Last week, Erik and I had a fun discussion about the role of geography in shaping one’s political opinions, what this means for Erik’s arguments for competitive federalism and localism, and the way in which our national debates largely cast aside the actual problems faced by actual people in favor of scoring broader points, thereby ensuring that our policies wind up being either poorly crafted to deal with the actual problems or instead as “corner solutions.”
Erik: I liked David and your posts on NYC. Makes me awfully jealous, though, as I’ve never been there (or much of anywhere back East…)
Mark: Thanks. But hey – I’m at least equally jealous of your canyons and mountain vistas.
Erik: I do miss the city sometimes, though. I miss Vancouver and Seattle and Denver. I love having open spaces, but it would also be nice to have a few more things to do around town. Not that Flagstaff doesn’t have plenty of culture. Just not quite the variety you would get in the city. Plus, it’s really expensive but you can’t make much money. They call it here, “poverty with a view.” Always trade-offs I guess.
What size town do you live in?
Mark: Yeah, city life definitely has its advantages. We’ve been kicking ourselves ever since we moved back to NJ for not at least moving to one of the close suburbs. We actually long for the wastelands of the DC Beltway, if only because we could at least walk places there.
We now live in the town where I grew up, which has about 20,000 people these days I think; it’s at least doubled in size over the last 25 years, although it seems to have finally leveled off. It’s a town that you’d definitely call an exurb – we’ve got a smattering of farms that have managed to survive (almost all of the town’s growth has come from reconstituted farmland), no Main Street, a handful of small strip malls (one of which contains the best pizza in NW Jersey, but which always gets less business than whatever mediocre-by-NJ-standards pizzeria is occupying the more-desirable strip mall across the highway), a boatload of 0.5 to 3 acre lots, and thousands of pharmaceutical and telecom workers.
Erik: I wonder how much our towns influence our politics. For instance, my home town is about 50 or 60,000 people, but it is very much the center of Northern Arizona. There’s tons of art, artists, musicians; lots of walkable places, a really lively downtown with all kinds of restaurants, bars, art galleries, outdoor spaces, etc. So for more, localism has been a big thing. I see what our city government has done in partnership with local businesses, artists, and community members and I can honestly say this is good governance. This is something I support. In fact, downtown Flagstaff has become a bigger tourist draw for our town than the Grand Canyon. I remember moving to Denver and living in the suburbs with no local character, no walkable downtown, lots of strip malls and chain stores, and I just couldn’t ever get comfortable. So I wonder if I’d have a completely different world view if I was a product of the Denver suburbs rather than a product of this town (and other places I’ve lived like Vancouver).
Mark: It probably goes without question that the geographical environment in which we come up has a strong influence on our worldviews. But I’m not sure it’s even possible to achieve the level of self-reflection necessary to recognize how one’s worldview is affected by their environment. In fact, I suspect that pretending that we are capable of doing so just creates obstruction to actual arguing over the issues. Better instead to recognize that “reality” can be a very subjective thing. Objective analysis is useful in debating whether a particular solution either has achieved a particular goal or is likely to achieve a particular goal. It is not, however, remotely useful in determining how big (or little) a problem something is.
The national debate over your state’s new illegal immigration law is a good example. Opponents of the law kept bringing up statistics about how border crime is not increasing and screaming bloody murder about civil liberties. Much as this position may be objectively correct, I wonder how this line of argument must come across to folks who live in the border area and who actually experience the crime and the trespassing and who deal with the consequences of a federal government that consistently fails to address their experiences.
Similarly, the way in which supporters of the law proudly dismiss the civil liberties aspect of things seems to fall prey to this. It is certainly objectively true that an immigrant need only be worried about being asked for their papers if there is probable cause to believe they did something illegal in the first place. It is also objectively true that legal immigrants are required to possess their papers under federal law as it is (albeit only a regulatory violation). But if you’re not an immigrant, who the hell are you to tell immigrants (or, for that matter, foreign tourists or business travelers) that this means the infringements on their civil liberties are only trivial or even non-existent?
And this says nothing about the condescension towards the front-line people on one’s own side involved in taking the “We Are All Arizona” line (which has been used on both the pro-
and anti- sides
). That tactic reminds me of how much the whole “We Are All New Yorkers/Washingtonians” mindset after 9/11 made my skin crawl as someone who lived a stone’s throw from the Pentagon and had several close ties to the WTC.
The result of this is that neither side meaningfully acknowledges the existence of the problems the other side is trying to address and each side largely just winds up exploiting the problems experienced by their “side” to advance their own national agendas. Lost in the shuffle are the actual problems being experienced by actual people.
Erik: Absolutely. The same is true for economic class, or educational background as well. I suppose I’m particularly biased when it comes to Arizona since I do live in the state, and since I think much of the anti-immigrant bias is actually based on myth rather than fact. The stories of illegal immigrants trespassing or various other crimes spawned from illegal immigration are wildly exaggerated in the common imagination here.
I think a pretty big part of the support for this law has nothing at all to do with personal experience of either job loss due to immigration or victimhood of a crime, and much more to do with the potential for these things to happen and the rational fear that they might, given the exposure to horror-stories surrounding illegal immigration. And of course the drug factor here is huge but few people seem willing to acknowledge that bad policy is mostly to blame for the violence and crime which comes from drug trafficking.
In any case, here is where we come to the tension between doing things nationally and doing things locally – taking ‘locally’ to mean not just geographically, but also economically and in terms of educational background as well. I believe that government has the potential, at least, to be much more responsive and effective at a more local, autonomous level.
Geographically this makes a great deal of sense. It helps to avoid problems in misunderstanding from one region to the next. It hones the business of governance to specific areas with specific needs. However, when you take economics into the equation this gets trickier, since poorer areas are less capable of self-governance in the first place. A return to geographically more localized government runs the risk of really undermining even more the poorer parts of the country. I can see a lot of these places being left even further behind in such a system, not because they are incapable of self-governance but because they are unaccustomed to self-governance.
Mark: Regarding the immigration law, you’re certainly in a better position to know than I, although I have to ask whether the experiences of Northern Arizona may be significantly different from the experiences of the border areas of the state, which is obviously a very large state geographically. In any event, I get your point about local autonomy and the tradeoffs involved.
But I think I’m also trying to get at something else here, something more related to the way we discuss policy and social problems more generally, and exploit (or ignore) actual problems to serve our own ends, however noble and well-meaning. I mean, even to get to the point where one can craft an autonomy-creating agenda, one has to have a discussion on a national (or state) basis. How one approaches that discussion will affect how that discussion turns out – not just in terms of whether something gets passed, but also in terms of whether what gets passed achieves the goal in a way that meaningfully addresses real problems. I think what I’m getting at is that our discussions of how to help people solve real-life problems through politics very rarely, if ever, actually involve asking those people “what can we do to help,” if they’re on our “side,” and “what are you willing to give up” if they’re on the other “side.”
And, to be honest, that’s an impossible request, and I’m certainly as guilty of violating it as anyone. But it’d be at least helpful if we could better keep in mind that the goal of advancing a particular agenda is to actually help people solve real-world problems or, in the alternative, to help people avoid the artificial creation of new real-world problems. It is not simply to advocate policies that we merely think will make other people’s lives better off, or to defeat policies that we merely think will make other people’s lives worse off. The former shows concern for an equal; the latter reeks of self-aggrandizing paternalism.