Short Announcements

by Henry on March 1, 2014

(1) Three Quarks Daily is resuming its prize for best blog post in politics and social science. People should vote – there’s a decent prize – but should strongly consider posts on less well known blogs by less well known bloggers, since most of the social value of prizes like this comes from disseminating information on good writers who might otherwise not get attention. I liked this by Quinn Norton, and this piece by Xavier Marquez, myself.

(2) The Baffler has a blog and indeed has had one for a while, with good posts like this by George Scialabba. It also, obviously continues to have good articles, like this piece on Cambridge, MA and Aaron Swartz, and this takedown of Andrew Sorkin’s Dealbook. As well as other good articles that aren’t made freely available online too …



Sam Tobin-Hochstadt 03.01.14 at 3:41 pm

As someone who lived in Central Square for 10 years, that article about Cambridge is so misleading that it makes me doubt my longing long-time fondness for The Baffler. Just a couple examples. It makes expanded MBTA service, the primary transportation mode for Boston’s poor, seem like a service for yuppies. And it doesn’t talk to a single Cambridge politician, perhaps because that would disturb the sentiment that it’s run by Bloomberg clones.


bianca steele 03.01.14 at 4:09 pm

As someone who’s lived in the Boston area for 25 years and worked in Kendall Square about 15 years ago, I agree with @1. The article seems emblematic of the kind of left politics that’s interested primarily in opposing people it perceives as not nice, sometimes because it has its own projects and is mostly interested in fending off outside opinions (say, you’re running a homeless shelter, it’s reasonable at times to take an antagonistic stance against the city government), sometime it seems because it’s interested in moral purity rather than change. It might be interesting to play off the Laura Tanenbaum piece in Jacobin against the Baffler one.


geo 03.01.14 at 5:52 pm

Henry: Many thanks for the kind words.

Sam: Glad you (mostly) like the Baffler and sorry you found this piece misleading.

For others: Summers’ 8000-word essay is a case study of capitalism’s leading edge: the New Digital Economy. “They call it the Innovation Economy. … It’s a neat utopia: an entire economy rigged to a framework of intellectual capital, from PhD to patent, with a startup model of rapid development taking hold of cities like Austin, Berkeley, Boulder, Las Vegas, Raleigh, and Seattle. … A mix of big corporations and investor-backed startup enterprises gathers around the shared strategic value of innovation, operating in an environment rich with public resources. … The market has been driving the poor and the working class out of these cities, and the Innovation Economy is finishing them off, cleaning house for the new guests. … Innovation means the price of existing goes up. … This, you see, is how innovation works. Mask political choices in the universalist rhetoric of the market. Purge the surrounding environment of social intelligence. Surge into the space with vested interests masquerading as public ones, and then call in the future for cover.”

As anyone knows who’s been reading Rebecca Solnit in Harper’s and the Nation lately, Silicon Valley is in the process of destroying most of what most of us loved about San Francisco. The same thing is happening in Cambridge and, as Summers notes, many other places — everywhere, in fact, there’s a Knowledge Factory, aka major research university. This is our future, and Summers’ essay is simply trying to keep us from stumbling into it blindly .

About transportation, here is the essay’s complaint. It’s not exactly as Sam represents it:

In early summer 2013, Governor Patrick signed a “tech tax” on computer services that was supposed to raise the money badly needed to save the region’s aging bridges, buses, roads, and subways from falling into disrepair from the additional density of Innovation Economy development. In early fall 2013, the same Governor Patrick signed a repeal of the same “tech tax.”

The tech tax reversal neatly illustrates the law of economic development concealed within the Innovation Economy’s magic wand. Call it the innovator’s dogma: in response to the siren call of the future, the whole community must conform.

The innovator’s dogma explains why, two months after reversing himself on the “tech tax,” Governor Patrick decided to extend the operation of the aging subways and buses until 3 a.m. on weekends, a policy generations of the region’s college students had failed to achieve. “Is this cool or what?” the Governor cooed.

Others warned that maintenance workers will bear the additional pressure and that the transportation system will decrease in safety. But the governor’s special pleading knew no bounds: “This is about how we make the system modern for the kind of economic growth we have been experiencing and will be experiencing. The folks who work in the innovation sector—they live differently.” He then left on a ten-day trade mission to tell business leaders in Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong the good news.

As for Sam’s second criticism: come on, the Baffler isn’t the New York Times, whose ideal of professionalism entails quoting boilerplate inanities on the order of “Why, no, of course we’re not selling the city to big corporations. This is the future! It’s good for everyone.” Of course Summers spoke to those politicians who would speak to him and tried to talk to others. They didn’t have anything to say worth printing.

Bianca: “interested in moral purity rather than change” — ??? It’s a little late in the day to be pointing out that “change,” especially when engineered by large corporations with the assistance of the state, is very often not good for the rest of us. Hence the Baffler’s motto: “The journal that blunts the cutting edge.”


bianca steele 03.01.14 at 6:16 pm

geo: My meaning is that some people seem more afraid that the woman who works at the homeless shelter will say mean things to them (maybe when they try to create a non-profit to help the homeless without consulting with anyone already helping them, or taking an ordinary volunteer opportunity), than that homeless people, as well as the ordinary unemployed and working poor, and maybe even the lower middle class, will have safe and secure places to live, enough to eat, and good educations.

The article doesn’t need a critique from me. Its argument is very clear. If there are factual errors in it, a quick Google search will clear it all up for anybody who cares about the issue and has the time to commit to working on it. For everybody else, what they think doesn’t apparently matter, as long as they choose which side they’re going to be on.

And it’s interesting that the rhetoric is rarely aimed at the one percent. If the area needs a fifth methadone clinic, it’s never, let’s put it in monotone Lexington, you people need to acknowledge that people like you have heroin problems too. It’s usually, let’s put it in diverse Framingham, where the region’s other four methadone clinics are already located, you people have no reason to be so snooty. Opposition to late bus and subway service is framed as keeping people from drinking and staying out late, unless of course they have money for taxis.

I didn’t see opposition in that article to fancy condo complexes on the river that were built 50 years ago, only to new factories that were built on the site of old factories (not of housing), and attempts to keep existing jobs and industries in the state.


bianca steele 03.01.14 at 6:21 pm

And I admit I’m not a West Coast person, but to me the idea that SF wasn’t already one of the snootiest places in the country is amusing.


The Temporary Name 03.01.14 at 6:35 pm

And I admit I’m not a West Coast person, but to me the idea that SF wasn’t already one of the snootiest places in the country is amusing.

Every place has its snooty elements but San Francisco was tolerant of weirdos in a way no other place I’ve visited in North America was. The spirit of the place was about letting people be themselves – not for nothing was it the gay mecca of the US – and it was cheap enough to live there that such things could happen.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 03.01.14 at 6:44 pm

Pareene’s piece on Sorkin is terrific.

Here’s Bill Black, hunting the same game.


bianca steele 03.01.14 at 6:44 pm

It may have been cheap to live there (and more feasible to live on the street than here, there were lots of baby-faced white kids camping in the park), but it seemed to me there was no middle. I went into what is here the ordinary-person department store and could not afford a single thing in there, and mostly didn’t want to, and the place screamed “you shouldn’t be in here” the way the fanciest department stores in New York do not. The Castro, at least in those days, felt different, that’s true. It felt more like Cambridge.


Sam Tobin-Hochstadt 03.01.14 at 7:03 pm

geo: Oh come on. First, the reason to talk to Cambridge politicians is not to get a boilerplate response, but because they might actually be doing things relevant to the point of the article. Like building affordable housing. Or using the enormous amount of tax money paid by the companies decried in the article to improve city services — Cambridge is easily the best run city I’ve ever lived in, and public school quality and police response time matter more for people who can’t pay privately for their own education and security. Or the fact that Cambridge has the lowest allowable residential property taxes, shifting as much as possible of the burden onto the above-mentioned companies.

As for the MBTA, the argument in the article is a joke. If the MBTA decided to expand service, we’d normally hail that as a victory for the people who use the T — again, the sort of people the Baffler normally argues for helping. The only reason given not to do this is that it’ll be hard on MBTA employees, as if they’re being asked to make the T run later without being paid for it.

Cambridge is the best example I know of of a city making the modern economy work for all citizens. Public transit expansion is vital for a whole variety of important changes our society needs. This article disparages them so that it can make ridiculous charges, most of which boil down to “I don’t like big companies”.


geo 03.01.14 at 7:43 pm

Sam: The essay most certainly did not offer reasons “not to do this” (ie, expand hours for public transportation). Its point was that non-important people (ie, the public) had advocated this change in vain for generations, but the government only responded when important people (ie, the new corporate workforce) were affected, signaling who counts and who doesn’t. You seem to have missed the point entirely.

As for housing, did you miss this?

The market has been driving the poor and the working class out of these cities ever since, and the Innovation Economy is finishing them off, cleaning house for the new guests. The cost of housing in Cambridge and Greater Boston has zoomed, with rising rents taking a growing share of dwindling low- and middle-incomes. Partly by design, partly by accident, the corporate consolidation of the housing stock will wind up leaching diversity from neighborhoods by pricing residents out and installing corporate professionals in their place. Innovation means the price of existing goes up.

Not only is there no master plan from government officials to address the housing emergency, it was their master plan that caused it. Between 2010 and 2013, while the state’s leading Democratic politicians went around the country selling off the region’s neighborhoods to corporate partners in the Innovation Economy, the number of homeless people in Massachusetts rose by 14 percent. (The national number went in the opposite direction.) Significant gains in jobs outside commercial science and biotech have not materialized; indeed, the jobless rate for those who don’t have a college credential is twice that of degree-holders. So we can expect the Innovation Economy to send more of the region’s poorest and most vulnerable residents scrambling with their children into temporary shelters and motels. Housing is the hinge of class formation.

When platoons of large rats are displaced from underground and come skulking into homes and basements, it makes for well-attended community meetings. But opposition to Innovation Economy–style development has no sure voice in the political class and only a marginal position in the city’s social structure. Property owners, who benefit from the booming real estate market, have seen their taxes remain relatively low. Out-of-state campaign donations from developers have grown to unprecedented levels in municipal elections.

More generally: the article was not a report card, a kind of Livability Report, on Cambridge. It was an assessment of the present and future effects on the city (and elsewhere) of a new model of economic development.

Whether or not Cambridge is a stellar example of “a city making the modern economy work for all citizens” is, once again, beside the point. The point is that those who define the direction of the “modern economy” don’t give a fig for “all citizens,” and they have the power to seduce or intimidate state and municipal governments into greasing their path. Some crumbs may fall off the banquet table into the public trough, but “all citizens” are definitely not invited to the feast.


Sam Tobin-Hochstadt 03.01.14 at 9:45 pm

geo: you say this:

Whether or not Cambridge is a stellar example of “a city making the modern economy work for all citizens” is, once again, beside the point.

And then this:

The point is that those who define the direction of the “modern economy” don’t give a fig for “all citizens,” and they have the power to seduce or intimidate state and municipal governments into greasing their path. Some crumbs may fall off the banquet table into the public trough, but “all citizens” are definitely not invited to the feast.

But of course, the second claim is just that Cambridge isn’t doing just what you said you didn’t care about. And to claim that, you and the article author have studiously avoided things like talking to the elected representatives of those citizens, or looking at any data about Cambridge. And that’s because it wouldn’t support your point.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 03.01.14 at 9:51 pm

This article disparages them so that it can make ridiculous charges, most of which boil down to “I don’t like big companies”.

I graduated with an Econ Major in 1981. Back then, my reaction would probably have been the same.

My multiple trips around the sun since then have me saying, “Big companies suck, and it’s not even debatable.”


Dr. Hilarius 03.01.14 at 11:45 pm

I don’t know Cambridge and can’t say anything about the article’s specifics. But its general thrust, that specific elites increasingly drive public policy is dead on.

I live in Seattle which has been on a trajectory similar to that of San Francisco. The South Lake Union area is dominated by Paul Allen/Vulcan and Amazon. Low story, low-cost housing has been replaced with expensive condo and apartment complexes. Warehouse and small business space is being demolished. There is an electric trolley line, with a higher fare than regular buses, to shuttle people through Amazonia. Regular attempts are made to create building code exemptions to benefit Vulcan. All of this coated in sugary talk about innovation.

Working class neighborhoods like Ballard now host bars that get glowing reviews in the New York Times. Now I like a nice bar or restaurant as much as the next person but not so much when it comes at the price of driving out every business that doesn’t cater to young techies. Even the young techies complain about housing costs. But no fear, you can rent a 200 square foot “apodment” for under $1000 a month.

A recent election created council districts to replace the former system of all seats being at-large. This was partly in response to people feeling that council members no longer had any connection to ordinary citizens and that corporate money has reduced citizen input to window dressing. The election of an avowed socialist, Kshama Sawant, reflected broad unhappiness with increasingly exclusionary decision making. She even picked up votes from some old-style Republicans, leaving me to wonder if Hell will soon send forth a speed skating team.


geo 03.02.14 at 12:13 am

Sam: The point is not whether Cambridge is better or worse, or neither better nor worse, than other cities at mitigating the damage wrought by the Innovation Economy and neoliberalism generally on urban life throughout the country. The point is the damage (of which there’s plenty of evidence in the article), and the fact that, as Dr H notes above, there seems to be precious little that the citizenry can do about it in the face of the paucity of public resources and the juggernaut of corporate lobbying and propaganda.


maidhc 03.02.14 at 2:19 am

San Francisco spent the last 40 years looking down their noses at Silicon Valley, making remarks like “Eww, that’s so 408!” The San Francisco Chronicle pointedly excludes Silicon Valley from any of its “Best of the Bay Area” features.

Meanwhile the average Silicon Valley inhabitant hasn’t been to San Francisco in ten years for fear of being set upon and robbed by homeless people, and is convinced that the main activities that go on there are drug sales and public defecation.

Now all of a sudden San Francisco has declared that it is part of the formerly despised Silicon Valley, has invited tech companies to move into its run-down neighborhoods, and then started to complain about rents going up.

I remember a similar phenomenon happening about 15 years ago, although San Francisco still avoided using the repugnant Silicon Valley label back then. That trend came to a sudden stop. But that will never happen this time around!

Meanwhile all the traditional Silicon Valley companies remain in Silicon Valley, immune to the temptations of the fleshpots of San Francisco. While Silicon Valley is not a cheap place to live, it has always been cheaper than San Francisco and it mostly still is.


Agog 03.02.14 at 8:51 am

Paul Allen named his investment company ‘Vulcan’?

As in: ‘I am successful because I am more rational than you foolish humans’??


Zamfir 03.02.14 at 9:45 am

It’s the nuclear bomber he stole, and now he wants 100 million dollar.


Andrew Burday 03.02.14 at 5:08 pm

The link that’s supposed to take us to a Scialabba blog post only goes to the top of the Baffler’s blog, and the top post there right now is not by Scialabba. Did you mean to link to

or something further down the list?


Dr. Hilarius 03.02.14 at 6:46 pm

Agog at 16: Paul Allen is a science fiction fan and creator of the Experience Music Project (EMP) and Science Fiction Museum at the Seattle Center. So, yes, I suspect your interpretation may be correct.

I will give Allen credit for putting money into science research recently. For a long time Allen seemed to be interested only in acquiring big boy toys like the Portland Trailblazers and the Seattle Seahawks. But his good works still leave the rest of us in the position of losing self-determination in the hope for philanthropy.


Harold 03.03.14 at 3:50 am

Why is there a blog post defending charter schools???


Harold 03.03.14 at 6:46 am

I don’t know why the Baffler would have a blog entry defending charter schools. Appalling.

Comments on this entry are closed.