States” to purchase monthly health insurance coverage. It’s a big important question, because it is an unprecedented exercise of power by Congress, not in scope, but in form: where Congress has tried to achieve similar things in the past, it has typically either regulated producers or used its taxing powers, which is nearly infinite.

So here’s a bit of a primer to help you argue with the blowhard Randite at your office who thinks the individual mandate is slavery, as well as with your Democratic partisan former college roommate who thinks it’s the greatest thing since the New Deal.

What the Commerce Clause Has To Do With It

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution lays out Congress’ enumerated powers. Clause 3 specifies that Congress shall have power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.” This is the “Commerce Clause,” and it is made up of two broad areas: the more obvious facial power, to regulate commerce between parties in different states, and the “dormant” power to prohibit states from passing their own laws that would, in effect, regulate such commerce. In other words, regulating commerce between states is the sole province of the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. Congress, unlike state legislatures, has only those powers granted by the Constitution, whereas states have a “general police power” [PDF] that Congress does not.
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Technocracy & Doing It Like China

10 11 2011

In the 1980s, the last of the country’s New Deal era big-city political machines collapsed. As Nixon and subsequently Reagan starved cities of the federal money they were used to, the ability of political bosses to bestow largess, along with the maturation of a post-Civil Rights era generation splintered them fatally. After a brief window a new era of urban governance took hold, which preferred alliance with big money and technocracy. The Silicon Valley venture capitalist ethos captured the nation’s imagination.

Former Mayor Daley was in the vanguard of this transformation of city government. The Machine Lite he assembled had a particular emphasis on technocracy; the emphasis on “neighborhood democracy” and inclusive processes that characterized Harold Washington’s administration were discarded as needlessly bureaucratic, parochial, and “divisive,” unappealing traits for a city tired of the contentiousness of the Council Wars era. Technocrats were the answer: consolidate decision making under the Mayor, and let the Mayor appoint experts to make decisions based on their unique areas of expertise.

The trend in urban planning has been to emphasize centralized and comprehensive planning to avoid the type of regulatory uncertainty that supposedly inhibits efficient use of property and infrastructure. Efficiency is the holy grail; a recent article in Planning magazine criticized the “orgy of public process” that fatally interferes with efficiency; from Next American City:

Recent criticism of participation comes at a time when comparisons between American urban development and other models are particularly stark. This is especially true when looking at the speed and scale of new construction. Highlighting the contrast between American and Chinese cities, Thomas Friedman noted in a 2010 New York Times article that, “the comparisons start from the moment one departs Beijing’s South Station, a giant space-age building”.4 In his article, he notes: “With enough cheap currency, labor and capital – and authoritarianism – you can build anything in nine months.” Friedman’s argument is that the status quo approach to development in America isn’t working, a sentiment shared by Duany and Campanella, as well as a large number of other commentators. As Campanella stated in a talk at Harvard: “Just as China could use more of the American gavel of justice and democratic process, we could certainly use a bit more of that very effective Chinese sledgehammer.”

Contemporary concerns that public participation slows development bear similarity to arguments voiced in the 1970s, during the Cold War. Then, the rival economic superpower was not China, but the Soviet Union. As Joseph Stiglitz points out: “In the years immediately following World War II, there was a belief…in a tradeoff between democracy and growth. The Soviet Union, it was argued, had grown faster than the countries of the West, but in order to do so had jettisoned basic democratic rights.”5 Stiglitz continues by arguing that such a tradeoff, between participation and growth, does not exist and that, in contrast, participation is a key element of sustainable economic development. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that American competitiveness has been more sustainable than the Soviet Union’s over the long-term, in part due to the country’s robust democratic norms. Keeping this history in mind, is it any more prudent in the current recession to think that rolling back participation will be a boon for American cities over the long term?

This odd interest in replicating the Chinese model reminded me of a story that came out in the first month of the Emanuel administration, and which we covered:

On Monday, the Tribune reported on Mayor Emanuel’s first weekend in office, spent working with the University of Chicago on a package of zoning and permitting issues. The University is in a constant state of reshaping Hyde Park according to its growth and development plans, and the City wants to ensure that those plans jive with the the City’s and resident’s hopes and plans for the area.


It’s telling that what motivated Emanuel to take such action to streamline the process was a comment by Zimmer that his university was able to build something in China in 6 months, but that simpler permits in Chicago had taken almost two years.

Yes, things are easier to permit in China, because China is a totalitarian one-party state. For those projects the state likes, permitting shouldn’t be a hassle. If something doesn’t jive with the Communist Party’s vision, though, I wonder if those wait times would increase. They are able to “streamline” things precisely because there is none of the hassle of democracy. Top-down decision making is not merely an option, it is all there is.

This is a distressing trend, frankly. Public process is not a box to be checked, it is integral to sustainable and smart decision making. As the American City article points out, involving people in the process may slow things down, but in the long term it ensures that planning decisions are made that incorporate the community’s varied interests that may be invisible to a technocrat or group of technocrats, particularly when they come from another place and are parachuted in from place to place.

From American City:

One early systematic study showing the benefits of participation on outcomes was conducted by Richard Ellis and coauthors in 1981. Based on data collected from 1965 onwards, they examined 105 wastewater projects and found that participation and project outcomes were positively correlated. A 2000 study by Beierle, of 239 environmental projects, showed that stakeholder participation improved decisions and outcomes. Similarly, in a study of 121 water projects across 49 countries, Jonathan Isham and colleagues at the World Bank demonstrated that participation was associated with improved project outcomes. Similar results have been found in other contexts, as diverse as environmental policy making in the United States and water provision in India. Importantly, these studies look at project success in broader terms than simple speed of implementation or construction. They also look at issues such as user satisfaction and the long-term economic and social sustainability of projects.

The concept of “efficiency” is problematic only insofar as it is typically defined from the point of view of the developer. Speed of construction and shortening the time between concept and implementation saves the developer money in myriad ways, but that can’t be the only measure, particular given the unique character of property and urban space. A development’s capacity for generating tax revenue is not its only impact on the surrounding area, particularly in the long term. More intangible things such as community character, quality of life, and infrastructure stress, among others, are inherently a part of the development of property, particularly in dense urban settings.

Hyde Park/Kenwood are perfect examples. Efficiency for the University of Chicago may be a good thing, but it is not automatically good for the communities that surround it. These are reasonable debates to be had, but what should raise red flags of concern is that we are measuring our planning and development practices against those of an authoritarian one-party state with an almost maniacal growth-at-all-costs inclination.