I have tried, over the life of this blog, to strip away as much of my own personal political views, to present a non-partisan view of the topics I cover here. Most of them are technical or mathematical in nature to begin with, and many others are the subjects of broad left-right consensus, so this has not been a large handicap. Where my center-leftism has crept in, it is the inevitable result of America’s main political fissure: the Republican Party is (broadly) the party that opposes cities and the people who live in them, and the Democratic Party is (broadly) the party of the urban archipelago. This makes some forms of judgment on political affiliation inescapable. I didn’t turn my Twitter avatar into an “I’m With Her” button, but I highly doubt anyone would have been shocked if I had.
The present circumstances are not normal. The broad threat to the rule of law and American political and social norms ought to transcend partisan affiliation (but has only done so to a small extent so far). It is without precedent in American history, at least since 1865.
There is no aspect of our common life together that isn’t likely to get worse before it gets better. The hope for the continuance of our democracy and our sovereignty lies in massive resistance to actions that would erode them, but while the resistance will attempt to remain non-violent, instigation of violence assists the Leninist playbook of those in the White House who see chaos as a ladder. I see mass violence within the next four years as nearly inevitable, and the priority going forward as the mitigation of violence as much as its avoidance. This may be despair talking, but it is an educated despair. I hope I’m wrong, I just don’t think I am.
To bring this back to the ostensible topic of this blog, what does this mean for Philadelphia, and the (hopefully) free movement of people, goods, and services in out and around it?
Well, for better or for worse, we are somewhat used to survival on restricted income; the threat to withhold all Federal funds from us over our status as a Sanctuary City is a threat of injury, not death. We do not have to, and should not, sell out our undocumented neighbors, who contribute so much to our commonwealth, for thirty pieces of Federal silver.
The inherent properties of dense urban living mean that we can continue to preserve and grow wealth for all of our residents, even in the face of endemic poverty.
Assuming that subsequent elections proceed under the rules we are used to, Pennsylvania as a whole flipped red in 2016 for the first time since 1988 in large part because its rural areas and smaller towns and cities have now lost two entire generations of young talent to colleges and better economic opportunities in New York, California, New England, Texas, Florida, and, secondarily, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. (The driving force of this trend is deindustrialization, which privileges large metropolitan areas over more distributed population patterns; while trade is a common and obvious culprit, automation is responsible for the destruction of far more industrial employment.) This demographic macro trend was abetted by the ongoing sclerosis of the once-vaunted Philadelphia machine, which literally cannot turn out voters to save its own life. The last five Democratic campaigns for President (Obama ’08, Clinton ’08, Obama ’12, Clinton ’16, and Sanders ’16) have all bypassed the Philadelphia City Committee entirely, and built their own local infrastructure, in large part because the City machine is that useless.
To flip Pennsylvania back to the blue column in 2020, reviving the Commonwealth’s smaller urban places is a high priority, but restrictive zoning here in Philadelphia is now a completely unaffordable luxury in the face of the necessity to add urbanophilic population, by the hundreds of thousands, in one of the few places in Pennsylvania with economic opportunity worth speaking of (and when our competitive advantage over New York and San Francisco comes from an affordable cost of living). Fixing Philadelphia local politics, root and branch, within the institutional context of the Democratic Party, a project already in progress, takes on new urgency. Hundreds of people are already investigating running for City Committee (the entry level of city politics) in the 2019 cycle, or for Judge of Elections (an election integrity/functionary position) next year. Finding more ways to retain our large population of college students, also a project already in progress, must also remain a priority.
The two points above mean that we will have to fund our own services, without any assumption of assistance from higher levels of government, and that we must therefore keep our outlays frugal and compatible with the growth of the city.
Mass demonstrations, already a regular occurrence in Philadelphia in the context of Black Lives Matter, will be ever-more important. Protests should have leadership, formal or informal, ready to marshal bodies into disrupting what needs to be disrupted and leaving harmless what needs to be held harmless. Legitimate, productive targets include State and Federal Government facilities, and drivers in rush-hour traffic. Illegitimate or counterproductive targets include hospitals, and subway and train service. Philadelphia Black Lives Matter was, at times though not consistently, a master of the techniques required to leave a street porous to buses and ambulances while blocking cars and trucks. Those lessons will need to be relearned and/or retransmitted.
Assume all electronic communications are monitored. Encrypt everything, and even then don’t make any electronic records of anything you would want to keep away from the determined interest of a nation-state.
In the event of the worst, Philadelphia residents should be prepared, as best as possible, to shelter in place, possibly with no services or utilities, for days at a time. (This is a good idea to begin with, for anywhere subject to natural disasters, i.e. anywhere on the planet.) We should also be prepared to evacuate to safety on short notice. This is not the easiest of directives; the lessons of Yugoslavia, New Orleans, and Syria are that most of us will be easily trapped and sitting ducks, and that there is no way to easily mitigate this. While we are a port of entry, we are far from any international land borders, so the easiest method of escape is unavailable to us. Good emergency planning tips are available at the City OEM website.
The silver linings are faint. The Secretary-designate for the US Department of Transportation, Elaine Chao, is one of only two Cabinet picks so far (as of 13 December), along with General Mattis at Defense, who actually believes that the department she has been selected to lead ought to exist. There have been rumblings of a major infrastructure bill early next year, but what we’ve seen so far is a massive giveaway to investors and roadbuilding contractors, which beyond even the obvious problems, seems likely to result in more unproductive infrastructure that we can’t afford the upkeep on, but will encourage more city-sapping suburban sprawl in the meantime. The appetite for this even in a pliant Republican Congress seems slim, although the lack of opposition from Democratic leadership is highly disappointing.
Philadelphia seems to be poised to be one of the front lines in the struggle for decency and liberty for the next four years. There is both danger and opportunity in this position for us. This creates a certain responsibility, and I for one intend to embrace that responsibility for the duration. And I would not wish myself anywhere but where I am: in Philadelphia, and in the company of Philadelphians.
Regular programming here will resume with the next post.