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Election fallout: Republicans offer different solutions, but metro challenges haven’t changed

Metro areas, says the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz, should become laboratories of pragmatism, fueled not by ideology but by “what works.”
Steve Berg: Four finalists selected in competition to design Minneapolis’ Upper Riverfront

In the 1967 classic “Cool Hand Luke,” the Paul Newman character spends most of the movie trying to “get his mind right.” Elections like last Tuesday’s are a little like that.

Those of us who write (and read) about urban-design issues know that the election result, no matter how momentous, didn’t change the basic challenges of the day. Our addiction to oil and other carbon fuels still holds the nation’s energy and foreign policies hostage. Our atmosphere continues to overheat with potentially dreadful consequences for future generations, no matter what the deniers say. Our inefficient growth patterns and transportation habits cannot be environmentally or fiscally sustained. Our economy cannot deliver the high-value jobs that Americans need so badly. The income gap between rich and poor continues to grow in ways that damage both the society and the economy.

What has changed over the last several days is that a new conservative tide offers a different set of solutions. “Getting your mind right” around those solutions is the hard part.

Perhaps it’s in the nature of designers to favor technical fixes. President Obama took office in 2009 with a clear mandate, a congressional majority and a menu of technically appealing, Washington-based answers: Burning too much carbon? Tax its consumption and provide incentives for alternate forms of energy and transportation. Got a problem with housing and jobs? Keep the banks solvent, provide mortgage relief, extend unemployment benefits and ramp up job training.

It was a menu that, without a relentless marketing effort, was open to attack, especially as the recovery faltered, the deficit soared, and the administration seemed off on an errand to fix something (health care) that didn’t seem directly related to the nation’s overwhelming need: jobs. And so, last Tuesday’s “shellacking,” as Obama put it, was largely self-inflicted. But that’s beside the point now. The point now is to try to grasp just how the new conservative agenda proposes to meet the challenges mentioned above.

The Republican manifesto
The centerpiece seems to be deficit reduction, which would be accomplished by slashing government’s discretionary spending and reforming entitlements as a way to offset tax cuts for the wealthy and a further relaxation of regulations on business. (Liberals point out that that the Bush administration’s formula of low taxes and lax Wall Street regulation got us into the current mess, but that argument has been lost.) The hope, then, is that the wealthy, newly freed from their tax burdens, will begin to invest not just in yachts but in job creation, preferably in the United States. That, in turn, will trigger a series of other events: Main Street will revive; the economy will snap out of its doldrums; the deficit will begin to fall; a chastened government sector will revert to its minimalist purpose (mainly defense), and the private sector will step in to address the great challenges of the day, including those listed above.

It becomes an article of faith, then, that private enterprise will solve the carbon problem with nuclear power and natural gas; that big oil will step aside to celebrate new fleets of electric cars running on privately funded toll roads, and that private enterprise will, on its own, engage in the kind of research and development and education reform required to create high-value jobs; and that the availability of those jobs will inspire the poor to try harder and join a once-again expanding middle class. It’s an appealing narrative.

Most of this is set out in the Republican manifesto, “A Pledge to America,” which offers inspiring rhetoric about “ending the attack on free enterprise,” “reining in the red tape factory in Washington, D.C.,” and “repealing the government takeover of health care.” It sketches the outlines of a far slimmer federal government, one that, if you add specific suggestions from Rep. Paul Ryan for trimming Social Security and Medicare benefits for future recipients, begins to “restore sanity” to the nation’s capital. Cutting military spending is not contemplated because “we will never apologize for advancing the cause of freedom and democracy around the world.”

More ideology in a pragmatic world?
What strikes me most about this manifesto, or perhaps any manifesto from the right or left, is that it is highly ideological in what is quickly becoming a post-ideological world; that it is profoundly idealistic in a world moving rapidly toward pragmatism. The right, especially, seems nostalgic for an America that no longer exists — although it may be correct in its critique of centralized power. There may no longer be, for example, a national economy in the way we once thought about it, but rather a series of metro economies that compete with similar metro economies across the nation and world.

Those highly diverse metro economies rise and fall depending upon how well they compete. The analogy is that of an ecosystem or, perhaps, the Internet. Everything is connected to everything else. In that sense, the local environment is important not just because it’s nice to have clean water and big trees but because it offers an attractive platform for investment, wealth creation and broader prosperity. If there’s a problem standing in the way — say, a rigid federal system or a hopelessly nostalgic mindset — you find ways to move around it.

There are no universally correct formulas. A metro region’s strength may be drawn from both left and right — a greater sense of entrepreneurship, for example, coupled with targeted pubic investments to maximize strengths and shore up weaknesses.

This column has spent time recently with Thomas Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, and Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, as well as with new books from Joel Kotkin and Richard Florida about the future of cities.

Recovering to what?
A common theme has been how, after a brutal recession, to retool metro economies to meet the challenges surrounding energy, environment, prosperity and equity listed in this piece’s second paragraph. A common answer is that we cannot go back to an economy based primarily on financial speculation. “The economy that got us into this recession is not the economy to which we need to recover,” Katz said.

Bruce Katz
Bruce Katz

The answer probably lies in “making things again,” he said, particularly ideas, some of which get turned into high-value manufactured goods for export. Metro areas, Katz said, should become laboratories of pragmatism, fueled not by ideology but by “what works.” State governments, even though they face an unprecedented $125 billion shortfall, must be careful not to cut spending not just for the sake of cuts, but also to carefully target public investments for greatest probable return.

“We cannot just cut our way to growth,” he said. A state with a large research university, for example, would be foolish to starve its best ticket to discovery, innovation and new business activity. The Twin Cities’ greatest weakness, he told me, is its failure to commercialize ideas in the way that, say, San Diego and Austin have created local wealth around their university campuses.

MSP metro needs a strategy to compete
It’s important for metro economies to know “who they are in the global market,” and “not to get lost in the ideological noise” of Washington politics, Katz said. Some states and metro regions will succeed at this, and some will not. The Midwestern “auto zone” and parts of the Sun Belt hit hardest by the real estate crisis will have a difficult time crawling out of their holes, he said. What about the Twin Cities? Katz left the question hanging.

The people upon whom I rely to generate this column think we have a good shot at recovering and competing, largely because we know our strengths: A strong work ethic, a productive work force, a solid research university, a lively cultural scene, easy access to nature and a relatively high quality of life. And we know our weaknesses, too: a harsh climate, relatively high taxes, an inadequate transportation system, an inefficient development pattern, a huge racial gap on income and achievement, an inability to commercialize ideas, and a propensity to talk rather than act.

Last Tuesday’s election shifted the balance of political power in both Washington and St. Paul at a critical time. New approaches are on the way, but the challenges are unchanged. This column’s mission, as before, is to discuss how best to improve the urban design of this cold, remote place, not to advance any ideology but to help Minneapolis-St. Paul to remain a metro area worthy of recovery, reinvestment, competitiveness and prosperity.

More reading:
Bruce Katz on the “Pragmatic Caucus”

Alan Berube on education and jobs in metro America

Katz et al. on export growth

Katz et al. on innovation clusters
Thomas Fisher on design thinking