Against The Power That Now Arises

The old man looked at the broken body of his youngest son and lost hope. He had seen the enemy’s armies massing outside the city. He had heard the sounds of violence outside his own window. For days he had been losing sleep over the death of his eldest son far from home. With the body of his youngest in front of him, whatever fragment of hope he still had fell apart. Defeat was certain. The old man chose despair.

This is the (liberally and clumsily interpreted) story of Denethor, Steward and Lord of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings. It is hard not to feel some sympathy for the man. Responsible for defending Gondor against the armies of Mordor, knowing the disastrous consequences of failure, seeing the overwhelming size of the forces arrayed against him and seeing no other options for fighting back. Who could be optimistic?

Despair is a familiar companion for those on the left. We lose more often than we win. Our enemies have more money and more power than we do. Our hopes and our goals are big, and we believe that they matter: that the consequences of failure are dire for us, our neighbors, and the world. When you believe so much depends on a thing that keeps not happening, it is hard to avoid the thought: Maybe it can’t happen. Maybe we can’t win. Maybe we’re fucked.

I felt a wave of this despair in the atmosphere of the left after Bernie Sanders lost. I felt a wave of this despair after he lost again. I felt a wave of this despair when the 2012 attempt to recall Scott Walker faceplanted into the pavement. I am reading the movements of birds here, trying to explain what kind of vibe there was, but I felt it and I suspect you may have, too.

I have felt hints of a smaller but similar feeling among the socialist left rippling out as the 2020 election results seem to be taking the form of a Biden victory. It has to be said that the dominant feeling seems to be joy: thank Christ that asshole will be gone. Finally. Good riddance. But there also seems to be an undercurrent of resignation. After all, if the results are as they seem and nothing goes haywire, the next president will be Joe Biden, a man backed by finance and defense contractors, who built a career on war and prisons. As the Onion put it, “Jubilant Reaction To Trump Defeat Quickly Soured By News Of Biden Win.” It’s a bleak prospect.

There is a fine line between disappointment and despair, and there are hints of the latter. Historian Daniel Bessner has been discussing Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” hypothesis on Twitter. Fukuyama’s argument that the end of the Cold War signaled “the unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism” holds up, but Fukuyama is not famous for writing about the end of the Cold War. He is famous for writing about the end of history, and for arguing that this triumph heralded “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” For a capitalist, this may sound like a good thing. For a leftist, the prospect of perpetual capitalism is depressing, and Bessner’s tweets about Fukuyama get some depressed responses that Fukuyama was right. Podcaster Matt Christman sounded a similar tone in a long and thoughtful vlog on the election and the American political economy. Christman talks about the detachment of American politics from material questions of wealth and social structure, the seemingly inexorable transformation of politics into a form of entertainment based on cultural affiliations, and the inability of politics to break through the entertainment and mobilize people on material issues. Although Christman leaves the door open for some unpredictable change in the state of things in the future, I hear a note of defeat in this, as well. A feeling that the system cannot be defeated and cannot be changed, and there is no use in trying. A feeling of despair.

And can you fault them? The Democratic Party is absolutely a party of capital. That is beyond question. Their president-elect promised his billionaire donors that “no one’s standard of living will change, nothing will fundamentally change.” Nancy Pelosi will once again stand for, and probably remain, the Speaker of the House: the same Nancy Pelosi who reminded us that “we’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is.” The moment the election was over, Democrats like Abigail Spanberger blamed the left and “socialism” for their poor performance. House Whip Jim Clyburn warned Democrats not to talk about “Medicare for All, defund the police, [or] socialized medicine”. Whatever gains the left may have made in the last five years, the leadership, structure, and direction of the Democratic Party has not changed, and it shows no signs of changing. They’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is.

This is where I think of Denethor. Denethor had, through the seeing stone, seen glimpses of the armies of Mordor, vast and well-armed. As his own losses mounted, while the enemy had apparently endless reserves, Denethor’s own hope broke. As Gandalf pleads with him not to give up, Denethor scoffs: “I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labor in healing! Go forth and fight! Vanity. For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory.”

I have been turning this last line over in my head for years. I thought about it when Bernie Sanders lost again. I thought about it when Evo Morales was deposed last year. I thought about it when Jair Bolsonaro became President of Brazil, and I thought about it when I saw videos of the Amazon burning. I thought about it—I felt it—when the Trump administration put shameless reactionaries on a seemingly all-powerful Supreme Court. I have felt it every time the Trump administration issues another decision, another rule, to make winning asylum harder and deporting people easier. I have felt it every time a client loses what should be a slam dunk case. I imagine you have felt it, too, at some point. When you see the forces of capital and reaction win again and again and again, it is hard to avoid the thought that against the Power that now arises there is no victory.

But I also think about Denethor because the point of his story is that he is wrong. He is wrong to despair, and he is wrong about the strength of Mordor. Gandalf later points out that “The Stones of Seeing do not lie, and not even the Lord of Barad-dûr can make them do so. He can, maybe, by his will choose what things shall be seen by weaker minds, or cause them to mistake the meaning of what they see. Nonetheless it cannot be doubted that when Denethor saw great forces arrayed against him in Mordor, and more still being gathered, he saw that which truly is.” These images lead Denethor to despair because he does not realize that they are not the full picture.

The sense that capitalism is not only winning, but that it has won, feels like a despair born of an incomplete picture. However ascendant our capitalist politics are now, however much they have succeeded in locking the working class out of the political arena, it cannot stay that way forever. It cannot.   As long as there is a working class, there will be a struggle for its freedom, and as long as there is struggle, there is hope.

After all, as Gandalf put it, “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”

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The Myth of the Soviet Hordes

Soviet Combined Arms Army

Soviet Combined Arms Rifle Division

Two diagrams of a Soviet combined arms offensive combat formation: the first of an army and the second of a single rifle division. Spread over 8-14 km, two rifle corps supported by anti-tank and artillery groups form the first echelon, while a second rifle corps and a tank or mechanized corps forms the second. Their targets are enemy army corps reserves, 100 to 150 kilometers distant. Diagrams from August Storm: The Soviet 1945 Strategic Offensive in Manchuria by David M. Glantz.

I’ve been thinking about the Eastern theatre of the Second World War in Europe ever since wargame designer Rachel Simmons returned to updating her fascinating design blog with the development of her upcoming strategic game, Stavka. More recently, I had some fun with a tweetstorm where I debunked the myth of the Soviet hordes – the idea that the Soviets won the Second World War in Europe through overwhelming numbers and the harsh Russian winter but without much tactical or strategic sophistication. This is false. Though 1941 was even more tactically devastating to the Soviets than 1940 was for the Western Allies, they fought on, and through a combination of interwar theory and wartime practice, developed a method of war more sophisticated and effective than the so-called “Blitzkrieg: the doctrine of the deep operation. This, and not overwhelming numbers, is why they won the war.

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Biden leads a patriotic front, Bernie would have led a popular front

 

Green-New-Deal-1_0

A poster produced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to promote the Green New Deal, depicting in Art Deco style a winged victory statue in Pelham Bay Park, the Bronx, New York. A high-speed train passes through in the background.

The Democratic National Convention makes clear, surprising no one, that Joe Biden is leading a patriotic front against Donald Trump. The alternative, which likely would have been pursued had Bernie Sanders won the primary, was a popular front. This difference explains the presence of so many Republicans in the “Resistance.”

The DNC relegated Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (a likely keynote speaker at a Bernie convention) to a 60-second block on the procedural matter of seconding Bernie Sanders’ nomination by his pledged delegates. By contrast, the DNC speeches included a wide spectrum of conservative ghouls. John Kaisich, supposedly a “moderate” Republican, is in truth a conservative culture warrior who opposed marriage equality as Ohio governor. Mike Bloomberg, though nominally no longer a Republican, is a major architect of the militarized police forces that have been waging chemical warfare on Black Lives Matter and anti-Trump protesters. Colin Powell lied to the United Nations to legitimate an illegal war. In addition to speaking slots, the coalition includes more than 70 less famous Republican natsec goons who took out a letter in the Wall Street Journal. The Lincoln Project, a superPAC founded by Republican spin doctors, has been running ads denouncing the flag of the secessionist rebels, correctly, as a “flag of treason,” but one of its founders photographed himself with a cooler decorated by the same flag, and the neo-secessionist slogan, “the South will rise again.” As much as I hate linking to the National Review (whose mission statement is to “stand athwart history and yell ‘stop!'”, particularly in the context of civil rights) I cannot find a major outlet of the liberal press to even pick up the story. So why have the Democrats turned to conservatives to oppose fascism?

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Matt Yglesias Needs to Read Nature’s Metropolis

Freight Flows by Highway Railroad and Waterway

A map of the United States depicting 2017 freight flows by mode, with thick lines denoting higher volumes. Water transportation moves at the highest volumes in the southern Mississippi, and rail freight moves at the highest volumes in Nebraska and Wyoming, but many railroad and highway links converge at high volumes on Chicago. Image taken from the Bureau of Transporation Statistics.

Usually when I get mad about something online, I tweet about it. Sometimes I do so while I’m still mad online, and I get into inadvisable arguments, usually with liberal YIMBYs. Then, in calmer moments I’ll have a productive conversation about cities and transportation with those same individuals. However, Matt Yglesias is different. He has managed to buy a $1.2 million condo with the income he gets from writing troll posts, most infamously about how Bangladeshi lives don’t matter. So, I am always mad online at him. So when he says “what’s the deal with Chicago?” it should be treated with about the same seriousness as an unironic “what if Seinfeld still on TV?” I can’t just tweet that his take is bad and move on. He’s living rent free in my head. I’m feeding the troll, in long form no less. It’s too late for me, but perhaps my sacrifice can be worth something. Matt, I’m begging you: read Nature’s Metropolis.

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Paine, not Hamilton, is the Left’s Founder

valleyforge

An illustration labeled “Winter at Valley Forge, 1778,” depicting Continental Army soldiers huddled around a cook fire by a lean-to amid a snowy landscape.

I recently read Ryan Grim’s review of Christian Parenti’s new book Radical Hamilton, which seeks to cast Alexander Hamilton as a radical who should be embraced by the left, an argument I read Parenti make in the pages of Jacobin in 2014. Parenti’s argument can be summarized that Hamilton is a better figure of identification for the left than Thomas Jefferson, because Hamilton was a centralizing figure practicing a form of state-directed industrialization like an eighteenth century “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” To the extent that the argument recasts Jefferson as a reactionary agrarian, it has value. Still, I didn’t find the argument about Hamilton particularly convincing even back in 2014, especially since Jacobin published an analogous piece by Sean Monahan a few months later making the case for a much clearer ancestor of the left tradition in the United States.

It’s worth asking whether the left needs to identify with the American Revolution at all, or any figures within it. We at Sewer Socialists are divided on the question. I am the most willing to find value in left identification with certain elements of the Revolution, contradictory as it was. The others respectively see the founding as too tainted by settler colonialism and slavery to be useful to the modern left, or maintain a skepticism between the two perspectives. Certainly the radicalism of the revolution was overtaken by the reactionary elements of the actually existing United States, and the Second American Revolution of 1860-1877 is less contradictory than the first. The left, internationalist and forward-looking as it is, does not need to find its future in some real or imagined national past. One thing the Sewer Socialists are unanimous on, however, is that if the left were to select a figure of identification from the American Revolution, it’s not Hamilton.

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Up the Douglass Commonwealth

6-missing-stars-flag-transparent

The US flag with 56 stars, arranged on an 8 by 6 grid, but with the lower-rightmost six grayed out.

Thanks to the masses in the streets affirming and demanding that Black lives matter, the House of Representatives just voted to make DC – soon to stand for Douglass Commonwealth – a state. This is long overdue. Though the Senate will likely block the measure and Trump will certainly veto it, the treatment of the District’s historically Black population as occupied territory by out-of-state national guard units that stockpiled live ammunition in anticipation of the order to massacre the demonstrators, has made statehood all but inevitable. The Republicans are left with no basis for opposition other than naked partisanship and barely-concealed racism. The Democrats must seize the moment and end DC’s colony status as soon as they win back the Senate – and eliminate the filibuster to do so. Good riddance, and worth the equivalent of twelve Senate votes for their trouble.

It is also long overdue to offer statehood, and independence, to the five inhabited overseas territories of the United States. Statehood is the only option for DC, which like the 50 states is an integral part of the indivisible union. However, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa are literal colonies. The ongoing debt crisis in Puerto Rico, followed by the failure of the US government to respond to Hurricane Maria, has demonstrated that the status quo in Puerto Rico is untenable. No more non-binding referenda. Congress must pass a law offering Puerto Rico statehood immediately, if ratified by a binding plebiscite.

This is a question of self-determination, not an illegal act of secession like that of the white supremacists whose rebellion the United States crushed in 1865, and whose statues the masses are tearing down in courageous acts of direct action. Unlike the states of the so-called “Confederacy,” Puerto Rico was never included in the indivisible union and as such has the right to leave. Therefore, the plebiscite must offer a binding independence option. The Puerto Rican independence movement has often boycotted non-binding referenda, but the inclusion of independence on a binding plebiscite should change that. Since status quo has been popular in the past, it must be included on the ballot as a third option, with the stipulation that the same plebiscite will be held again every ten years as long as the status quo is selected. To avoid the possibility of vote-splitting, the plebiscite must be structured as a runoff, with the top two options decided between in a second vote shortly after. If Puerto Ricans select independence, Puerto Rico is to be welocmed in the community of independent nations. If Puerto Ricans select statehood, Puerto Rico is to be welcomed into the community of American states. I hope that they choose statehood, but that is up to the people of Puerto Rico.

Along with Puerto Rico, either at the same time or shortly after, Congress must grant the same option to the other four overseas territories. Without delay, Congress must grant American Samoa the same status as the other Pacific territories, construct a VA hospital within the territory, and grant American Samoans the status of American citizens. American Samoans are currently “American nationals,” literal subjects of the American empire who cannot vote even if they live on the soil of an American state.

The United States is in a moment in history where the old assumptions about how “that will never happen” no longer hold. What dirtbag Marxists have been saying for years – that the United States is a colossus with clay feet, in danger of cataclysmic collapse – is now obvious to normie liberals and any conservatives who are not racist zealots. Revolutionary reforms, both symbolic substantive, are necessary if the US is to survive as a functioning country. Statehood for the six de jure colonies of the American Empire is both substantive and symbolic. If we can pull down the statues of once-beloved racists, we can add stars to the flag. Let’s start with the Douglass Commonwealth, and offer the same to five more.

-Emil

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The Transit Gravelanche

In the early stages of the 2020 Democratic Primary, the Gravel Teens reached out to me to write a transportation platform for Mike Gravel’s issue-driven presidential campaign. I was happy to do so, and the platform was posted at mikegravel.org through most of 2019. The web site has recently gone down. There were a number of other wonderful proposals, so I hope the Gravel Institute puts them all back up. In the meantime, I have posted the text of the transportation platform here.
-Emil

Cars are choking America. Transportation emits more greenhouse gas emissions in the United States than any other source, including energy. More than 30,000 Americans die each year in car crashes, and Americans are more likely to be killed by a car crash than by any other unnatural cause of death other than opioid overdoses and suicide. Despite the damage cars cause, highways dominate domestic transportation spending, creating a vicious cycle of auto dependence that strands Americans who cannot drive, and leaves the rest stuck in traffic.

When the United States brings home the hundreds of billions wasted abroad each year on endless wars of choice, it is essential to spend less on highways, not more. Instead, the United States must redirect both highway and military spending to public transportation, safe and walkable complete streets, and a national railroad system. Peace from endless wars of choice means good jobs, more freedom of movement, and new infrastructure Americans can be proud of.

The United States should:

  • Set ambitious targets for reducing transportation carbon emissions as part of the Green New Deal, by shifting car and truck traffic to public transportation, walking, cycling, and freight rail.
  • End all federal funding to building new highway lanes, and demolish obsolete urban highways that cut neighborhoods in half, spew pollution, and cause more congestion than they relieve.
  • Redirect federal transportation funding to public transportation, complete streets built for people rather than cars, and an Interstate Bikeway System of protected bicycle lanes.
  • Expand New Starts grants to support new rail systems, including new subway lines in major cities where potential ridership is high.
  • Expand intermodal BUILD grants and develop new grants programs, including: electrification grants to accelerate the electrification of cars, trucks, buses, diesel rail lines, and shore power in port facilities; accessibility grants to achieve systemwide accessibility of streets and legacy transit systems under the Americans with Disabilities Act; and modernization grants to improve existing legacy infrastructure to run trains and buses faster and more frequently.
  • Introduce new operating subsidies to public transit operators on the condition that existing Metropolitan Planning Organizations create a unified fare structure for each major urban area, with consistent flat-rate or distance-based fares and free transfers, regardless of mode or operator.
  • Nationalize the major railroads by restructuring Amtrak, state commuter railroads, and Class I private freight railroads into a national railroad that would build and operate passenger and freight service nationwide.
  • Convert outdated and exclusionary commuter rail into affordable regional rail that runs at high frequency at all times of day, like an urban-suburban subway.
  • Develop an Interstate Rail System, including high-speed rail in key corridors, to connect all major metropolitan areas that lie within 500 miles of one another.
  • Phase out short-hop flights to destinations served by the Interstate Rail System, and develop code-sharing so that passengers can transfer seamlessly to and from the rail network at key air-rail hubs.
  • Undertake a top-to-bottom review of infrastructure construction costs which, like the arms industry, is plagued by backwards bureaucratic practices, corrupt contracting, and revolving-door career paths.

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A Better Way than a Six Lane Highway

BQE

The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway as seen from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade above. The Brooklyn Bridge is partially visible in the background.

A friend of mine who lives in New York recently took a walk on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which is threatened under the status quo by City plans to rehabilitate the expressway below it. The Promenade is a lovely pedestrian park that sits directly above a section of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (The BQE), thanks to a unique “triple cantilever” whose lower two cantilevered structures carry six lanes of expressway traffic, plus two lanes on the surface-level local street below. Rather than rehabilitate the existing BQE, activists in New York should demand its full removal, and with it, the pedestrianization of the Brooklyn Bridge. The unique collection of political actors affected by these plans give socialists a unique opportunity to put together a broad coalition to address traffic congestion, build new social housing, and create the best park since the High Line. Below is the sewer socialist counter-proposal: the Brooklyn Bridge to Promenade Proposal, with a map at the link.

The BQE is in the news because the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) recently announced that its plans to rehabilitate the structure involve closing the Promenade and replacing it with a six-lane highway for at least six years. The triple cantilever is overdue for rehabilitation. There is no reason to doubt the civil engineers who have outlined the need for repairs. However, from the point of view of politics and policy, New York’s leadership has assumed that the rehabilitation must preserve all six lanes of expressway traffic throughout the duration of the project. Accordingly, DOT has come up with a complicated plan that will allow them to permit traffic to flow freely by replicating the functions of the expressway at the expense of the Promenade, rehabilitate the structure itself, and then (in theory) restore the Promenade to its former glory. In practice, cost and schedule overruns in American infrastructure (especially in New York) being what they are, it is entirely possible that the “temporary” expressway will simply become permanent.

Why should socialists care?
In the poorer and less powerful neighborhoods in the city (the ones that Moses simply bulldozed rather than accommodating with his prowess for park building), the City would simply be able to force the technocratic outcome. Brooklyn Heights, however, is a wealthy and well-connected place. The Promenade was a dream of the Brooklynite middle class for over a century before it was constructed for Robert Moses as part of the BQE’s original build-out. Unlike other neighborhoods that were destroyed to make way for Moses’ expressways, the Master Builder had to accommodate Brooklyn Heights when the neighborhood lobbied against his original plan to destroy it, resulting in the original construction of the Promenade. It’s fair to ask why socialists should make common cause with wealthy and privileged communities that, if the history of urban space is any indication, are capable of taking care of their own interests. After all, there are many urban highways through poor neighborhoods that don’t have promenades on them. Why should Brooklyn Heights get special treatment? Why should the socialist movement intervene to save a rich neighborhood’s park?

There are a number of reasons: because decommissioning highways will cut carbon emissions regardless of whether those highways are sited in rich or poor neighborhoods, because the promenade is a public space that anyone can enjoy regardless of wealth, and because left a local issue, the most likely outcome is an alternative that preserves the Promenade but rebuilds the same carbon-spewing roadway below, probably at greater expense. From a pure realpolitik perspective, decommissioning the BQE is a climate campaign that socialists can jump onto and have a decent chance at victory, because a coalition that includes the relatively well-connected Brooklyn Heights upper middle class has a good chance at beating City Hall. The task for socialists is to convince them that they must not only save the Promenade but decommission the expressway below (a source of pollution and noise), while bringing on board more socially diverse coalition partners. They would do this by expanding the scope of the local protest to encompass a broader agenda that would benefit the great majority of the city, addressing an icon as universally beloved and shared as Brooklyn Bridge. In addition, poorer, less connected neighborhoods would be able to point to the BQE decommissioning when their own expressways come due for replacement. The beginnings of well-connected resistance are on display already, as, according to my friend, windows are dotted with signs that say “We need a better way than a six-lane highway.”  For all that urbanists like to complain of “NIMBYs” blocking light rail, bike lanes, new housing, and various other urban dreams, we forget that they have their roots in good old-fashioned freeway revolts.

Accordingly, a series of proposals have been put forth as an alternative to the City’s plans. The Brooklyn Heights Association proposes a six-lane temporary structure outside the Promenade. The Regional Plan Association proposes a four-lane rather than six-lane replacement. The City Comptroller proposes a partial rehabilitation that would create a two-lane road for trucks only, probably the best of the mainstream proposals considering the freight needs. The most aesthetically exciting proposal is from architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group, which understands the value of knitting together the Promenade to the new parklands being built by the city below. A similar proposal called the “Tri-Line” proposes to do the same thing, with preservation of the triple cantilever as a pedestrian space. However, both propose a new boondoggle in their place: a buried highway, almost certainly making these options more expensive. The City should carry out a version of these proposals (the Tri-Line or the Bjarke Ingels “Option A”),  minus the buried highway. The only through route should be the existing two-lane Furman Street, and as little traffic as possible should use it.

Independent researcher Alon Levy goes a step farther, saying what the institutional powers of New York cannot: that the whole thing should be torn down from the Battery Tunnel to the Williamsburg Bridge. Despite being wrong in some details (and, in a stark example of urbanist hyperbole, making a bizarre comparison to lynching and colonialism), he’s right. The portion from Atlantic Ave to Sands St, along with the additional work at the Brooklyn Bridge and elsewhere that would be necessary to make its decommissioning successful are the focus of the Bridge to Promenade Proposal.

Brooklyn Bridge to Promenade
Decommissioning the BQE triple cantilever would allow the City to build a continuous stretch of parkland for pedestrians and cyclists all the way from the southern tip of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade to City Hall via a pedestrianized Brooklyn Bridge. Decommissioning solves the basic problem of infrastructure rehabilitation. With no need to phase construction with partial lane closures or build temporary routes, it will be easier, faster, and cheaper to rehabilitate the triple cantilever, freeing up the money for other needs. There are three issues that need to be addressed with this approach, however: the problem of car traffic, the problem of freight traffic, and the problem of bus traffic (due to the redirected car and freight traffic). All three can be addressed, but not without changing the political status quo. Fortunately, there are three opportunities that arise from using this approach, that can each bring in a member of the broader coalition: more parkland, more bicycle and pedestrian connections, and more housing.

The Problem of Car Traffic
Reducing car traffic in favor of pedestrian, wheelchair, bicycle, and transit modal share should be a goal of public policy, for the sake of cutting climate emissions if nothing else. Fortunately, teardowns of urban highways actually reduce traffic, as New York learned when the West Side Highway collapsed (and was never replaced) and Seattle recently learned when “Viadoom” never happened during the temporary decommissioning of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. On balance, traffic reduces by about half, with the other half redirected to surface streets. In other words, decommissioning the BQE does half of the job in and of itself. With the entire BQE decommissioned between two major crossings into Manhattan, a large share of regional traffic would simply avoid downtown Brooklyn. To further cut down on car traffic that currently uses the BQE, two more measures would be required: closing the Brooklyn Bridge to cars, and extending the newly minted Central Business District (CBD) Congestion Zone to Downtown Brooklyn. Without the Brooklyn Bridge, another source of car traffic to the BQE is eliminated, and congestion pricing on the Manhattan side will likely cut down on the impact of the Brooklyn Bridge closure to traffic on surface streets. It follows to do the same thing on the Brooklyn side, extending the congestion zone into Downtown Brooklyn. The new zone would be bordered by a major vehicular street on all four sides to allow a free bypass: Sands to the North, Atlantic to the South, Flatbush to the East, and Boerum to the West. The CBD toll would be applied to the Manhattan Bridge in both directions to prevent “bridge shopping,” but anyone driving from within Brooklyn who stays on those four streets would not be tolled. With the elimination of the temporary highway on the Promenade, and everything outside the cantilever reduced to demolition, the Bridge to Promenade proposal would save highway transportation funding relative to current plans, while increasing congestion pricing revenue. Including this in the proposal would likely win the support of many of the members of the coalition that supported congestion pricing, fresh off a historic victory.

The Problem of Freight Traffic
With such walkable neighborhoods and so many public transit options, it is makes sense to ask motorists to pay their fair share. Trucks, however, are harder to redirect, especially for an archipelago city that lacks a rail connection to its own port, an issue that should be separately addressed with the construction of the Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel. The section of the BQE proposed for demolition is the main north-south through route for trucks. Though regional north-south traffic should stay in New Jersey and only cross at the George Washington or Tappan Zee Bridge, there is still a need for a secondary through route within Brooklyn. At Atlantic Ave, the expressway structure would be replaced by an intersection, and trucks would be required to turn right and head east. A few blocks later, they would turn left onto the new north-south route: Boerum Place, the western boundary of the congestion zone, and then Sands, the northern boundary. From Sands to Park, the existing BQE would be torn down and the new truck route configured as an arterial road. As Levy proposes, the sections on either side of the decommissioned Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn sections of the BQE would be directly replaced with surface avenues. Though not the first choice of shippers compared to an expressway, ensuring a modern surface through route might allay their concerns. This would mean that the project would retain freight transportation funding sources and, ideally, ensure some measure of support from commercial interests.

The Problem of Bus Traffic
Boerum Place is currently used by buses as the southbound portion of a loop at which several services terminate. Buses coming from the bus mall on Fulton Street and points south discharge passengers near the Borough Hall, lay up on Cadman Place West, turn onto Tillary St, and then begin their new runs southbound on Boerum. With Boerum repurposed as a truck-priority arterial, the eastern portion of the bus loop (as well as the bike lanes) would be moved one block east, to Jay Street, which would be closed to cars entirely. Jay St would retain its protected bicycle lanes and turn its travel lanes into into an extension of the Fulton Bus Mall. The protected bike lanes would continue south as Jay St becomes Smith St, which would be converted to a bidirectional street at least as far as Atlantic, at the entrance of the congestion zone. Buses that currently use Boerum to approach Borough Hall from the south would use Smith instead, and either turn left into the bus loop or continue north on Jay. The portions of the bus loop made up by Cadman Plaza West and Tillary St would still be open to car traffic, but on-street parking would be removed and replaced with bus lanes, protected bike lanes, and a bus terminal with opportunity chargers for electric buses. If possible during this conversion of Boerum into a truck route, the work would be combined with a major transit expansion: the street would be torn up using cut-and-cover to build a new connection between the Borough Hall and Jay Street Subway stations, as well as a station cavern below for a Regional Rail station on the LIRR Atlantic Branch (which already has a disused tunnel under Atlantic). The station cavern would be used to stage the tunnel boring machines which would drill under the river into Lower Manhattan’s WTC/Fulton complex under Pineapple St or another candidate for an under-river tunneling approach. Even if only the bus improvements take place, they could bring in public transportation funding sources to the project and win the support of transit advocates.

The Opportunity of Park Development
The proximate reason to decommission the BQE is to save the Promenade, but the opportunity is to better connect it to the Brooklyn Bridge Park below. Only one vertical circulation connection exists now, a pedestrian bridge about a block north of the Promenade. Repairing and pedestrianizing the cantilever would more than triple the size of the Promenade, creating a High Line for Brooklyn. Simple pedestrian bridges over Furman Street would connect the to the parks below. In order to preserve maintenance access to the repaired cantilever, the City would not build any new structures on or under it, but would equip the lower levels of the Promenade for street vendors and other programming. Park expansion is what can make the proposal decisive politically. It would bring in parks funding sources and, as Robert Moses himself said, “when you’re on the side of parks, you’re on the side of the angels,” and so could win the support of everyone who likes parks. In addition, more space is freed up with the decommissioning of the BQE, because a large berm sits behind Pier 3 whose purpose seems to be to block the park from noise. One possible use for the land would be as a hotel, as the Brooklyn Bridge Park is technically zoned for manufacturing and already has a hotel on it. This would bring in economic development funding sources to the project. The City would contract with a union hotel chain to operate the hotel, receiving income from their ownership of the land and providing an aggressively marketed alternative to illegal AirBNB hotels. This might win support of the Hotel Trades Council.

The Opportunity of Bicycle and Pedestrian Connections
The pedestrianization of the Brooklyn Bridge is proposed here as a necessary step to reduce traffic in response to the BQE’s decommissioning, but it is also an opportunity to improve bicycle and pedestrian connections. The Brooklyn Bridge has six lanes: three on the southern span and three on the northern span. In addition, it has a pedestrian path, half of which is, in theory, reserved for bicycles. In practice, there are too many pedestrians to make this a usable bicycle route at all times of day, and the pedestrian areas would be crowded in and of themselves even if they had the full path. Under the Bridge to Promenade proposal, the southern span would be repurposed for the exclusive use of bicycles and pedestrians (closing the existing pedestrian path to bicycles). The northern span would be reconfigured for use by emergency vehicles only, as a two-lane road with shoulders. This would require reconfiguring one exit ramp each direction on the northern half (because its direction would change) but these ramps would not need to accept high traffic volumes. They should still be designed not to preclude use by buses or light rail, in case those services are added to the Brooklyn Bridge. The southern span would become bicycle and pedestrian-only, with the vehicular ramps repurposed as bicycle and pedestrian approaches, connected to protected bike lanes and crosswalks on the surface streets on either side. With the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrianized, vertical circulation between the two levels would be added at both towers, with an additional elevator and stairs added to the eastern tower, giving direct access from the bridge to the park that bears its name – and even designate the pedestrian path as a linear park for branding purposes, meaning that Brooklyn Bridge Park would stretch all the way from City Hall to the expanded Brooklyn Heights Promenade. The bicycle and pedestrian improvements would bring in streets funding sources and win the support of safe streets advocates.

The Opportunity of Mixed-Use Social Housing
Even with the expanded parkland, there would be a great deal of space created for development, including approximately ten city blocks’ worth of land in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, thanks to the demolition of the BQE in Brooklyn and unneeded exit ramps leading from the bridge to the FDR in Manhattan. More may be available with the conversion of other sections of the BQE into avenues: Hicks Ave, Park Ave, and Williamsburg Ave. Considering that they are replacing expressways, mid- or even high-rise development would not be an eyesore, and the land is already owned by the City. Rather than give city land away to private interests, socialists would use their position in the coalition to fight for city-developed mixed-use districts with retail, light manufacturing, and especially social housing. As proposed by People’s Policy Project in Social Housing in the United States, social housing is publicly-developed housing built to serve a mix of incomes, with market-rate apartments to help cover the costs of construction and maintenance, but also produce a share of deeply affordable units. Though ideally receiving federal funding under a new Green New Deal housing bill, the City could finance construction through bonds backed by the rents of the market-rate units and the retail parcels on the ground floor. Because some of these parcels are technically zoned for parkland, the new buildings would have rooftop parks that would be directly accessible to the public through elevators connecting to the rest of the parkland (while residents would have their own lobby entrance and residents-only balconies and terraces). Public housing residents elsewhere in the community board district would have the right of first refusal to the new apartments, permitting the gut rehabilitation of any public apartments in need of repair, and saving money for the embattled New York City Housing Authority as it addresses its massive capital backlog. This would bring in housing funding sources and allow the proposal to win the support of tenant activists, housing advocates, and some development interests such as the building trades, as well as everyone who pays too much rent.

Take Back the City
These are very much first-draft proposals, especially considering that planners and engineers would have to weigh in on the feasibility and implications of each of them. While it expands the scope of the BQE project, it does so alongside the money saved from decommissioning, and does so to take advantage of the likely effects of the teardown, while  proposing new funding sources and political interests that might support the additional scope. Despite the fact that it would involve working with interest groups under capitalism – the upper middle class of Brooklyn Heights, the development interests that want new buildings and new property-value boosting parkland with them, and the private contractors who would build it all – it is a socialist proposal. Acknowledging the engineering constraints and the existing balance of interests in the city is what makes it a sewer socialist proposal – the epithet originated as a criticism of Miwaukee’s Socialists by the more revolutionary wing of party. It is still a socialist proposal because unlike the capitalist status quo of balancing the exchange values of various property owners against one another, it subordinates each of those special interests to a social vision of the public interest. That public interest is defined in terms of use values for the great majority of ordinary people who lack connections to political and bureaucratic insiders. They don’t control the city, but they live in it, work in it, and use it, and they deserve a city that works for them. The people of Brooklyn Heights have a right to keep their Promenade, just as the residents of the Gowanus and Farragut Homes have a right to decent, affordable social housing. Pedestrians have a right to public recreational amenities, just as truck drivers and e-bike delivery workers have a right to safe and well-designed routes through those same areas to do their jobs. Everyone has a right to mobility, but because cars are the dirtiest, most dangerous, most socially exclusive, and most inefficient way to achieve that mobility, motorists must be secondary in plans to allocate city space, and must pay their fair share.

The people of Brooklyn Heights are demanding a better way than a six lane highway. Socialists in New York should use that demand to make it happen.

-Emil

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The Economist Wants Socialist Taxes

In the fourth explainer this week, the Economist continues its steady transformation into a socialist magazine. Today, taxes:

MARKETS are supposed to generate a magical state, where nobody could do better without somebody else doing worse. Awkwardly, they often fail. The reason is that those directly involved in a transaction are not the only ones affected by it. A drive into the centre of town, for example, creates congestion for everyone else; a company dumping waste into a river poisons the downstream drinking water; carbon emissions warm everyone’s planet. Economists have a special name for these extra costs: they are “externalities”. Unfettered market prices do not take them into account.

The much-lauded market dumps hidden costs on the people. Nothing new to socialists. So, the Economist, after Arthur Pigou, proposes taxes:

Pigouvian taxes are now central to well-meaning governments’ toolkits. A tax placed on plastic bags in Ireland in 2002 cut their use by more than 90%. Three years after the British government introduced a charge on driving in central London in 2003, congestion had fallen by a quarter. Carbon taxes are currently applied in Finland, Denmark, Chile and Mexico. By using prices as signals, a tax should encourage people and companies to lower their carbon emissions more efficiently than a regulator could by diktat.

The Economist does hedge here, new as it is to socialism. That they see Pigouvian taxes as a superior alternative to regulation, while most socialists would consider both depending on circumstances. But the only thing keeping the Economist from renaming itself the Tax Collector is that they see externality taxes as a technocratic lever for a rational state bureaucracy to pull. They fail to imagine, as socialists do, that such policies have their most potential as a tool the people can wield to build a more just and fair society – after, and not before, they who would be free themselves have struck the blow.

The idea of externalities is elegant in theory. But responding to them involves the real world, which is harder.

The Economist hurls a chair onto the barricade, sweating in the shadow of their young nation’s tricolor waving above the morning fog. The hereditary tyrant’s regulars advance on them through the narrow streets of the capital. The Economist hands their last letter to an urchin, promising a silver coin if the boy delivers their last words to their pregnant widow. “I pray this letter finds you, my love,” it reads. “In this springtime of peoples born in the blood of our sacrifice, the community of nations will rise.”

The regulars loose thunder and advance with bayonets fixed. Struck by a musket ball, the Economist staggers off the barricade, their blood running in rivers between the filthy cobblestones. In their last moments, the Economist mouths the final words of their testament. “The ancient tyrants will fall,” the Economist gasps, as agony gives way to oblivion, “and the triumphant Republic will levy user fees whose marginal effect on individual behavior will trend towards Pareto optimum in the aggregate.”

-Emil

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The Economist Defends Socialist Economic Planning

In today’s explainer, The Economist embraces more socialism. This one is pretty straightforward. It’s Jean-Baptiste Say’s theory that supply creates demand:

Say and his intellectual allies pointed out that people would not go to all the trouble of producing a good or service, unless they intended to obtain something of equal value in return. So each addition to supply is accompanied by an intended addition to demand. Moreover, the act of production creates an additional item of value for which other things can be exchanged. In this way, production creates a fresh “outlet” for existing products (and 17 times as much production creates 17 times as many outlets).

In Milwaukee, the (original) sewer socialists built or brought under public control utilities, parks, housing, and the sanitation system. Rather than crowding out private business, Milwaukee thrived. During the New Deal, an active government managed demand in the public interest – and built a staggering array of public projects Americans still use today. They stop just short of the realization that this is true of many social organizations, not simply national governments, but municipalities, cooperatives, labor unions, and land trusts:

…over the long run Say’s law is largely true. And by increasing the supply of money to meet any excess demand for it, modern central banks can try to make it true in the short run too.

The only thing keeping the Economist from renaming itself the Social Economics Administration is their failure to imagine – as socialists do – demand management being carried out by anyone other than technocratic central bankers who serve the interests of private capital.

The Economist looks directly into the reptile eyes of senseless human misery, which stare back, pitiless, as the beast bears its yellow fangs. The Economist does not flinch, secure in the knowledge of the great truth that can slay the ancient foe: that no human being must go hungry in a land of plenty. Slow but resolute, the  Economist draws a sword on whose blade are carved the words  – the central bank ought to hold the interbank interest rate steady even after concluding the latest round of quantitative easing – just before it is devoured whole by the unsated maw.

-Emil

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