Kevin Drum

Pedestrian Friendly

| Tue Sep. 9, 2008 8:45 PM EDT

PEDESTRIAN FRIENDLY....Atrios has a couple of links today to (a) a new suburban development somewhere in Indiana and (b) his own Philadelphia neighborhood. The Indiana burb was chosen specifically because it was fairly extreme in the sense of being completely isolated and therefore 100% car-centric, about which he says:

Suburban development is inevitably going to be automobile-centric....However, being automobile-centric and being designed in a way which almost entirely excludes the potential for other modes transportation are very different things. The car and the light rail can coexist. Sidewalks can run to areas with retail. One could even allow a corner store and a pub within a residential neighborhood! Maybe, just maybe, there can be small corridors of street level retail without giant parking lots, small town style. Places like this do exist, mostly but not just in older suburbs.

Developo-blogging is pretty far outside my wheelhouse, but I want to wade into this momentarily. Not because I have any huge point to make, but just to provide an illustration of how hard it can be to create genuinely non-car-centric spaces outside of small towns and urban cores.

I live in a subdivision of Irvine, California, called Woodbridge. It's actually fairly famous as one of the original master planned communities of the 60s, and believe you me, it's master planned to within an inch of its life. This has its drawbacks (lots and lots of beige houses), but there are also benefits. The main one is that it really was planned as an integrated community of sorts.

To get an idea of what I mean, here's a Google Earth picture of Woodbridge. It's the piece inside the yellow oval loop plus the strip just outside it, and the total population is about 30,000. There are houses and apartments on the north and south, with the central section reserved mostly for shopping, churches, schools, medical offices, parks, and so forth. There are sidewalks everywhere, of course, and also bike lanes.

The central section is actually pretty handy. There are six separate areas designed for shopping (outlined in red), and those areas include four supermarkets, a couple dozen restaurants, three department stores (though one is shutting down), a bookstore, two movie theaters, two drugstores (with one more about to open), several banks, a hardware store, two Blockbusters, and lots of other miscellaneous shops. Every single one of these places is safe, easily accessible, brightly lit, and a maximum of 1.5 miles from every single point within Woodbridge. Short of being downtown, this is about as walkable as it gets.

And walk it I do. All the time. (This isn't out of environmental altruism, it's because I shop for food daily as a way of forcing myself to get out of the house and get some minimal exercise.) And here's the thing: aside from occasional dog walkers, I have the place to myself. Despite the fact that it's about as pedestrian friendly as a suburb can be, nobody walks anywhere. They don't bike either — the only cyclists I see are biking for exercise. Woodbridge is, as near as I can tell, about 99.9% car-centric despite having a design that's about as pedestrian friendly as you'll find in a suburb.

Like I said, I don't have any big axe to grind here — except to say that as important as pedestrian-friendly design is, it's also possible to overstate that importance. Something more has to happen to reduce our dependence on cars. Maybe the price of gas just needs to double a couple more times. Maybe better mass transit is the key. Maybe something else. But here in Woodbridge, anyway, we built it and they did not come. Not on foot, anyway.

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Intelligence

| Tue Sep. 9, 2008 3:36 PM EDT

INTELLIGENCE....Juan Cole on the latest reports from Iraq:

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that Ali al-Lami, an Iraqi politician, protege of Ahmad Chalabi, and member of the Debaathification Committee, is being charged by a high unnamed American official with providing information on Iraqis to the "special groups" (Iranian-run cells within Iraqi Shiite militias like the Mahdi Army), which was useful to them in assassinating these individuals.

....So what is being alleged is essentially that the United States (Rumsfeld & Paul Bremer) installed on the Debaathification Commission a secret agent of Iran who was running Iran-backed death squads based on the information to which he became privy by virtue of being on the commission!

Well, points for efficiency, I guess. Of course, I imagine the odds are pretty good that Rumsfeld and Bremer had no idea this was going on, something that's always been our biggest problem in Iraq: we don't know what's going on nearly as well as all the various local actors. How could we, after all? And I'll bet we still don't.

Arnie and the Guards

| Tue Sep. 9, 2008 2:09 PM EDT

ARNIE AND THE GUARDS....You may be wondering what I think of yesterday's announcement by the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. (i.e., the prison guards union) that it plans to launch a recall effort against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Answer: I laughed. Yes, Arnold's approval rating has been steadily shrinking because of our ongoing budget crisis, but there's still one group in California that has him beat on every possible metric of unpopularity: the prison guards union. They may have a lot of money, but the idea that the public will follow their lead on much of anything is risible.

Or so it seems to me, anyway — but I've been wrong before. And maybe I am again. Still, this seems more like a negotiating stunt than a serious recall effort. Schwarzenegger deserves eternal opprobrium for his cynical (and vastly underappreciated) role in causing the exact budget crisis he's now trying to dig himself out of, but I still won't take the guards seriously on this until I see platoons of signature gatherers deployed to every supermarket within a ten mile radius. I'll let you know when that happens.

The Spin Within

| Tue Sep. 9, 2008 1:32 PM EDT

THE SPIN WITHIN....I haven't yet read The War Within, Bob Woodward's "secret White House history," but I've read the excerpts in the Washington Post and my reaction so far is pretty similar to Derek Chollet's. Far from being a critical account of George Bush's management of the war, it reinforces exactly the narrative of himself that Bush himself is so fond of:

Beneath the surface, the core of Woodward's account actually seems to reinforce the narrative that Bush is trying to spin about Iraq — that against mighty resistance inside and outside the government, a small group made the gutsy decision to double-down with the surge. As with every Woodward book, there's a story within the story. His sources share their tales (or in some cases, secret papers) to settle a score or shape the historical narrative. And here we see National Security Adviser Steve Hadley taking over Iraq decision-making and guiding Bush as he stared down leery Generals and worried political advisers to push the 2007 surge.

....Now, former White House aides and loyal Bush defenders like Peter Wehner are using Woodward as Exhibit A to support their depiction of a heroic President. But perhaps the happiest reader will be John McCain. After all, he has as much at stake as Bush in having this "surge victory" narrative take hold. Woodward's story also enables McCain to have it both ways, distancing himself from the chaos of the Bush Administration's internal battles, while associating with the core message of defying conventional wisdom to support the surge. Woodward's account of McCain is exactly as McCain's campaign wants it to be.

That seems about right. Woodward has a pretty standard m.o. on these books, and it looks to me like the White House has finally figured out how to make that work for them instead of against them. Hadley looks good because he drove the planning of the surge, Bush looks good because he stayed out of the muck but nonetheless stood by his principles, and in the end, the mythology of the surge being solely responsible for the security improvements in Iraq gets a big boost. The White House must be pretty happy with Woodward right about now.

The Bridge to Somewhere

| Tue Sep. 9, 2008 1:18 PM EDT

THE BRIDGE TO SOMEWHERE....ThinkProgress reports that the McCain campaign has now repeated the lie about Sarah Palin opposing the Bridge to Nowhere 23 times since Friday last. That's as of an hour ago, though, so the total might be higher by now.

And not to get too sanctimonious about this, but this really is a test of some kind for the press. This lie is unusually egregious given the plain facts of the situation (Palin was eagerly supportive of the bridge until after Congress pulled the earmark, at which point she reluctantly decided to take the money but use it for other projects), and if the media allows the McCain campaign to get away with this — if they relegate it to occasional closing paragraphs and page A9 fact checks — well, that means McCain knows he can pretty much get away with anything. The press will be writing its own declaration of irrelevance. Interesting times indeed.

Quote of the Day

| Tue Sep. 9, 2008 1:39 AM EDT

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From David Brooks, commenting on our current political environment:

"The Republicans are intellectually unfit to govern right now...."

OK, I'll buy that. But how about expanding on this theme a bit, David? I'd like to hear more — much, much more — about it.

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Gaffe Watch

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 6:39 PM EDT

GAFFE WATCH....Sarah Palin, peeking out from a thicket of pre-scripted talking points in Colorado Springs, goes off message briefly and explains what went wrong in the home mortgage market:

The fact is, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, they've gotten too big and too expensive to the taxpayers.

A gaffe! But how does it measure up? On a technical basis, I'd say it's impressive. Until now, Fannie and Freddie haven't cost the taxpayers a dime and their current problems aren't really related to their size either. This leaves only a few conjunctions and proper names as sensible parts of this sentence.

On artistic merit, however, the judges have to score this one for Palin. Nobody cares about the minutiae of how GSEs work, after all, and liberal attacks on this score are almost certain to backfire because (a) we're obviously harrassing her unfairly over trivia because she's a small town mom and (b) we're just trying to show off how smart we are. Besides, as Palin said, John McCain is in favor of "reforming things," so he's obviously the right guy to tackle whatever problem it is that Fannie and Freddie suffer from. For liberal critics, then, there's no there there.

Actually, what's really impressive about this is that even though Palin obviously didn't know what she was talking about, she managed to dig smoothly into the standard movement conservative playbook to say something pleasing to the base anyway. Got a problem? It must be government's fault! Something somewhere got too big and too expensive and conservatives need to rein it in. Nice work.

Anyway, I'm sure more like this will crop up soon. In the meantime, though, I'll be a little quiet for the rest of the afternoon because the U.S. Open is um, I mean, because I have some important research to do for an upcoming article. Yeah. That's what I meant.

Meanwhile....

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 2:25 PM EDT

MEANWHILE....Over in Thailand, it's possible that a constitutional crisis will be averted because the prime minister also hosts a cooking program on state TV. From the Guardian's report, here's a sentence you don't see every day:

The cooking show, Tasting, Grumbling, a mix of tips on traditional Thai cooking and rants on subjects of his choosing, represents the most immediate threat to his power.

That's right. If a court rules that Samak Sundaravej's show violates the constitution, then he'll be out of office with no muss and no fuss. Perhaps we could import a similar system into our country?

The Expectations Game

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 1:30 PM EDT

THE EXPECTATIONS GAME....Time's Karen Tumulty says that Sarah Palin was very good in her 2006 gubernatorial debate and offers this advice:

That's why Joe Biden should be wary, especially since she will have expectations very much in her favor.

I know this is a dumb question, but why exactly should expectations be in her favor? It's true that she's going to be relying on four weeks of intensive briefing rather than a lifetime of experience, but high school juniors do this in debate competitions all the time. There's really not much reason to think that's a big problem. And all the other critiques of Palin (Bridge to Nowhere, Troopergate, book banning, tax raising, lack of vetting, etc.) have nothing to do with whether she's likely to be effective in debate.

Conversely, it's almost universally acknowledged that (a) Palin is a natural politician and a good speaker, (b) she has a nice folksy manner, (c) Biden has a lifelong habit of running off at the mouth, and (d) he's going to have to walk on eggshells to keep from looking like a boor who's hammering away at a poor little housewife from Wasilla. Given all this, why is the press once again playing the game of insisting that the Republican candidate will be the de facto winner if she merely avoids catastrophe? I mean, I know that's the spin coming out of Steve Schmidt's shop, but it's not really true, is it? The fact is that, all things considered, Palin is the favorite in this contest — though perhaps also a bit of a wild card since catastrophe is always a possibility for someone so new to the national stage.

In any case, this game ought to cease. There's simply no reason that Palin's expectations should be low for October's debate. If anything, it probably ought to be the other way around.

The Bailout

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 1:10 PM EDT

THE BAILOUT....So what would have happened if we'd just let Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac fail? I mean, we've got to draw the line somewhere, right? Tyler Cowen provides the nightmare scenario:

But let's say that the Treasury did not support the debt of the mortgage agencies. The Chinese bought over $300 billion of that stuff and they were told that it is essentially riskless. The flow of capital from them and from other central banks, sovereign wealth funds, and plain old ordinary investors would shut down very quickly. The dollar would fall say 30-40 percent in a week, there would be payments system gridlock, margin calls at the clearinghouses would go unmet, and only a trading shutdown would stop the Dow from shedding half its value. Most of the U.S. banking system would be insolvent. Emergency Fed/Treasury action would recapitalize the FDIC but we would lose an independent central bank and setting the money supply would be a crapshoot. The rate of unemployment would climb into double digits and stay there. Many Americans would not have access to their savings. The future supply of foreign investment would be noticeably lower. The Federal government would lose its AAA rating and we would pay much more in borrowing costs. The deficit would skyrocket.

Well, um, OK then. I guess rescuing them was the right thing to do. I'm still a little taken aback by the apparent fact that American banks are now almost flatly unwilling to make mortgage loans unless they're backed by Fannie or Freddie, but that seems to be the case whether it takes me aback or not. So rescue them we must. I suppose my next question is whether it's worth thinking about how to restructure the American home mortgage industry so that it can operate efficiently even in the absence of massive levels of government backup. Or is Fannie/Freddie style backup just the way the world works these days and there's no point fussing over it?