Today in Unrealizable Hopes: A Plea to End the Two-Party System in the USA

Apr 20th, 2010
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By the standards of American political discourse, the recent first-ever televised debate between Britain’s candidates for Prime Minister was a polite and muted affair.  Gordon Brown bumbled through with his trademark style of dreary pragmatism, while the favored David Cameron stumbled badly due to his insistence on looking good and speaking with all the policy detail of a marshmallow.  Yet it was Nick Clegg – the leader of the third-party Liberal Democrats – who stole the show, and he now has a credible shot to throw a bomb into Britain’s two-party rule; recent polls have each party at roughly 33%.  Not since George Hamilton Gordon led the Peelites to victory in 1852 has anyone other than the Liberals (under Labour, Liberal, or Whig) or the Conservatives ( under the Tories) held power, and even then the Whig/Tory binary predates even the existence of the USA.




The UK’s Liberal Democrats are what many American third-parties wish they could be.  They claim the allegiance of some 20% of the UK electorate, yet the first-past-the-post system that the UK shares with us prevents them from gaining many parliamentary seats.  Yet this is their big chance, for a hung parliament (in which no party garners and absolute majority) is quite possible, and would force either Labour or the Tories into the sort of coalitions to which Europeans are accustomed yet which are foreign to most Anglophones.  So fed up are the Brits with the hypocrisy and failure of their duplicitous social contract (unbridled capitalism AND and an unlimited welfare state) that for the first time in ages Britain might be on the verge of a fundamental reorganization of government.  As The Economist has said,

The New Labour model, which aimed at social justice paid for by the fruits of more or less free-market capitalism, ran out of puff roughly when the money did.

(Poll Screengrab Courtesy of The Guardian)




Here’s a modest idea:  people’s ideas matter, and the structure of their representative government should adequately reflect the breadth of those ideas. One of the secrets to understanding the USA is to recognize that while we are incredibly diverse, our ideological diversity is heavily weighted at the poles of political thought. The USA is a country of structural polarity. We have the best and worst ideas, the best and least educated people,  the most structural income inequality among OECD member states, the most languages spoken among OECD countries, etc…  and yet we are served by two political parties?  Two parties whose core motivations are to speak loudly and often about nothing at all?  Two parties that believe the incredible delusion that their half of the American people are right behind them?

Nothing could be further from the truth.  We are locked into our polarity for fear of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  If only one end of the ideological spectrum tries to diversify political speech, the other side can easily gain power by consolidating its allegiance into a single party.  Clinton became president in 1992 because Perot split conservatives, while Bush rode to a court-aided victory in 2000 because of Nader’s share of Florida votes.  Both men, and the third-party idea they represent, have been unintelligently criticized ever since.

* But what does a representative sample of ‘Democrat-ness’ look like?  A moderately-conservative Blue Dog?  A moderate Social Democrat like Obama?  A rabid and incoherent progressive like Dennis Kucinich?

* Who is the typical Republican?  A David Brooks-style softie who loves free markets but could care less about people’s bedrooms?  The country-club Romneyites?  The snarky George Will constitutionalists?  Consensus-seekers such as Olympia Snowe and Lindsey Graham?  Pathetic bloviators such as John Boehner, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, et al?  Social warriors such as Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback?  Small-government libertarians Ron Paul and Bob Barr?

Realistic hope for a diversified American politics would require that the fringes of our society make a joint pact. A large bloc of progressives would have to contract in good faith with the Tea Party Right to throw a bomb into American politics by diffusing the power of Republicans and Democrats simultaneously.  Both Libertarian America and Social Democracy America are underrepresented in our system, and they simply deserve an authentic voice without forced integration into our two traditional parties.  Without such a deal-with-the-devil, no doubt abhorrent to both sides, the Prisoner’s Dilemma reigns, the free riders win, and we don’t stand a chance.  We’ll be forever condemned to the vapid spoutings of John Boehner, Harry Reid, cable news, and other intellectual scars on our cultural souls.  Yet watch Britain on May the 6th.  Something exciting might just happen.


In Appreciation of Washington’s Rural Transit

Apr 13th, 2010

The politics of public transportation frequently reflect an understandable but potentially pernicious urban bias. The commuter and intercity transit markets seem to attract the most attention from both planners and armchair futurists alike. In Washington State, for instance, most of the transit buzz concerns rail expansion in the Seattle area. This is all sensible, of course, because density is the fundamental requirement for the success and efficiency of transit services, and cities will naturally draw such investment to themselves. But often lost in the mix is recognition of the importance – or even the existence! – of rural transit services.

Each land-use style generally has its own transit focus. Cities care most about their intra-urban needs, while suburbs focus almost exclusively on the commuter market. Urbanites often incorrectly assume that transit availability will diminish steadily the further one gets from a city center, and that rural counties will offer no transit at all. Those with outdoor inclinations may think that accessing things like beaches and trailheads may be impossible without a car, such as this recent comment on the Seattle Transit Blog:

You just hate cars and don’t even have one! How do you get to see the natural glories of our state without one? Rely on going with someone else who has one then? I don’t have that option I’m afraid so if I want to go to the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, I take my car. I could take the train to Mt Vernon but there are only two trains a day.

That comment got me thinking: either there is very little rural transit or it exists yet most people just don’t know about it. So I started working on a couple of sketch maps that detail everywhere one can travel in Washington State on public transit. It quickly became clear that cities, suburbs, and rural areas provide impressive services relative to their size. Yet connections between systems are generally terrible:  between the cities and the countryside are the Transit Deserts of the exurbs. In Western Washington the largest Transit Desert is the stretch of I-5 between Tumwater and Vancouver. The respective counties – Lewis, Cowlitz, and to a lesser extent Clark – are conservative rural counties with distinct identities that have nonetheless become more exurban over time. Transit here is restricted to limited local-only routes and a couple (only twice-weekly!) intercity routes run by other counties! Despite being along the major north-south thoroughfare in the state (I-5), they offer far less transit service than both the sparsely populated coastal counties to their west AND the rural counties east of the Cascade mountains. If one wanted to travel, say, from Vancouver BC to Portland OR exclusively on public buses, it would be easier to do so via the Olympic Peninsula and Astoria than down I-5!

Here’s a draft of the first map. It shows all taxpayer-funded transit services (at scale) in Washington State.  It’s  not intended to show frequency, quality, connections, or anything else except the fact that IT EXISTS.

All public buses, ferries, Amtrak, commuter rail, and light rail are included. Non-public services such as Northwest Trailways and Greyhound are excluded. There is an impressive amount of rural coverage. Whatcom Transit has three routes (25X, 70X, 71X) to the Canadian Border. Skagit Transit (#717) and Community Transit (#230) both pierce the foothills of the Cascades.  Clallam Transit, Grays Harbor Transit, and Pacific Transit provide comprehensive service on the entire Olympic Peninsula.  Despite the paucity of weekend services, the connections between ferries and buses (see SailRail map below) in Puget Sound are generally convenient. East of the Cascades, Link Transit serves an enormous area from Leavenworth to Chelan.

The second map is intended to be more useful.  Grossly not-to-scale, and omitting a great deal more than the first map, map #2 is a topological rendering of Greater Puget Sound intended to show the interconnectivity of bus, rail, and ferries.  There’s just so much more out there than people realize!

Please, if you are in these areas do try to utilize these services, and go out of your way to thank operators and county planners whose work clearly goes unsung.  Services are perennially threatened – both Kitsap Transit and Community Transit have eliminated Sunday service – and they could use your patronage and support!


Vancouver: SkyTrain All the Way to UBC, An Illustrated Argument

Apr 4th, 2010

Vancouver really likes itself.  If that wasn’t clear from Canada’s “Own the Podium” campaign, it should be clear enough from Mayor Gregor Robertson‘s breathless exclamations that his city is “the greenest and most sustainable in the world!” Much of this self-regard comes from Vancouver’s exceptionally high-density and its 100% reliable SkyTrain network.  Credit is definitely due here, for Vancouver’s density is indeed some of the most livable in the world.  If you walk through the West End (say from Davie to Robson along Broughton St), you would be excused for feeling a bit strange.  You are surrounded by narrow, tall, expensive apartment buildings and yet you feel aesthetically as though you’re on any suburban street.  It’s just blocks from the downtown core, but it’s quiet and very pleasant.

The SkyTrain is truly remarkable as well.  It’s primarily a suburban system connecting downtown with the eastern suburbs and the airport.  It’s 3 lines are completely automated and driverless and run at frequencies of 5 minutes or better.

Yet most neglected in this cocktail of transit and density is the fact that the city itself outside of downtown has no Rapid Transit to speak of.  Cambie St only has the Canada Line because it connects to YVR Airport.  Traveling east-west on transit within the city is a miserable experience (while on foot it’s wonderful).  The crowded thoroughfares of Vancouver’s west side are Broadway and 4th Ave, and neither have rail transit.  What they do have is extremely frequent, extremely crowded bus service that attempts to mimic the capacity of a rail system.

The ever-thoughtful Jarrett over at Human Transit provides a nice introduction to the issue here. The current terminus for the Millenium Line is in between an old railyard and a community college, and it’s an enormous waste of capacity.  Travelling from Brentwood to YVR Airport would require that the rider travel downtown and make two transfers, while the completion of the Millenium Line under Broadway would bypass downtown and allow East-South transfers about 20 minutes faster.  People balking at the enormous cost of tunneling under Broadway advocate simply “completing the grid” by extending the Millenium Line to Cambie (or perhaps Granville) St, or even worse, running surface light-rail down a crowded and narrow Broadway.  Unfortunately, even Jarrett takes the bait:

Dividing the corridor into two overlapping services may seem inefficient, but in this corridor Meggs may have a point. One problem with the SkyTrain subway all the way to UBC is that west of Arbutus St (about 2 km west of the Canada Line) the ambient density drops, and we go through several km of relatively affluent moderate density that will probably never be upzoned to a degree that would support a heavy rail subway. So the UBC market has to justify the entire project from Arbutus west.

Though it is quite true that “the ambient density drops” west of Arbutus (map here), TRANSIT DEMAND ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT.  Take a look at this map I created.  It shows peak bus frequency per hour.  On the map a number of “30″ means that in each direction in peak hours, one bus comes by every 2 minutes.

(1. During peak hours, an incredible 32-50 buses traverse Broadway in each direction (routes, #9, #17, #99, and for very short distances, #8, #16, #50), about one every 70 seconds, and this frequency does not drop off in the western half of Broadway.  Beyond headways of about 4-5 minutes, significant bunching occurs and headways become very irregular.  If your corridor supports bus headways higher than this, you clearly need rail.

(2. It is clear that transit demand is remarkably evenly distributed throughout the entire Broadway corridor, the lower density between Arbutus and UBC notwithstanding.  UBC’s function as a transit anchor is powerful, and extending SkyTrain only to Granville or Arbutus would create a congested and chaotic transfer point as throngs of students and professionals transfer to the now-truncated #99 to complete their journey.

(3.  Look again at the bus frequency map.  This isn’t just about Broadway.  The area around South Main St suffers badly from the inefficiency of the VCC-Clark terminus, with Main St. needing 36 buses per hour and Broadway needing 35-50.  And 70 buses per hour travel the Burrard and Granville bridges over False Creek.  Clearly Vancouver needs (A.  West side to downtown rapid transit, (B.  North-south transit in the Main St area, and (c.  Rail all along Broadway.  Though the southwestern part of the city handles 35-42 peak frequencies also, they are not a candidate for rail.  Marine Drive has this frequency simply because it collects all the south suburban and SE Vancouver services because there are no other roads there, inhibited by the (gorgeous) Pacific Spirit Regional Park.

(4.  In addition, another 14-28 peak-hour buses traverse 4th Avenue, a mere 1/2 kilometer (1/3 mile) north of Broadway.  A rapid transit option under Broadway would surely induce a significant portion of people to walk the 5 blocks south to Broadway.

(5.  Note that the Canada Line (in teal) currently carries as many (or more) daily riders as Broadway, and it accomplishes this along a low-density street (Cambie) and with a mere 12-15 frequencies per hour.  Buses just cannot match this kind of capacity, period.

(6.  Look at another map.  I overlaid a Google Map of Broadway with ZipCar locations in Vancouver.  See a pattern?

For these and other reasons, I fall clearly into the UBC SkyTrain camp.  Light Rail down Broadway would end up being little more than a glorified streetcar, and congestion would be even worse than the bus mess we have now.  The SkyTrain expansion debate will rage for years, and while Coquitlam may yet get its suburban line, Vancouver’s otherwise-wonderful west side will continue to suffer.


Confessions of an Inattentive Reader

Mar 31st, 2010

I’ve tried to read The Brothers Karamazov (Братья Карамазовы) four times and failed.  I’ve read the first 100 pages each time, and each time become distracted.  As a person who wishes to be considered a member of the well-educated literati, this is most unfortunate.  As one with formal studies in history and philosophy, an embarrassment.  As one with a rather unfortunate history as a tortured-soul-up-and-coming-theologian (you know the type, whose only claim on Dostoevsky is to have read The Grand Inquisitor a dozen times), this is an abject personal failure.

I love reading philosophy, especially the more syllogistic, analytic type.  I appreciate brevity in prose and dryness in wit…I’d be a perfect INTJ snob if only I had the money and a tenured professorship.  =)  Yet despite my fervent desire not to be an the subject of spot-on satire from The Onion, nonetheless I struggle to read dense fiction.

I’m not sure in what proportion to blame nature or nurture.  My problem is 19th-century prose, saturated as it is with sprawling sentences of hubristic syntax and playful metaphor.  The sheer ostentatious indulgence of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, et al, is at once off-putting and sublime.   When I’m able to actually sit down and read it – decluttering my mind from Facebook, email, the chatter of political blogs, and my still inexplicable desire to create fantasy transit maps, I experience a fleeting transcendence that I deeply wish I had the patience to endure.

So this is my 5th attempt at TBK, and I’m on page 25 out of 776.  Maybe publicizing my previous failures will compel me to complete perhaps the world’s best novel by force of guilt and social pressure.  Hey, whatever works.


The Inertia of Government Debt…Can We Strike a Grand Bargain?

Mar 29th, 2010

No matter your partisan persuasion, everyone agrees that the long-term fiscal situation for the USA looks pretty grim.  Our parents – without a trace of malicious intent–  have mortgaged our futures in their large houses, large cars, and their speculative stocks; our banks have peddled our stability away through risky lending; our Presidents (chiefly FDR, LBJ, Reagan, Bush 41, Bush 43, and Obama) have spent us wildly into debt; and there is a general sense that my generation will tell our kids of a mystical place called “the 20th century” in which archaic words like “career,” “benefits,” and “pensions” were things that people could reasonably expect.  Yet while I’m frustrated and not particularly optimistic about my lifetime prospects, I’m not really angry in the barn-burning, finger-pointing sense.  Such behavior is embedded within human nature, and it manifests itself in shortsightedness, an inability to contextualize, an inability to handle complexity, and especially in our difficulty deferring consumption for saving.

Part of the problem is the unstoppable inertia toward debt inherent in the structure of all wealthy economies.  Budgetary surpluses are so rare because they are generally seen as morally objectionable, as the government isn’t supposed to take more than it needs. If we were running a surplus I could already see Glenn Beck sobbing and panting for tax cuts, “You’re taking more of our money than you need!  Give the extra back, you thieves!”   Deficits are nerve-wracking in the aggregate (“our children” and “future generations” being the emotive phrases of choice), yet they are political opium in the particular.  People love spending that directly impacts them.  Cynically, I would posit that the definition of a pork-barrel project is “money spent in someone else’s district.”

For these basic structural reasons, deficits are almost impossible to remove and surpluses almost impossible to enforce without strong autocratic governments.  Which countries have historically had the largest surpluses?  Why, those wonderfully democratic countries of China (1st), Saudi Arabia (4th), and Russia (5th)!  Among wealthy democracies, Japan comes in 3rd only because they are digging out of decades of debt.  Only Germany makes the top 5 on principle, being justly famous for their cultural thrift.

Yet we are a democracy that ostensibly cares about human rights, and we obviously cannot impose the oppressions of autocracy on ourselves for the sake of budgetary management!  We’re going to have to do something that no wealthy-yet-indebted democracy has ever done: at some point my generation is going to have to strike a grand bargain to keep our country alive and livable.   We’re going to have to cut something massive, fundamentally change the social contract, and learn to live permanently without an expected “right” just in order to survive.

Take a peek at this well-worn chart, and then remember what matters.

While conservatives may have a distaste for agencies such as the EPA or the National Park Service, their contributions are crumbs at the budgetary table.  Liberals, think we spend too much on highways?  Conservatives, too much on Amtrak?  Both of you, relax.  Only 4 things matter if we’re going to fix this thing:  the Treasury (bailouts), Health and Human Services (medicare, medicaid, and the new subsidies on private insurance), Defense, and Social Security.

Everything else – everything! – is chump change.  We could build a national network of high-speed rail for 6 months worth of defense spending.  Rail can’t bankrupt us, defense can.  Education can’t bankrupt us, but social security and medicare will.


*My personal preference?  Probably the elimination of Social Security.  I will need healthcare, as I can’t cure my own cancer!  But at least I have a fighting chance of providing my own retirement income.  Which would I rather have…a fictional pension in a bankrupt country?  Or fending for myself in a thriving one?  Neither are attractive, but clearly the latter is preferable.


Commuter Rail Ridership…Comparing Apples to Apples

Mar 28th, 2010

Trying to compare North American commuter rail systems is an exercise in category mistakes and scaling problems.  What does the Long Island Rail Road – all 700 miles and 335,000 daily passengers – have to do with Portland’s 14-mile, 1,200 passenger Westside Express?  Very little.  Yet I wanted to get a sense of how systems compare based upon what has actually been built…so I turned to ridership density.  How many passengers per mile do North American Commuter Rail systems attain?

Using Minneapolis’ 100 riders/mile as the base area for a circle with a radius of 1, I scaled every other system accordingly.  I just took each city’s ridership per mile (rpm) and took the √(rpm/100).  So for New York City’s Metro North, with 716 riders per mile, I need a circle with 7.16 times the area, and the needed radius is thus 2.68.

To get that, here’s the basic math:

(1. Minneapolis’ area = (1*1*π).  Since the area is simply π, then to get Metro North’s area I can just multiply by the needed scalar (7.16*π= 22.48)

(2. If Metro North’s area is 22.48, then it’s radius =√(22.48/π)=2.68.  So Metro North’s radius will be 2.68 times larger than Minneapolis.  Etc etc for all other cities.

Here are the results:

Clearly the legacy cities with well-established radial commuting patterns perform best.  These are cities like New York, Toronto, Chicago, and San Francisco.  Cities with high ridership but low density suffer from this type of display (e.g. Los Angeles and Seattle, with lots of track miles relative to ridership).  Cities with low density and short systems benefit (such as Dallas-Fort Worth, with only one short 35 mile line that nevertheless runs between two enormous cities.)  And how about Mexico City, one of the only rail systems in the whole country?  Fourth place behind New York, Chicago, and Toronto…not bad, eh?

So is this metric helpful?  Why or why not?  Are there better ways to compare the effectiveness of commuter rail systems?  Modal share?  Total passengers? Etc…?  Thoughts?


A Wish List for Seattle Transit

Mar 25th, 2010

**Map Updated to Show the S.L.U.T. (South Lake Union Tram)**

Seattle is a beautiful city burdened by an obstructionist political culture and the most auto-centric citizenry in the Pacific Northwest.  It’s transit has been built less quickly, and less extensively, than its chic neighbor to the north (Vancouver) and its scrappy neighbor to the south (Portland).  As a result, it’s a blighted aesthetic that greets you as you enter the city from north (the monstrous I-5 bifurcating the city at its core) and from the south (an industrial wasteland).  At least the eastern approach has Lake Washington and the pleasing suburban homes of Mercer Island and Leschi.

Things are changing, albeit slowly.  The transit community is working hard, and the core of people who care about transit issues is solid.  The Seattle Transit Blog has a well-educated, passionate staff and an informed base of commenters.  It’s a pleasure to read the policy-dense and (for the most part) fantasy-light material that they post.

So here’s where they stand.  A small radial light rail line just opened from downtown to the Airport.  Expansion will proceed at a snail’s pace (1 new line per decade), with the next extensions going to UW in 2016 (desperate to reduce bus crowding) and the Bellevue/Eastside area in 2020-something.  Bellevue needs better transit even if they don’t know it.  (Sound Transit, if they choose to pay for a downtown Bellevue tunnel on behalf of the city council, will be like Mary Poppins pacifying the child with a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.)

But in all the high-quality policy discussion, a guy still has to dream a bit.  So what follows below is pure fantasy with a fleck or two of reality thrown in for good measure.  Here’s my drawn-up wish list for Seattle in, I don’t know, 2075, after 5 more rounds of “Sound Transit” ballot measures have passed.

(1.  COMMUTER RAIL. Sounder has been extended along the Renton Junction and existing trackage to serve Renton with 3-5 peak-hour trips per day. Eastside commuter rail has been added from Snohomish to Renton, serving commuters from Bellevue, Microsoft, and those transferring to UW or downtown Seattle.

(3.  CENTRAL LINK.  An branch has been added to Central Link that functions as an airport express, stopping in Georgetown and Boeing Field.  This would run adjacent to Sounder, Amtrak, and BNSF before rejoining Central Link near the new Boeing Access Road Station.  The line runs from Everett to Tacoma, providing end-to-end service in 2 hours or less.

(3.  EAST LINK.  Completed as planned by 2023.

(4.  BALLARD-WEST SEATTLE Line.  This new line runs from Northgate to Federal Way via Ballard, Queen Anne, a 1st Avenue tunnel in downtown Seattle, West Seattle, and SeaTac Airport.

(5.  ISSAQUAH Line.  The Issaquah Line largely parallels East Link, but as the 3rd Avenue tunnel is at capacity, it instead crosses under Pioneer Square from the east and terminates at the Ferry Terminal.

(6.  MADRONA Line.  Provides local service in east-central Seattle.

(7.  MADISON Line.  Runs from Pike Place, down Pike Street, through Capitol Hill and the Madison Valley, crosses 520, and terminates at Microsoft.  Sort of a hybrid between the #11 and #545 buses.

(8.  GOLD Line.  Replaces buses #48 and #522 and provides essential cross-town connections while serving Lake City, Bothell, and Woodinville.

(9.  LAKE UNION LINE.  Runs across town from Ballard to UW, across 520, and then along the BNSF right-of-way to Woodinville.

Comments?  What connections might be missing?  *Sigh, ’tis only a dream.


O Canada: 3 Quick Thoughts About Our New Life in Vancouver

Mar 25th, 2010

(1.  I like living in a country freer than the USA. Canada’s  banks actually make money, their currency is strong, gays can get married and no one cares, our (comprehensive!) health insurance is $100/month, and both the conservative Heritage Foundation and the United Nations rank Canada above the USA in key metrics of economic and social freedom.  So what if I can’t carry a concealed weapon?

(2.  I like Vancouver. Ok, so it’s a chic yuppie gentrified paradise that takes itself way too seriously.  Granted.  It quite annoyingly calls itself things like “the greenest city in the world”, etc..  but it is unmistakably a gorgeous place that gets alot of things right.  There are no freeways in the city limits at all thank God!  Step outside the city or more than 1/2 mile from a SkyTrain station, and Vancouver’s  suburbs are as much of a sprawling hell as anywhere else.  Mountains and water are everywhere.  I walk to my grocery store, my coffeeshop, and even my butcher.  Pedestrians rule:  they control the light timings at each intersection, there are very few dedicated turn signals (so turning cars must always yield to both oncoming traffic and crossing peds), and at any given green light half the pedestrians have a walk signal (as opposed to many USA cities in which only 1/4 of the pedestrians may cross at any given time).  Such a setup is illegal in the USA.

(3.  I don’t like the job market, and I miss the job flexibility of the USA. Oddly for otherwise polite and welcoming Canadians, open discrimination against immigrants based upon national origin and legal status is allowed and expected, and it is making my job search very difficult.  Technically I have an open work permit and should be able to work without bias for any employer, but in practice what I usually hear is, “Oh, you have a work permit?  Then we’re not comfortable hiring you.”   Or worse, the absurd parallel statements on the bottom of the UBC Human Resources page, “we hire on the basis of merit and do not tolerate discrimination.  Canadians and permanent residents will be given priority.”   In addition, labor market flexibility is a bit more tightly structured here.  Unions hold too much power, you’re expected to keep jobs longer, and resignations and firings are a bigger deal, especially as opposed to USA right-to-work states.  That makes breaking into the job market much more difficult, even if you have more security once you do.

So Vancouver’s a fantastic place if you’ve got a decent job and don’t mind paying 40% of your income on housing.  If my employment search continues to be unsuccessful, I may quickly sour on the place.  If I do find my niche here, I may never want to leave.


The Potato Problem: Or Why Our Politics Are So Infantile

Mar 21st, 2010

During George W. Bush’s presidency, liberals suffered from well-documented Bush Derangement Syndrome, a sort of foaming-at-the-mouth hysteria at anything(!) the brash and clumsy Texan dared to do.  There were protests and pickets and widespread despair that the country had been irrevocably lost to a body politic comprised entirely of Pat Robertson’s brains and Dick Cheney’s firepower.  For us lefties they were truly the Dark Ages.  We spent many years crying into our double-tall-soymilk lattes.

But as seasons come and go, as power changes hands, and as Newton’s 3rd law so elegantly predicts, the last 18 months have seen the reciprocal rise of conservative hysteria:  our national attention now seems prepared to give audience to anyone and everyone willing to say anything and everything about Obama, as long as it’s salted with invective and peppered with ‘Hitler’, ‘socialism’, and ‘doom’.  Glenn Beck in particular suffers from reductio ad Hitlerum: the fallacy of jumping the shark all the way to Hitler by the time your sentence enters its first prepositional phrase.


Yet more than enough (!) has been written about Fox News, Obamacare, Tea Parties, etc…and that’s the point of this post. Enough has been said about the qualitative deficits in our national political culture.  Our debates are clearly geared toward soundbites, Twitter posts, platitudinous boilerplate, talk radio, and 4th Grade reading-level op-eds in USA Today. These are all serious qualitative problems: the quality of our information is poor and our ability to reason even poorer.

The often ignored – and possibly more pernicious – problem is quantitative. Not only are we arguing badly but we’re also simply arguing too much.  In a world of subtle spices, diverse cuisines, and soothing libations, we seem worryingly content to eat, night after night, the political equivalent of potatoes and water.  It’s an intellectual famine, where food is bland and ubiquitous and yet sustenance is nowhere to be found. If CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News were our sole information universe, we could be excused for thinking that the world has only one nation and that that nation has 5 total political issues (4 of which are currently Obamacare).  Completely eradicated from our political culture is the recognition of and engagement with global issues, ideas, and problems.  It seems to me that an obsessive mentality has narrowed our scope of inquiry into embarrassingly shallow territory.  While we parse whether or not insurance regulation is ‘Socialism!’, the outside world actually has things happening that are (gasp!) interesting and worthy of our engagement.  Read Britain’s The Guardian, The Times, or The Independent, or read Canada’s Globe and Mail, and revel not only in the depth but, crucially, in the breadth.

Or better yet, if you find yourself saturated with such numbingly boring cable news material, go to your local newsstand (they do still exist, you know) and pick up a current affairs magazine, say, The Economist, and read it cover to cover.  If you still think that Michelle Obama’s dress and John Boehner’s latest bloviations are the most interesting things to talk about in the world, then you deserve your woeful fate.  But while your brain rots flipping through the nationally syndicated channels, remember that you could be reading great literature, investing in LOCAL community news and issues, hiking through our woods, deserts, and grasslands, volunteering, playing sports, or taking classes.  But if talk-show politics must be your fodder, consider that while you’re hi-fiving Sean Hannity, the Shabab militia is raping girls, burying them up to their waists, and stoning them for the privilege.  While you’re buying gold and telling jokes about Obama the Monkey, Morgan Tsvangirai is going to work every day next to a dictator and trying to bring humanity to his battered country.  While we’re stuck in rewind, the world is moving forward.  Increasingly, the most exciting academic research is done outside the USA, and foreign students who do get their PhD’s here are increasingly going right back home because that’s where the exciting opportunities are.

I don’t want to see our country wither away either from stupidity (the inability to come to grips with a complex world) or cannibalism (a fatal, petty, navel-gazing internalism).  There’s so much more out there to talk about.  I’m so tired of hearing about my fellow citizens speak of Europe only as a punchline, Africa as a charity pitch, Latin America as a xenophobic rallying cry, and Asia as (not kidding, I actually heard this) “those weird short people who fill our WalMart shelves.”  The world is a serious and exciting place, ripe with opportunity and peril in equal measure.  Why do we talk so little about the real thing?


Now This Is Freedom: Notes on 5 Years of Life Without a Car

Mar 20th, 2010

I suppose I’ve always been prone to take things to extremes. As a junior in high school, following up on a bet from my girlfriend to eat Taco Bell every day for a week, I went on to do it for over a month. When recently I decided I needed to eat more vegetables, I probably went a little far by eating 3 large whole beets in one sitting. My transportation life has been no exception. I got my first car on my 17th birthday, a 1994 Chevy Corsica.

Sexy? Not really. Ready to be driven into the ground? Absolutely. My road trips over the next few years became ever longer and more frequent. Some were sensible, such as the Coeur d’Alene to San Francisco jaunt my brother and I went on with our friend Rob over 2001 Spring Break. But most were completely ridiculous, taken only for the pleasure of driving and the dismay I could cause upon my return, the “You did WHAT?!?” conversations from adults that gave my teenage self its raison d’être.

168 Miles from Coeur d’Alene to Missoula…for breakfast.
985 Miles from Abilene to Albert Lea, MN…because I was bored and in our post-9/11 haze gas was only 97¢/gallon.
1,350 Miles from Abilene, TX to Santa Barbara, CA…for a 2-hour concert.
2,020 Miles from Abilene to Orlando for Thanksgiving 2004…via West Virginia…simply because I’d never been there.
2,279 Miles from Coeur d’Alene to Abilenevia Manitoba…just to say that I had driven U.S. Hwy 83 end-to-end.
(And about 5 more trips just like this…)

After putting 100,000 miles on my car in 3 years, I had acquired quite the reputation as an autophile. Yet then I went to Prague in May 2003 for a month. Amazingly, at 21 years old, I had never been on a train. In all its functionalist post-Communist glory, the Prague Metro was stunning, and for the first time in my life I went 25 days without stepping into a vehicle. I was hooked. Liberated. I walked a dozen miles in a day for the first time. I explored alleys near Vysehrad and went through parks and gardens that I otherwise would’ve ignored in the search for parking. Previously important spatial categories…one-way streets, speed limits, parking lots… suddenly seemed superfluous and (in the case of parking lots) aesthetically hopeless. Most of all, cars began to seem like something I’d never thought of: a waste of money and a subtle inhibitor of freedom.

When I moved to Boston in 2005, I sold my car not as any kind of ideological statement, but for the much humbler reason that I needed rent money for my new $900/month apartment. (In Abilene, my rent was – not kidding – $160/month.) I set out exploring Boston’s labyrinthine streets, greenways and esplanades, with nothing more than my two feet and a CharlieCard. Boston’s public transit is slow, crowded, dirty, and run by the most comically inept folks one could conjure, but nevertheless, somehow, I came to love ‘The T’.  I would take the commuter rail to Lincoln and walk the remaining 3 miles along the tracks to Walden Pond.  I would ride to Needham Heights and walk along abandoned rail tracks until I hit Newton Highlands. I’d ride the Red Line to Harvard just because.  I learned bus routes as well as I had once known atlases (At 17 years old I could draw the entire Interstate Highway System from memory.)

Since Boston I have never looked back, and I’m now entering my 5th year without a car. I’ve saved money, exercised better, discovered more, and I’ve lived in walkable city neighborhoods in Denver (Capitol Hill), Leeds’ (Hyde Park), Stehekin (the whole place!) and Vancouver (West Point Grey). Insurance? I don’t need it. Gas prices? They don’t matter. Maintenance? New shoes are cheaper than new tires. Parking? While you circle the lot, I’ll already be inside. Traffic? I’ll read a book if my bus gets stuck, or if I’m on a train I’ll glide right by you. Going on a trip? Southwest has cheap flights, and Amtrak’s even cheaper. Want to go abroad? How about Morocco, Spain, Mexico, Scotland, Ireland, etc?… while still spending less than if I owned a car?

So do I ever drive? Sure. If I buy furniture I’ll rent a truck for an hour or two from Zipcar. If I feel like getting to an out-of-the-way trailhead to go hiking, I might splurge on a full day rental. But ownership, where your car costs you money 24/7/365 and virtually guarantees that you will drive everywhere you need to go? That’s for two groups of people: those who have no other choice, and for suckers.

Until pay-as-you-drive insurance is widely available and I can be rewarded for buying a car and keeping it garaged 90% of the time, I’ll happily do without.  And I’ll do without primarily NOT for political, environmental, or transit purist reasons  (though there are many), but simply because it affords me a better life. I see more, I do more, I save more, I live more.  I don’t begrudge anyone else’s ownership, as long as they let me cross the street in peace.  =)  It’s a great way to live.