A Placemaking Journal

After the Plague: Go Big or Go Backwards?

This is the first of several posts planned for the next few weeks on lessons we’re learning from the pandemic and how local and regional governments might respond – not only to the crisis itself, but also to weaknesses in policies and processes COVID-19 exposed.

Let’s start with an understatement: Community development leaders – whether they’re in government, non-profits, or the private sector — are likely to remember this time as the most challenging of their lives. Every hard choice is harder, every strategy fraught with uncertainty.

At the moment, we’re upping the anxiety and the stakes for decision-making as governors in a majority of states bow to pressure to lift stay-at-home restrictions that were intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. Ahead is a series of uncoordinated experiments that will produce as-yet-unknown outcomes everywhere. Officials are betting lives and economies on assumptions that are at once wishful thinking and probably inevitable. We can’t expect people to hide in their homes forever.

Response to the pandemic is a global challenge. But impacts are felt most quickly and most dramatically in local and regional jurisdictions where people live and work and where Americans tell pollsters they have the most faith in government. It’s also where the resources for responding to the crisis are most threatened.

“(This) is a time when we actually need an expanded and more dynamic role for local government,” said Rick Cole, the departing city manager of Santa Monica, California, in an interview in The Planning Report.

Cole worries about what comes next, a dismantling by budget cuts and layoffs of cities’ capacities to respond to citizens’ needs. Echoing one of the most frequent observations of these times, Cole told his interviewer that the virus only daylighted a capacity and resource problem that has been building in the shadows for decades:

“For years, we’ve seen ourselves as the provider of a set of legacy services: police, fire, libraries, parks, land use planning etc. We forgot that all those services were actually invented to respond to the challenge of industrializing America a century ago. We continue to provide them without adequately re-examining their fit for the world we live in today. If we were starting from scratch today, we would design a government that looked more like the I-Phone than the rotary phone. But of course we can’t start from scratch – we have tens of thousands of dedicated people in public service trying to use rotary phone government to meet 21st Century needs.”

There’s little doubt other leaders with responsibilities like Cole’s would agree. So here’s the question: If we can’t start from scratch, how might local governments start building a 21st century operating system?

The Normal Crashed and Burned

If we’re being honest about what the pandemic has taught us, we have to start with reconsidering the most beloved pre-COVID strategy of urbanist reformers: incrementalism. Places become more adaptive to change over time, the argument goes, if interventions are small and gradual, allowing for course corrections when mistakes reveal themselves. True enough, if time and politics allow.

We’ve argued in this blog for a modified incrementalism, for identifying and doing “the biggest little thing” to build trust for greater ambitions and confidence in outcomes. Now it appears the biggest little thing may have to be way bigger than most of us imagined.

As is often the case after catastrophic events, the deeply felt hope is for a return to normal. But over the last couple decades, it’s become clear that the old normal allowed for an increasing number of workers and their families to suffer from a broad range of interconnected inequities. “What we have in the US,” said Annie Lowrey, a reporter for The Atlantic, in an early April interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein, “is a shitty equilibrium — that’s a technical term.”

After the Great Recession, said Lowrey, “the economy never really caught fire, but it did keep on growing steadily for a decade. What that left us with was an economy that looked good in terms of headline numbers but with a lot of weakness underneath. Productivity growth was terrible. We had a really great unemployment number, but we had large numbers of people who weren’t even trying to work. And we also had a lot of financial strain among families. And a main reason for that is that the costs of health care, education, childcare, and housing grew faster than wages did for a really long time.”

Then came the virus and the lockdown.

By May 1, more than 30 million Americans had applied for unemployment, and estimates for a drop in GDP and rise in US debt were beginning to look as scary as 1940 numbers. Deaths from COVID-19 passed the low-end projections for end-of-year totals with two thirds of the year to go. When Washington’s financial rescue packages began to roll out, price tags climbed past the $2 trillion mark and were on their way to $3 trillion and beyond. That would put costs in the neighborhood of the most ridiculed socialist-branded Green New Deal programs for Medicare For All, climate change mitigation, college loan forgiveness, and infrastructure reform. Maybe combined.

The sudden, enormous stream of money, as necessary and crucial as it’s been, wasn’t targeted at system repair. It’s rescue support, like the resources needed to get people off roofs in hurricane-flooded neighborhoods. If the virus vanished miraculously by Memorial Day and every job was saved for every worker, all the pre-pandemic inequities would persist, potentially amplified by a ricketier infrastructure for doing business and politics.

“Government schemes will save businesses in the short term, which is welcome,” wrote The Economist. “But those designed to preserve jobs risk eventually creating zombie firms that neither thrive nor go bankrupt, slowing the recycling of labor and capital.”

We have an infrastructure problem.


The Law of Leaky Pipes

When engineering teams surveyed infrastructure in New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina flooding, they found that the buried pipes designed to carry fresh water into neighborhoods were leaking maybe half the water they were expected to carry. Likely a preexisting condition, said the engineers, and not all that unusual, given the inevitable political wrangles over budget priorities in every jurisdiction. Elected officials don’t earn or keep their political advantages by looking for solutions for problems that aren’t problems. Until they are.

Some pipes leak money. Often as unintended consequences, sometimes by design. The 363 tons of cash that disappeared in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq is an example of the former.

In a 2007 story about of an investigation by a congressional committee, the British newspaper, The Guardian, provided some eye-popping numbers: “The US flew nearly $12 billion in shrink-wrapped $100 bills into Iraq, then distributed the cash with no proper control over who was receiving it and how it was being spent.”

The bottom line, said The Guardian, quoting from the report:

“Many of the funds appear to have been lost to corruption and waste … thousands of ‘ghost employees’ were receiving pay checks from Iraqi ministries (under control of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority). Some of the funds could have enriched both criminals and insurgents fighting the United States.”

The money came from Iraqi oil sales, surplus funds from the UN oil-for-food program, and seized Iraqi assets. Technically, it wasn’t taxpayers’ money. But still, that’s world class leakage through a makeshift infrastructure cobbled together, then overwhelmed by the need to fix stuff fast. The debacle wasn’t the plan. It was just the accidental, and predictable, outcome of a busted pipes scenario.

Inequitable distribution of services and opportunities is leakage by another name. And it’s similarly predictable. It’s the default design of a political and financial infrastructure to prioritize the resilience of some – say, major companies and high-wealth households – over the subsistence capacities of others – say, more vulnerable businesses and families.

It’s not an evil plot or a secret conspiracy. It’s a patchwork infrastructure shaped over time in plain sight, accomplished with the electoral consent of a majority willing to go along with the trickle-down theories of wealth protection rather than trusting wealth redistribution schemes suspected to be rife with “waste, fraud, and abuse.” Ironic, of course, given the potential for exactly those outcomes in the sudden flood of cash required to temporarily patch all the holes.

Take the feature of the pandemic rescue plan that many assumed was intended for small business owners and workers and turned out to reward some publicly traded corporations with multi-millionaire CEOs. Naturally, outrage ensued. Though it won’t win them sympathy, the winners in that program and so many other hurry-up bailouts can argue they were playing within the rules.

Didn’t anyone read the legislation? Or for that matter, didn’t anyone notice the default infrastructure of the economy we’ve consented to perpetuate?

Patchwork Nation

We’re not at the level of institutional dysfunction of post-invasion Iraq. But consider the pipes we use to administer policy, funding, and oversight in non-crisis times and through which we’re now attempting to pump tons of hurry-up cash:

We have a federal government divided into three “co-equal” branches currently disputing the meaning of the term. Our system of federalism preserves significant roles for the 50 states that are often in competition with one another for funding and policy control. Also in that competitive arena are thousands of “general purpose governments” (municipalities, counties, boroughs, parishes, etc.) within the states. Then, add to the mix 2,800 separate health departments and 13,300 school districts. So: Jurisdictions overlap, undermining consistent policy interpretation and implementation. And budgeting processes incentivize infighting, institutionalize fiefdoms, and suppress innovation.

All of which implies a supersized challenge if we’re to untangle the mess and better align authority and accountability. Just a few months ago we seemed to be of a mind that major structural change would be unaffordable and unrealistic. Has the systemic shock from the pandemic inspired an appetite for thinking big?

Those who were already open to ideas put forward in proposals like the Green New Deal spy opportunity: “In such an environment,” wrote New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, “ambitious progressive ideas that once seemed implausible, at least in the short term, start to become more imaginable.”

Some of the beneficiaries of the pre-pandemic status quo recognize the emergency. Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and the second richest guy in the world, has become a global leader in health policy advocacy. He’s earned attention and admiration, as in this recent profile in the Washington Post, a newspaper owned by Jeff Bezos, the only guy in the world richer than Gates. There are even calls to action from some in the financial press.

Here’s Barry Ritholtz, founder of Ritholtz Wealth Management, in a recent Bloomberg column:

“The current rescues only treat the symptoms of economic distress; they do nothing to address structural issues that have been a drag on middle-class household income since the 1980s. If we want to restart the engine that made this nation a superpower, we need to do something big. I mean really, really big: defeat-the-Nazis, land-a-man-on-the-moon, invent-the-internet big.”

Reforms may not have to be on that scale to appeal to leaders like Rick Cole, the former Santa Monica city manager quoted at the top of this post. A good start would be to put aside the wishful thinking and commit to strategies that measure up to what we claim as our values:

“We are hunkered down in our homes now,” Cole told his interviewer. “But when we emerge from them, we can’t hunker down in obsolete formulas of outmoded government bureaucracy.  No one knows when or how this will end, but it will end.  Our job in the public sector is to lay the foundation for a more equitable, more sustainable and more resilient life in the cities of the future.”

The way forward might be in steps less grand than those the most progressive voices propose. But they can at least recognize both the emergency and the political realities. For inspiration, we might consider an anecdote reported by Charles Duhigg in the May 4 issue of the The New Yorker.

A Bigger Little Thing

Early in the pandemic, when it became obvious to public health experts in Seattle and its surroundings that COVID-19 infections were about to explode in the region, Jeff Durgin, King County’s chief health official, knew the temporary invisibility of the threat worked against mobilizing a public response on the scale eventually required. So Durgin went to King County executive Dow Constantine with a first-step strategy:

“Jeff recognized what he was asking for was impractical,” said Constantine. “He said if we advised social distancing right away there would be zero acceptance. And so the question was: ‘What can we say today so that people will be ready to hear what we need to say tomorrow?’”

As Duhigg, The New Yorker reporter explains it: “In e-mails and phone calls, the men began playing a game: What was the most extreme advice they could give that people wouldn’t scoff at? Considering what would likely be happening four days from then, what would they regret not having said?”

That suggests a “biggest little thing” strategy informed both by the uncomfortable realities of what’s at stake and by clear-eyed appreciation of the barriers that must be overcome. It seems a practical way to begin the discussion. Like now.

Ben Brown

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