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Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Don Giovanni and the Human Tragedy

Some years back I tried to figure out what I would have to give up if I moved from Chicago to Indianapolis. I came up with only two big things, clothes shopping and world class opera. The internet took care of access to fashion in short order. And world class opera got fixed by the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts.

Most opera lovers know that you can now see the Met Opera in high definition in movie theaters around the country. It’s not exactly being there, but it’s pretty good. And it’s a great way for newbies to try out opera without breaking the bank. Your max burn is less than $20 vs. upwards of $200+ at the opera house, so the price/performance can’t be beat.

But what even many opera folks might not know is that London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden is now also into the movie theater game. It’s not as ubiquitous as the Met, but pretty widely available (see end for details).

The next Royal Opera House production to screen in the US is Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which is coming up this week. I want to take this opportunity to promote it. Selfishly, if these things aren’t patronized, we’ll lose them, and I’d like to make sure this opportunity sticks around.

Don Giovanni is considered by many – including Yours Truly – as the greatest opera of all time. It tells the story of Don Juan (Giovanni in Italian), the mythic Latin lover many of us have heard of, but may not know much about. In fact, Mozart’s version has become the definite telling of the Don Juan myth. The music is also spectacular and easy on the ears. This makes Don Giovanni an ideal choice as a first opera to see, so this week is your big opportunity if you’ve never done it.

To get you in the mood, and to help you make sense of what you’re seeing, I’ll give a bit of an explanation of the opera. But first a musical sample, “Protegga il giusto cielo” (Protect us, O righteous heaven – click here if the video doesn’t display for you).

The Plot

First the plot, which it helps to know in advance. (Adapted from Wikipedia)

After an ambiguous offstage sexual encounter, Donna Anna chases a disguised Don Giovanni from her home. Anna’s father, the Commendatore (Commander) insists on fighting the Don. Reluctantly, the Don is forced to fight, kills the Commendatore, then escapes. Anna’s boyfriend Don Ottavio arrives and Anna makes him swear vengeance against the at this point unknown Don Giovanni.

The Don and his sidekick Leporello come across a woman singing of betrayal by her lover. The Don decides she’s to be his next conquest. But as they approach it turns out she is Donna Elvira, whom the Don had already used and discarded, and he’s the one she’s singing about! The Don bolts for the exits, leaving Leporello with Elvira. He tells her not to waste her time on the Don, singing the famous catalogue aria regaling her with the Don’s thousands of prior conquests – 1003 in Spain alone! Here is a concert version (click here if the video doesn’t display):

Elvira swears she’ll get revenge. Meanwhile the Don and Leporello stumble across the celebration of a pending peasant wedding between Masetto and Zerlina. The Don decides to seize his opportunity, inviting everyone back to his castle to celebrate. He forces Masetto to depart with Leporello, leaving him alone to woo Zerlina with promises of marriage.

The Don is on the verge of closing the deal when Elvira barges in and steals Zerlina away. Then Anna and Ottavio enter. Not knowing that the Don is the one they are seeking, he persuades them he’s on their side. As he leaves, Anna realizes to her horror that the Don is the one who killed her father.

Back at the Don’s castle, Leporello informs him that everyone’s there, but that Elvira had brought Zerlina back and had caused trouble. The Don is unperturbed, and anticipates the fun ahead with his so-called champagne aria (click here if the video doesn’t display).

At the party the Don pulls Zerlina aside to continue his seduction. But Masetto is watching and when the Don discovers him, he’s forced to back off. Meanwhile, Ottavia, Anna, and Elvira have put on masks and come to the party. (Their praying for God’s help in their mission is the first trio above). While Leporello distracts Masetto, the Don drags Zerlina off to have his way with her. But she screams for help, and to cover himself the Don grabs Leporello as if he’s the assailant. The masqueraders reveal themselves and tell the Don they know the real score, but he escapes again.

Act 2 opens with the Don convincing Leporello that they should switch identities. He leaves the disguised Leporello to try to seduce Elvira, while he goes off to try to find Zerlina again. It turns out that Elvira is still in love with the Don, and so responds to Leporello’s serenades. Meanwhile the Don runs into Masetto who, not knowing who he’s really talking to, reveals his desire to kill the Don. The disguised Don, offended at this, beats up Masetto and leaves.

Leporello dumps Elvira but ends up running into Masetto, Zerlina, Ottavio, and Anna who are going to kill him. Elvira arrives to try to protect her “lover”, but Leporello unmasks his true identity, apologies, then escapes in the confusion. When Ottavio and Anna are alone, he begs her to marry him but she refuses to until her father is avenged.

The Don and Leporello regroup in a graveyard near a statue of the Commendatore adorned with an inscription promising revenge against the person who killed him. Leporello is freaked out, but the Don only laughs and tells Leporello to invite the statue to dinner. Much to their surprise, the statue accepts.

The Don and Leporello go back to the castle and throw a lavish banquet. Elvira shows up and tells the Don to change his ways. He only laughs and sends her packing. But as she’s leaving she screams as she sees the statue of the Commendatore arriving for dinner. Leporello goes to investigate but likewise is terrified. So the Don himself goes to the door and invites in the statue.

The Commendatore takes the Don by hand and demands that he repent of his sins. The Don refuses multiple times, upon which with fires of hell erupt through the floor and suck him down to his doom. All of the characters rush in as Leporello explains what happened, and they sing a festive song of celebration explaining their future plans. Elvira will retire to a convent. Leporello says he’ll go in search of a better master. Zerlina and Masetto are to be married. Ottavio wants to marry Anna, but she puts him off for another year, this time for mourning.

Interpretation

What then are we to make of the opera? At one level, it’s simply supremely beautiful music, maybe the best ever written. French opera composer Charles Gounod said of it, “I regard it as a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection.” GB Shaw said it was “eminent in virtue of its uncommon share of wisdom, beauty, and humor.” Kierkegaard’s Aesthete in Either/Or said, “Anyone who wishes to see Mozart in his true immortal greatness must consider his Don Giovanni, in comparison with which everything else is incidental, unimportant.” This is all true even just considered as great music, to which you can simply listen and enjoy.

But opera is a dramatic medium as well, and there’s much more to be gleaned from this opera than simply pretty notes. In fact, there’s a nearly inexhaustible supply of things. As with all classic works – Hamlet, Plato’s Republic, and so many others – Don Giovanni is pluripotent. It carries an infinitude of meanings. It’s also highly problematic and impossible to decipher. Just as it’s been said that there’s never been and never will be a perfect singer in the role of the Don, there never will be a perfect interpretation.

My personal view is encapsulated by the diagram below, which I call Don Giovanni In One Chart:

Don Giovanni is a contrast between the world as we would like it to be, and the world as it really is. In our idealized world, the contrast is between the Commendatore and the Don, between the honorable man and the rake. Alas, this is not the real world. In the real world the Don’s opposite is not the Commendatore, but Ottavio, the pathetic, feminized man. This speaks to the nature of masculinity, but also to the human condition itself and the tragic dilemma we face.

Don Giovanni is a scoundrel. Some have tried to paint him as a sort of Enlightenment hero, one liberated from the prudish constraints of a more primitive age. And there is in truth some of that. The Don is living the Sexual Revolution well before his time, and maybe as a 1%er too. Yet, he is exploitative towards women, whom he treats as objects of his lust, he abuses his social status, he’s a liar, he breaks any promise when it’s convenient to do so, is a complete coward, someone who sucker-punches his opponents, and probably much more I don’t recall at the moment. He is pure appetite, pure impulse, completely unreflective, with no self-denial and no self-control. He lives according to man’s more elemental, animalistic nature. Kierkegaard’s Aesthete sees the Don as representing the fleshly sensual nature of man within the context of medieval Christian though, and thus an embodiment of the demonic. Given that he was sucked down to hell at the end, it’s hard to argue with this.

The Commendatore we know little of, but he appears to be a perfectly honorable man. He was a noble, had a prestigious position, defended the honor of his family, was fearless and godly (going to heaven when he died, presumably with his sexual fidelity intact), his quest for justice enduring beyond the grave. As the inscription on his statue shows, he was a man who made plans, ones rationally conceived and patient in their execution. Like a genuine Christian, his first call is to repentance, not judgment.

The Commendatore then is what a man should be, the Don what he should not. It’s tempting them to see them as opposite potentialities within the heart of man. Choose wrong and become the Don, right and become the Commendatore.

However, this is not the case. Except at the very beginning and end, the Commendatore is absent from the scene. He’s literally a ghostly, otherworldly figure. Instead, we are treated to three other men who exist along a continuum extending from the Don. There’s Leporello the sidekick, a potential Don in training though with a conscience. There’s Masetto the peasant. And there’s Ottavio, the pathetic, feminized suitor of a reluctant Anna.

These men display progressively lower levels of masculinity, awareness, and power. Leporello knows the score and is capable of taking action, if only within the Don’s parameters. Masetto also knows the score but is impotent to do anything about it. Ottavio is clueless. Each of these is paired with a woman in the opera – Elvira, Zerlina, and Anna, respectively. Notably, while the Don is irresistible to women and has power over them (even Elvira is still in love with him), these women have progressively greater degrees of control over the other men. Elvira is a somewhat loose match to Leporello and exerts but little influence. But Zerlina has Masetto wrapped around her finger. And Anna is actively deceiving, exploiting, and abusing the hapless Ottavio as an almost inverted female version of the Don. Whereas the Don takes what men stereotypically want from women – sex – without marriage, Anna takes what women stereotypically want – loyalty, support, protection,and commitment – without marriage. Clearly in progression from the Don to Ottavio, there’s a progressive increase in bonding to, dependence on, and control of the men by women.

Of these additional male characters, who comes closest to being in the mold of the Commendatore? Clearly Ottavio. In fact, Ottavio, with his half-drawn sword, excessive devotion to Anna, and promises of revenge, is almost a parody of the Commendatore.

Given that the Commendatore is absent and Ottavio is present, what does this say? It tells that Ottavio is what happens when we try to civilize the rake. In taking away what’s bad from the Don, one also takes away what makes him great. He even loses his attractiveness to women at a sexual level. Anna may sleep with the Don, but she’s never going to marry Ottavio.

Looking at the chart, the oppositions at the bottom are those between evil and good, except for the last. Masculinity and femininity are different but not opposites and don’t map to good and evil. There’s no obvious reason why as we move from evil to good, from appetitive to rational, from the flesh to the spirit that the Don would become Ottavio instead of the Commendatore. But that’s what happens. And therein lies the tragedy. It’s impossible to remove the worst in a man without also removing the best. They are too deeply intertwined one with the other. Civilizing a man is tantamount to unmanning him. It’s why stereotypically nice guys (boring) finish last, and women want to date the jerks (exciting).

This dilemma is also made manifest in the incompatible existences of the Don and the Commendatore. When they come into contact they obliterate each other like matter and anti-matter. They aren’t capable of inhabiting the same universe. It’s not just that in the first encounter the Don killed the Commendatore and in the second vice versa. Rather, both were destroyed in the first encounter, of which is the second was but its completion. The Don never put another entry in his famous catalog of conquests after it. His power was finished. Like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off, he was already dead, he just didn’t know it yet.

But what makes this more than a male tragedy but a human one is that the Don represents more than just the male gender. He represents here our more primitive, beastly nature as a species. In that regard, Don Gionvanni tells us it’s not just a man like the Don who becomes enfeebled and pathetic through civilizing, it’s also humanity as a whole.

It’s been observed that the Don is the animating force of the entire opera and all the characters in it. As Kierkegaard’s Aesthete put it, “With the exception of the Commendatore, all the characters stand in a kind of erotic relation to Don Giovanni.” When the Don is removed from the scenes, the wind goes out of the sails of the other characters. Elvira is off to the convent, her life figuratively finished. Leporello becomes a wanderer in search of a mythical better master. Anna and Ottavio enter a type of stasis. Only Zerlina and Masetto seem to have a normal future in view, albeit an utterly pedestrian one – no more adventures for them. One wonders how happy these people will be with the Don no longer around. (I think this point would have been made less ambiguously had the opera ended with the Don being pulled into hell, as Mozart originally wanted it to).

How many over civilized and decadent empires have fallen to barbarians? It is not because the life force of humanity comes from its barbarian nature, not its civilized side? Shorn of its more primitive nature, how long will any society endure? This is the reality that underpins Machiavelli’s famous dictum that, “A man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil. Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.”

Especially in the modern age of technological wonder we have this conceit that we can perfect humanity, that if we can only eliminate the bad, we can achieve a just society and human flourishing. Don Giovanni says not so fast. It doesn’t go quite like that. But the opera does so in a way that goes even beyond the Christian concept of original sin. Whereas medieval Christianity says damned if you do, Don Giovanni says damned even if you don’t. Even if you live righteously or successfully repent, the results won’t be what you’re imagining. The defect is too deep in our natures and in the cosmos to be eradicated even by truly walking the straight and narrow. Humanity is caught between the Scylla of its savage animal nature, and the Charybdis of the enfeeblement of over-civilization. Only a new heavens and new earth indeed can ever truly resolve this dilemma.

Don Giovanni is in US theaters starting March 27th. Cities, theaters, dates, and times are available at Screenvision. Many European opera companies are infamous for obscure modern stagings of operas and unfortunately ROH’s Don Giovanni seems influenced by this, and it got mixed reviews. But the music is fantastic so this remains a good one to go see. For more information on the production, see reviews in the Telegraph, the Guardian, and the New York Times.

Friday, March 21st, 2014

Detroit Emergency Manager Seeks to Unleash an Infero of Moral Hazard

One of lesser followed aspects of Detroit’s bankruptcy is a lawsuit filed by emergency manager Kevyn Orr to repudiate $1.4 billion in debt by claiming it was illegally issued. This appears to be mostly a negotiating tactic, but if the judge ends up agreeing with this, it will unleash an inferno of municipal moral hazard that will no doubt be exploited by politicians around the country.

Michigan, like many states, limits the amount of indebtedness cities can incur. To top off pensions, former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick borrowed $1.4 billion. To circumvent debt limits, he created special purpose entities to do the borrowing. Orr now claims these were sham entities, and so the debt issue was illegal, so the city is entitled to pocket the $1.4 billion and not pay it back.

Keep in mind that creating special purpose corporations of various types for this sort of purpose is widespread municipally and in the corporate world. Also keep in mind that Kwame Kilpatrick was a crook who’s going to spend the next 28 years in prison for corruption. It’s an interesting claim that an outright criminal who borrows money can claim that because his scheme is crooked he doesn’t have to pay the money back (Both Kilpatrick and Orr were both speaking ex-cathedra as municipal CEO). What kind of logic is this?

If Detroit successfully repudiates this debt, municipal leaders elsewhere would almost have to be idiots not to take advantage of the same trick. Elect a crooked mayor or merely one with few scruples. Borrow an insane amount of money by skating on the edge of the law. Then sue yourself claiming you couldn’t possibly have legally done the deal, so don’t have to pay the money back. Rinse, repeat.

The feds should drop the hammer on this hard on this. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for big banks. On the other hand, when someone takes out the municipal equivalent of a “lair’s loan”, they shouldn’t be allowed to profit from being a crook.

In large municipal bankruptcies, it’s pretty common to claim that the indebtedness is all the fault of those greedy bankers who deceived the poor servants of the public. I believe similar claims were made and generated quite a bit of municipal recovery in Orange County and Jefferson County, Alabama. But look closely and I think where you find a shady banker operating, you’ll often find a shady client as well.

Why do people keep electing crooks like Kilpatrick to office? Well, if it turns out those guys are able to fleece out of town bankers to the tune of $1.4 billion, why wouldn’t you? Looks like he might have cut a pretty savvy deal after all. This sort of behavior shouldn’t be rewarded. You can be sure shady municipal borrowing will only be on the increase if the courts allow the Detroit to play a heads we win, tails you lose game with the banks. Think about that the next time your city engages in legal contortions to dig itself even deeper into debt.

Speaking of Detroit, the free market Manhattan Institute will be doing a one hour live streamed event this Monday the 24th with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr. It’s at 1pm ET and is called “Detroit: The Next American City of Opportunity.” You can access the event at: http://www.publicsectorinc.org/2014/02/detroit/. If you want to submit questions, tweet them to @ManhattanInst with the hash tag #SaveOurCities.

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

The Problem Is Not Enough Implementation, Not Too Few Ideas

My latest column is online in the March issue of Governing magazine. It’s called “How to Harvest Good Ideas” and it focuses on a theme I’ve written about before, namely that the real problem in cities isn’t a lack of good ideas, but a lack of an ability to select and implement good ideas. Thus the focus we tend to have on ideation can be misplaced. Here’s an excerpt:

Indeed, if you look at the cities that have achieved notice for their accomplishments, it’s usually as much or more an implementation story than an idea story. Most of the transportation changes implemented by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan were not original ideas. The real lesson to take away from New York is less the ideas than the implementation strategy. It’s about a mayor who provided air cover and empowerment to his department chief. And about a commissioner who used very low-cost pilot projects, often done with little more than cans of paint, to create working demonstration projects without getting bogged down in endless planning studies and red tape.

True, some cities have better ideas than others. But the bigger divide is between can-do and can’t-do cities, or perhaps more realistically, cities in which its easier versus harder to get things done.

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Chicago in the 1940s – In Color

A 30 minute short film about Chicago that was shot c1947 has been making the rounds bigtime in the last week or so. Someone found a print of it at an estate sale and it wasn’t previously known before. It was produced by the Chicago Board of Education (who today doesn’t seem to know anything about it) for some purpose unknown, but appears to be a promotional type film designed to sell the city. It’s very interesting to see Chicago during that era. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.


Sunday, March 16th, 2014

The Great Skills Gap Myth

One of the great memes out there in trying to diagnose persistently high unemployment and anemic job growth during what is still, I argue, the Great Recession is the so-called “skills gap”. The idea here is that the fact that there are millions of unfilled job openings at the same time millions of people can’t find work can be chalked up to a lack of a skills match between unemployed workers an open positions. To pick one random example out of many, here’s the way US News and World Report put it last year:

Some 82 percent of manufacturers say they can’t find workers with the right skills. Even with so many people looking for jobs, we’re struggling to attract the next generation of workers. The message about the opportunities in manufacturing doesn’t seem to be reaching parents and counselors who help guide young people’s career ambitions.

We face two major problems – a skills gap and a perception gap. Today’s modern, technology-driven manufacturing is not your grandparents’ manufacturing, yet for many, talk of the sector evokes images from the Industrial Revolution.

What’s interesting about this is that the “skills gap” continues to have tremendous resonance in public policy discussions I come across although it’s very easy to find many mainstream press articles that challenge it. So I want to take my shot at the problem.

Is there a skill gap? In select cases I’m sure there’s a mismatch in skill, but for the most part I don’t think so. I believe the purported inability of firms to find qualified workers is due largely to three factors: employer behaviors, limited geographic scope, and unemployability.

Employer Behaviors

Let’s be honest, it’s in the best interest of employers to claim there’s a skills gap. The existence of such a gap can be used as leverage to obtain public policy considerations or subsidies. So there’s a self-serving element.

But beyond that, several behaviors of present day employers contribute to their inability to hire.

1. Insufficient pay. If you can’t find qualified workers, that’s a powerful market signal that your salary on offer is too low. Higher wages will not only find you workers, they also send a signal that attracts newcomers into the industry. Richard Longworth covered this in 2012. He explains that companies have refused to adjust their wages due to competitive pressures:

In other words, Davidson said, employers want high-tech skills but are only willing to pay low-tech wages. No wonder no one wants to work for them….So why doesn’t GenMet pay more? In other words, why doesn’t it respond to the law of supply and demand by offering starting wages above the burger-flipping level? Because GenMet is competing in the global economy. It can pay more than Chinese-level wages, but not that much more.

In other words, this company in question doesn’t have a skill gap problem, they have a business model problem. They aren’t profitable if they have to pay market prices for their production inputs (in this case labor). It’s no surprise firms in this position would be seeking help with their “skill gap” problem – it’s a backdoor bailout request.

2. Extremely picky hiring practices enforced by computer screening. If you’ve looked at any job postings lately, you’ll note the laundry list of skills and experience required. The New York Times summed it up as “With Positions to Fill, Employers Wait for Perfection.” Also, companies have chopped HR to the bone in many cases, and heavily rely on computer screening of applicants or offshore resume review. The result of this automated process combined with excessive requirements is that many candidates who actually could do that job can’t even get an interview. What’s more, in some cases the entire idea is not to find a qualified worker to help legally justify bringing in someone from offshore who can be paid less.

3. Unwillingess to invest in training. In line with the above, companies no loner want to spend time and money training people like they used to. I strongly suspect most of those over 50 machinists and such we keep hearing about learned on the job. Why can’t companies simply train people in the skills they need? When I started work at Andersen Consulting in 1992, we weren’t expected to have any specific skill. Instead, they were looking for general aptitude and spent big to train us in what we needed to know. In a sense, outside of some professional services fields, today’s companies, despite their endless talk about talent, don’t actually recruit talent at all. They are recruiting people with specific skills and experience. That’s a very different mindset.

4. Aesthetic hiring. This one I think is specific to select industries, but in some fields if you don’t have the right “look”, you’re going to find it difficult. For example, the NYT Magazine just today has a major piece called “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem” talking about this very issue. Hip, cool startups see their working environment and culture as critical to success. And that’s true, but those cultures aren’t very inclusive, which is why many Silicon Valley firms are continuously under fire for various forms of discrimination. When they’re trying to be the hot new thing, the last thing an app startup wants is some 55 year old dude with a pocket protector cramping their style, no matter how much of a tech guru he might be.

Limited Geographic Scope

You frequently see the skills gap phrased in terms of specific geographies. For example, a state. Rhode Island has X number of unemployed people and Y number of unfilled jobs. So what do we do to match them up?

This type of thinking is too limited. I attended an hour brainstorming session on the Rhode Island skills gap a while back and not once did anyone suggest anything that crossed the state boundary. One person mentioned these technical high schools in Boston that produce grads with exactly the skills the market is needing. His idea was that Rhode Island needed to create these types of institutions. Not a bad idea, but I was struck that nobody thought about sending these Rhode Island employers who can’t find workers on the one hour drive to Boston to go hire some of those grads directly out of Boston’s high schools. Problem solved. And maybe while bringing some young, fresh blood into the state to boot.

Similarly, no one ever suggested that an unemployed person in Rhode Island might seek work out of state. Realistically, America has often solved unemployment problems through migration. People need to be willing to move to where the job opportunities are. In fact, if you look at the highly educated people who might say telling people to move in order to find work is evil awful, they are actually the most mobile people there are. Clearly the highly skilled see the value in pursuing opportunity through migration. We need to extend the same opportunity to those who are currently stuck in place.

Unemployability

A third problem is that a significant number of adults in this country are simply unemployable. If you’re a high school dropout, a drug user, etc. you are going to find it tough slogging to find work anywhere, regardless of skills required.

Watching the Chicagoland documentary and seeing what kids in these inner city neighborhoods face, a lack of machine tool or coding skills is far from the problem. Similar problems are now hitting rural and working class white communities where the economic tide has receded. Heroin, meth, etc. were things that just didn’t exist in my rural hometown growing up – but they sure do now.

These aren’t skill problems, they are human problems. And the answer isn’t simply job training. These problems are much, most more complex and they are incredibly difficult to solve. They need to be tackled by very different means than a job skills problem.

If you want more info that documents that there is no skills gap, google around and find plenty of economists crunching the numbers to show that’s the case. But I hope this gives you a sense of some of the trends that explain why there can be persistent unemployment with many job openings without recourse to a skills gap to explain it.

Friday, March 14th, 2014

Did Robots Save Pittsburgh?

Glenn Thrush over at Politico had a lengthy article called “The Robots That Saved Pittsburgh” which has been getting quite a bit of attention:

Pittsburgh, after decades of trying to remake itself, today really does have a new economy, rooted in the city’s rapidly growing robotic, artificial intelligence, health technology, advanced manufacturing and software industries. It’s growing in population for the first time since the 1950s, and now features regularly in lists like “the Hottest Cities of the Future” and “Best Cities for Working Mothers.” “The city is sort of in a sweet spot,” says Sanjiv Singh, a Whittaker acolyte at Carnegie Mellon who is working on the first-of-its-kind pilotless medical evacuation helicopter for the Marines. “It has the critical mass of talent you need, it’s still pretty affordable and it has corporate memory—the people here still remember when the place was an industrial powerhouse.”

Improbably for a blue-collar town that seemed headed for the scrap heap when its steel industry collapsed, Pittsburgh has developed into one of the country’s most vibrant tech centers, a hotbed of innovation that can no longer be ignored by the industry’s titans.

Pittsburgh has been getting a lot of press for its job growth, income growth, and even the reversal of demographic loss in switching from net out migration to net in migration. But is the hype warranted?

To look at whether there really has been some boom in the brain-powered economy, I decided to look at college grads. After all, if brains are what is powering Pittsburgh, then we’d expect to see more brains collecting there.

First let’s look at metro area college degree attainment change since 2000 vs. other large Midwestern regions:

Rank Metro Area 2000 2012 Change in % of Total Adult (25+) Population
1 Pittsburgh, PA 396,981 (23.4%) 513,838 (30.5%) 7.11%
2 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 633,112 (33.3%) 881,581 (39.5%) 6.20%
3 St. Louis, MO-IL 435,940 (24.8%) 586,547 (30.8%) 5.93%
4 Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI 1,679,306 (29.0%) 2,190,424 (34.8%) 5.83%
5 Columbus, OH 291,995 (28.3%) 419,136 (34.1%) 5.76%
6 Indianapolis-Carmel, IN 260,705 (26.5%) 377,189 (32.1%) 5.59%
7 Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 260,981 (27.0%) 337,253 (32.5%) 5.51%
8 Kansas City, MO-KS 334,225 (28.0%) 460,391 (33.5%) 5.49%
9 Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN 163,080 (21.2%) 233,566 (26.5%) 5.37%
10 Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI 676,906 (23.2%) 819,347 (28.2%) 5.01%
11 Cincinnati-Middletown, OH-KY-IN 319,469 (24.8%) 419,714 (29.6%) 4.78%
12 Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH 343,103 (23.9%) 405,731 (28.5%) 4.58%

Pittsburgh is #1 and is one of the tops in the country in its increase in share of the adult population with college degrees. That’s good news. However, this isn’t all it seems. Pittsburgh is the clear #1 among large metros in the percentage of its population over age 85. Last I checked it was also a rare metro with natural decrease, that is, more deaths than births. Pittsburgh’s attainment rates are being boosted at a higher rate than other places because more poorly educated older cohorts are dying.

Let’s look at it in terms of actual brains, the people with degrees:


Rank Metro Area 2000 2012 Total Change Pct Change
1 Indianapolis-Carmel, IN 260,705 377,189 116,484 44.68%
2 Columbus, OH 291,995 419,136 127,141 43.54%
3 Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN 163,080 233,566 70,486 43.22%
4 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 633,112 881,581 248,469 39.25%
5 Kansas City, MO-KS 334,225 460,391 126,166 37.75%
6 St. Louis, MO-IL 435,940 586,547 150,607 34.55%
7 Cincinnati-Middletown, OH-KY-IN 319,469 419,714 100,245 31.38%
8 Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI 1,679,306 2,190,424 511,118 30.44%
9 Pittsburgh, PA 396,981 513,838 116,857 29.44%
10 Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 260,981 337,253 76,272 29.23%
11 Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI 676,906 819,347 142,441 21.04%
12 Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH 343,103 405,731 62,628 18.25%

Pittsburgh doesn’t look so great here. It’s towards the bottom even in Midwest metros in percentage gain in the total number of adults with degrees, and the total number of new grads is lower than in some other Midwest metros that are smaller than Pittsburgh.

However, let’s look at a core municipality view. (Louisville excluded because of a city-county merger):


Rank Municipality 2000 2012 Total Change Pct Change
1 St. Louis city, MO 42,338 65,161 22,823 53.91%
2 Columbus city, OH 128,058 177,251 49,193 38.41%
3 Pittsburgh city, PA 57,267 77,500 20,233 35.33%
4 Chicago city, IL 462,783 623,484 160,701 34.72%
5 Kansas City city, MO 73,824 98,806 24,982 33.84%
6 Minneapolis city, MN 91,027 119,231 28,204 30.98%
7 Milwaukee city, WI 64,742 79,520 14,778 22.83%
8 Indianapolis city (balance), IN 127,608 152,998 25,390 19.90%
9 Cleveland city, OH 33,949 38,369 4,420 13.02%
10 Cincinnati city, OH 55,215 56,938 1,723 3.12%
11 Detroit city, MI 61,836 56,770 -5,066 -8.19%

Here Pittsburgh is back to showing strong growth. I should also point out the very good showing by St. Louis, a region conventionally viewed as slow growth. Pittburgh had strong growth in people with degrees inside the city. If I were to judge just based on this quick look at the data, the relatively small city of Pittsburgh appears to be gearing things up around its educational complex, but the rest of the region is still somewhat a laggard in brainpower growth. The high tech turnaround may be more a city of Pittsburgh story than a regional one.

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Will a Brutal Winter Hurt the Heartland’s Reputation?


More snow coming down in Indianapolis

It just won’t stop. Another Midwest storm coming through, followed by colder air coming in this weekend. It’s been a rough winter in the Midwest, though not the worst of even my lifetime.

I saw the forecast for this on the Chicago Tribune’s web site, reminding me of a California friend’s comment about how this winter might affect Chicago recruiting. I tweeted that out as a question and Whet Moser picked it up, turning it into a long blog post over at Chicago Magazine called “Can Chilly Chicago Compete With the South?,” which I intend to shamelessly strip mine for material. But you should definitely read the original.

This is far from a Chicago only thing. The entire central US has gotten socked. It reminded me of Ed Glaeser’s research where he found that the best explanatory variable for population growth in US cities is average January temperature. As New York Magazine summed it up:

The single variable that best predicts a U.S. city’s growth over the past century is its average January temperature. Hence the decline of many northern and midwestern cities and the boom in the South and the Sun Belt, where the Phoenix, Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas metropolitan areas have each gained a million people since 2000. For every five degrees that a city’s January temperatures top the national average, Glaeser writes, its real-estate prices will beat the national mean by 3 percent, thanks to the increased demand.

Whet dug up Glaeser’s regression chart for state population growth:

Which brings us to this winter. I don’t want to suggest that one series of weather events is determinant of reputation. But clearly a place’s reputation for weather is part of its brand. What’s do you think of when you think of Buffalo? Lots and lots of snow. What’s your vision of Green Bay? Ton’s of stark raving mad Packer fans with blocks of cheese on their head going nuts in subzero temperatures at Lambeau Field. While other places that have a broader resonance in the public mind may not be so defined by weather alone, it’s part of the package.

And I’d argue a negative one. The greater Midwest and Great Plains do seem to have particularly lousy winters. Living in the Northeast, while hardly immune from winter (Rhode Island got socked by a Nor’easter that dropped about 20 inches last winter), it seemed to me to be more temperate both in winter and summer. The places up north with real snow and cold thrive on winter weather tourism like skiing.

Other than Minneapolis-St. Paul, which seems to be one place that fully embraces its winter city identity and thus can be seen as “the capital of cold”, this isn’t a positive. Some locals were recently expressing their puzzlement as to why Columbus, Ohio wasn’t the Austin, Texas of the Midwest. Columbus has a bigtime university, a business friendly approach, and a progressive consciousness. But it also has Midwest winters. A factor?

As Whet notes, more than the temperature drove the South’s growth. The invention of air conditioning played a role, as did the provision of electric service more broadly. Also not to be discounted is the civil rights movement, which shattered many of the racist approaches there. He also noted that the stifling heat and humidity of Southern summers don’t register as easily in the mind as some winter wonderland vision straight out of Little House on the Prairie. (In my book, the worst part isn’t the sauna outdoors, it’s the way the South keeps the AC set on something like 45F such that you need a sweater at the office to keep from freezing).

And population growth is only one dimension of success. With one exception – the growth of Atlanta’s airport to become the world’s busiest – the South hasn’t really defeated Chicago in any obviously apples to apples area, so it’s hard to argue Chicago can’t compete.

Yet if we’re going to boast about the brand building that comes from good things like hot new restaurants, a music scene, etc. we need to be honest that a constant stream of national news stories about subzero temps and bigtime snow don’t help things.

One tweeter fired back that Atlanta had a big snow blowup this year, and that there are wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, etc. that show no city is immune from weather. True enough. But there’s a major difference between a snow in Atlanta and one in Chicago. Because of confirmation bias, we easily recognize an Atlanta snowstorm as the exception but see Chicago as the rule. That’s because Chicago’s already famous for its winters. Items like hurricanes or tornado are also intermittent phenomena whereas winter comes every year and lasts for months. The best analogous situation I can think of is the California drought, because California is famous for its droughts.

The reality is that the Midwest and Great Plains are already known for their lousy winters, and this particularly brutal one can’t be helping with near term recruitment. I don’t want to overstate the impact, but clearly it doesn’t help someone choose to live there vs. San Francisco, Austin, or even a Washington, DC.

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

London, Then and Now

I think I’ve shared before a cool color video of London in the 1920s called “On the Road”. Well last year Simon Smith set out to reproduce every scene in that film in contemporary London and created a video of old and new side by side. It’s delightful, of course. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. h/t Atlantic Cities

Here’s another look back in time for you. This is a four minute color video of Montreal in the 1960s by Jimmy Deschenes. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. h/t Stéphane Dumas

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

Sunday Night Dinner in Indianapolis


Sunday night dinner in Herron-Morton Place, Indianapolis. This is one of three dinner groups in that neighborhood. Photo by Amanda Reynolds (check out the mirror!)

Urban culture varies radically from city to city. Yet to a great extent the culture of the usual suspects type of places tends to get portrayed as normative. In New York, for example, with its tiny apartments, the social life is often in public, in many cases literally on the streets of the city, which pulse with energy. As the ne plus ultra of cities, the street life of New York is often seen as what every place should aspire to. There’s a body of literature which attributes all sorts of positive effects to this New York style urbanism, such as the notion of “collisions” and “serendipitous encounters”. But while New York’s street life and social scene may indeed be engaging, how often does one actually strike up a conversation with someone random on the street or in a coffee shop there that turns into something meaningful? The only collisions I’ve ever had there were literal.

New York is the most well known and championed style of interaction, though hardly the only one. Think of San Francisco and something clearly distinct will come to mind, albeit with some similarities. LA has its own mythos. The TV show Portlandia does a great job of capturing our idea of the quirky urban life of that city.

Cities that lack the cachet of an NYC, SF, or Portland can often find their own urban culture lacking in comparison. To be taken seriously, the logic goes, they must measure up to the yardstick defined by others. But while I do not subscribe to the idea of value free cultural comparisons, I do believe cities need not judge themselves as wanting just because they don’t function like New York City. Rather, they should seek to be the best they can be on their own terms. Since few cities are anything like New York, aspiring to that kind of urbanism would only be a case study in frustration anyway.

Indianapolis cultural commentator David Hoppe once said something to the effect that “the social life of Indianapolis happens in back yards.” And this is true. Unlike a New York City, Indianapolis does not wow you just by walking down the street. While I believe in trying to contextualize the facts on the ground in the most positive way possible for moving forward, that doesn’t mean reclassifying genuine defects as virtues. In the case of Indianapolis, the generally poor impression left by its built environment and lack of street life can’t be denied. There are plenty of great places to go, but you generally need someone to point you in the right direction.

But there are countervailing virtues as well, ones generally under appreciated. Unlike New York, Indy has a far more robust social life in private spaces like houses and back yards. This produces a qualitatively different type of social capital, one with its own unique set of strengths.

One example of this is the emergence of community based Sunday dinners. This was an organic movement and as a result lacks a fancy name, but in keeping with the generally low key and unpretentious character of the city, let’s just call it Sunday Night Dinner.

Sunday night dinners are a type of intentional community in which 6-8 families in a neighborhood decide to get together for dinner every Sunday night on a rotating basis. This originated in 2006 on Pleasant St. in the Fountain Square neighborhood when a group of neighbors decided to start getting together regularly for dinner. Here’s how Tonya Beeler, one of the founding members, describes it:

When most of us talk about it, we just call it Sunday Night Dinner. It’s unassuming, I know – but that’s what Sunday Dinner is to us. We’ve had it consistently for almost 8 years – having only cancelled dinner a handful of times. The majority of the families on the original list are still regular participants and we’ve added and lost a few through the years.

What is Sunday Night Dinner to us? In this stage in our lives, its sometimes difficult to physically connect to your neighbors, but we know that each Sunday we’re going to see our friends. It’s also a good time to have newcomers to the neighborhood connect with some of us old timers. We’ve also had visits from Mayor Ballard (before he was elected) and Melina Kennedy (when she was running) and I still have a fond memory of John Day sitting down to sup with us. But what is it mostly? Just a day in the week where we meet to take a breath, sit down, and eat together. It’s my favorite day of the week.

I used to be part of a quarterly dinner club in Chicago. Given the frequency, our idea was to make each dinner “special” in the sense that we went all out with super high-quality food, etc. In Indy, while good food is certainly part of the equation, the regular weekly cadence means it’s as much about friends and neighbors as it is special ambiance. It’s about regular life lived in the city. In the picture at the top it’s paper plates and plastic cups all the way – and that’s just fine. Can’t stay for some reason? No worries, bring some tupperware, grab some food, and run. In a sense, it’s the Kinfolk Magazine ethic (motto: doing things simple sure is complicated – and expensive) in genuine form, shorn of Portland pretense.


Sunday night dinner in the Beeler’s backyard in Fountain Square, Indianapolis, Easter 2012. Photo: Cindy Ragsdale

Oh, and typically with children, which actually exist in abundance in Indianapolis.

The idea spread and now there are Sunday night dinner groups all over the city. I’m told there are three in Herron-Morton Place alone, which I can’t quite wrap my head around given how small the area is.

I can’t help but notice the similarity of these dinner groups to religious small group gathering. In the last couple decades, Evangelical churches have moved away from mid-week services in favor of small group gathering during the week (sometimes called home groups or other names). The idea is to promote more actual community than is possible in a larger assembly format. These dinner groups are in effect secular small groups, ones that help provide the sense of connectedness, regularity, and rootedness that’s so often missing from our contemporary world.


Outdoor fun on Sunday night isn’t just for summer in Herron-Morton Place, Indianapolis. Photo by Amanda Reynolds.

These groups aren’t just walled garden cliques, however. The host generally invites guests to attend. So there’s a type of brokered introduction which in my experience is the real source of “serendipitous” encounters of genuine value. An arranged guest invite is one way to get people connected in their neighborhood, or even to help people who are deciding whether or not to take the plunge into city living to get a feel for what life lived in a particular neighborhood is actually like.

In fact, if you are visiting Indianapolis on a Sunday night, or live there and want to check it out, email the City Gallery at the Harrison Center For the Arts and they will set you up. The email address is citygallery@harrisoncenter.org

I don’t want to suggest that Indianapolis invented the concept of the dinner club or is the only place such events occur. For all I know, lots of places do this. (Heck, as big as it is, odds are that includes New York City). And as with all traditions, this particular instantiation will likely die off at some point (though it’s still growing eight years after starting on Pleasant St). Yet the prevalence of this type of cultural phenomenon is part of the explanation for why Indianapolis has consistently managed to punch above its weight class in so many areas. Although the type of obvious assets and strength evidenced by super-cool buildings or crowds on the street may be lacking in Indianapolis vis-a-vis some other places, the city contains deep reservoirs of cultural capital that aren’t as visible and may never be fully understood or mapped, but nevertheless are of profound importance. This is the real secret sauce of the city.

Copying this idea, locally or anywhere, is definitely welcomed. Should you be interested, here are the “Indianapolis Rules” for Sunday night dinners, courtesy of Tonya Beeler:

1. Dinner is every Sunday night, with six to eight families, each hosting on a rotating basis.

2. The host is responsible for preparing all of the food for everyone. (Work? Yes, but it also means seven weeks of not having to do anything but show up).

3. The host is responsible for inviting all guests. Do not invite guests without checking with the host first.

4. If you’re not coming, tell the host as far in advance as possible.

5. At the very beginning of the dinner, the host makes sure all the guests know of any rules for the house (no one allowed upstairs, kids can’t eat in the living room, toilet handle needs to be held down for 3 seconds, whatever).

6. If your family will not be coming for dinner, but you still want food, there’s no need to let the host know, just stop by early in the meal (so you don’t miss anything, food goes fast!!!) with some tupperware and fill it to go.


Sunday night dinner in Fountain Square, Indianapolis. Painting by Kyle Ragsdale.

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Welcome to Chicagoland


Trailer for CNN series “Chicagoland” – click here if the video does not display.

As part of his plan to boost sagging ratings at the network, CNN chief Jeff Zucker commissioned an eight part reality series about Chicago and its mayor called Chicagoland that premiers tonight at 10pm ET. The show is produced by the same people who did the Brick City series about Newark Mayor Cory Booker, with support from mega-star executive producer Robert Redford.

Rahm and the Media

Given that Brick City seems to have only helped Booker’s reputation, cynics in Chicago have already noted the fact that show’s producers are represented by the William Morris Endeavor Agency, which just so happens to be the home of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s brother Ari. This is as much because of as in spite of a well-publicized move by directors Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin to ask the agency to recuse themselves from representing them when it comes to the show.

One need not believe in such a conspiracy to see this show as yet another example of Rahm’s media power – and his fearlessness in pursuing high profile opportunities to get his message out even in venues where he’s not in complete control. Rahm has had significant success in getting high profile national and global attention – for example, a glowing profile from NYT columnist Thomas Friedman – since taking office. He didn’t shy away from getting out there even when a spike in murders made global headlines Chicago of the type Chicago didn’t want – a time when many mayors would have crawled into their bunkers. And although he’s been in office a while now, Rahm fatigue seems not to have set in. Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg has a lengthy piece on him in the March issue of Esquire with the colorful title of “And Now For the Further Adventures of Rahm the Imapler.” The Financial Times recently ran a mostly positive piece called “Rahm Emanuel: Mayor America.” It even includes a high production quality six and a half minute video that will give you a flavor of it (if the video doesn’t display, click here):

With his ambition for Chicago as a global city, Rahm clearly sees global media as the ones that really count. Chicago’s status as a media center afterthought means few out of town reporters actually know that much about the city, hence Rahm has a huge opportunity to shape the message. This must infuriate the local media, which to a great extent Rahm is free to ignore because of his ability to go direct at the national and global level. Chicagoland should thus be seen as part of Rahm’s global media push, both for Chicago and for himself.

Reality TV vs. Journalism

The series is probably as good for Rahm and the city as it could possible get. Certainly the problems – high crime, poor schools, and labor troubles – are not glossed over. But given that they’ve been well publicized globally, it’s hard to imagine how they could be without sacrificing all credibility. Within the context of realism, this is a big win for the city.

Whether it’s a big win for journalism is another story. Like most modern documentaries or reality TV shows, Chicagoland is non-fiction in a sense, but also heavily scripted and edited to provide a compelling narrative. This makes for great TV drama and characterizations, but whether it represents truth as a reporter would tell it is much more doubtful.

Just as one example, the producers clearly had extensive access to Rahm and he’s frequently shown as concerned about crime, battling with unions, boosting the local economy, talking to school kids and even mentoring an inner city kid he brought on as an intern. But is that a fair representation of how Rahm Emanuel spends his time? The Chicago Reader did a two part series analyzing Rahm Emanuel’s schedule and published a two part series about it called “The Mayor’s Millionaire Club” (see part one and part two). They show that access to Rahm is heavily dependent on your wealth, influence, and donations. Yet that doesn’t come through in Chicagoland at all. Instead when the occasional powerful people are shown, they are always doing a good turn for the city, such as a group of tech executives donating products to schools.

I’m not suggesting this series should have been a bulldog investigative piece. However, I strongly suspect that CNN’s actual journalists will be seething at seeing their network and its relatively strong reputation being used for what is clearly not the type of work they themselves would undertake. Right or wrong, the CNN brand carries an expectation of a certain type of journalistic standard that the Sundance Channel (where Brick City originally ran) doesn’t. Right now on CNN’s Chicagoland page there’s an ad for Anderson Cooper 360. Something tells me that were Anderson Cooper in charge of Chicagoland, it would look quite different.

Compelling Drama and Characters

However, taken on the terms of a Sundance series, Chicagoland succeeds, and my guess is that Rahm will be overall pleased. The show sets up the drama by structuring the series as battles between opposing forces. In the first couple episodes, this is the battle between Rahm and Chicago Public Schools leadership on the one hand, and the teachers union and some affected parent groups on the other over plans by CPS to shutter 50 schools. Frankly, I thought it overly portrayed Chicago as if it were Newark. The segments were introduced by short positive vignettes of some aspect of Chicago (like the Stanley Cup playoffs), followed by more extensive coverage of the school closing dispute, and educational and crime problems in Chicago’s impoverished South Side. It would be like doing a flyby of Times Square before doing a deep dive on some of the worst blocks in Newark. While I myself have written on the two Chicagos theme, I was feeling that Chicago was being unfairly stigmatized.

I need not have worried. After the initial focus on the school closing dispute, the focus shifts. The drama is now between the good guys (basically every single person featured in the show) and the bad guys (gangsters and such who exist almost entirely offscreen, or so we’re led to believe). Almost without exception, the good guy characters are shown as 100% white knight types. Instead of positive vignettes followed by something Newarkesque, there’s a more balanced take in time allocation and the threads start merging across the two Chicagos. The show also starts laying the Chicago sales job on with a trowel. In Chicagoland’s coverage of things like the food scene, the music scene, the comedy clubs, or even footage of Rahm protesting a neo-Nazi march back in the 70s as a teenager, it’s hard to see how this could have been any more positive in its portrayal of the city if it had been produced directly by the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. This is a huge win for the city.

The show also manages to create several compelling characters. One of them is the surgeon who leads the trauma unit at Cook County Hospital, a job I certainly would not want. How that guy manages to balance family life in Roscoe Village (my old neighborhood) with the reality of what he deals with every night at his job is beyond me.

But the star of the show is clearly Elizabeth Dozier, principal at Fenger High School in the South Side neighborhood at Roseland. She’s shown fighting not only to only educate her students, but keep them safe over the summer, and even invest in their lives after graduation when they get in trouble. (Dozier trying to help a former student who’s in jail for robbery realistically shows the need for “retail” 1:1 or N:1 investment in the lives of specific troubled people, not just programs, to make a real difference in a troubled person’s life – and even so the difficulty in seeing life change happen). Her obvious passion and dedication in the face of tough odds clearly come through. Yet even here there’s a sense of manufacture. Dozier is a young, attractive, stylish black professional who not only runs a South Side High School, but also gets personal face time with Rahm, knows Grant Achutz of Alinea, and hangs out with Billy Dec on his boat. How much of this A-list hob-nobbing was happening prior to Chicagoland coming to town I wonder? Regardless, it makes for compelling TV.

While I have my quibbles, I think on the whole Chicagoland is an enjoyable watch that will end up being good for the city and the mayor. Just don’t go in expecting journalism. This is first and foremost reality TV style drama. With that caveat in mind, I recommend watching it.

Takeaways From the Chicagoland

Watching Chicagoland made me think again two bigger picture issues.

First, in watching gangs take revenge on each other in an endless cycle of retaliation that literally stretches on for years and in which no one can actually recall the original offense, I was reminded of Hannah Arendt writing on the role of forgiveness:

Forgiveness is the exact opposite of vengeance, which acts in the form of re-acting against an original trespassing, whereby far from putting an end to the consequences of the first misdeed, everybody remains bound to the process, permitting the chain reaction contained in every action to take its unhindered course. In contrast to revenge, which is a natural, automatic reaction to transgression and which because of the irreversibility of the action process can be expected and even calculated, the act of forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action. Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The freedom contained in Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance, which incloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.

Forgiveness is not the only way to put a stop to a cycle of revenge. Arendt posits official punishment as another. But forgiveness is clearly the fastest and surest route. Until either the police are able to impose order and mete out genuine justice, or the grieving family and aggrieved gang compatriots of these murder victims are able to forgive and forswear vengeance, the cycle is unlikely to ever end.

I don’t want to judge too harshly teenagers in a ghetto living out the only life script they’ve ever known. But what’s our excuse? We too often live out in miniature the same process ourselves. How often do most of us forgive genuine wrong done against us, even of a much less consequential nature? Tune into the internet any day of the week and see untold amounts of shrieking over some offense or another, real or imagined. I suspect the vast majority of us would be behave no differently from those gangbangers in similar circumstances. We are blessed not to be there, however. But will we use that privileged position to end or perpetuate cycles of wrong in our own lives?

Secondly, Chicagoland made me think about the bigger picture of leadership in our cities and the major problems they face. I voted for Rahm as mayor, for three reasons. 1) I saw him as like his mentor Bill Clinton, namely someone to whom getting elected and staying in power is more important than pushing any ideological agenda. In short, I saw him as a pragmatist, not an ideologue with a policy ax to grind like Bill de Blasio. 2) Rahm spent a lot of time outside of Chicago. He’s got a global perspective and a global network that’s critical in this era. He’s also got the gravitas to interact at the highest levels of power in America, which is something few mayors can say. 3) Rahm has no natural constituency in Chicago. So if he wants to be re-elected, he needs to perform. He clearly has future political ambitions, and flaming out as mayor wouldn’t be helpful in pursuing them.

Looking back, while I’ve criticized Rahm for an excessive focus on the elite, I believe my judgment then was correct and on the whole I think he’s done a decent job in a very difficult situation. Apropos of point #3, if Chicago thinks differently, the popular and competent Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is waiting in the wings. Whatever you think of his neoliberal policies, it’s clear Rahm is an actual leader, one with a ton of intelligence, drive, power, and the will to get things done.

Yet watching Chicagoland, it’s evident that even leadership ability of Rahm’s caliber struggles mightily with the city’s huge challenges. Chicago has a massive fiscal hole, and a very serious problem with a two tier society that has left vast tracts of the city behind. It’s by no means certain that Rahm will be able to make Chicago soar in the way that Daley did in the 90s, or even get re-elected if a there’s any stumble and a credible candidate like Preckwinkle gets into the race.

When I think about the difficulties in solving the problems in Chicago, which has not only Rahm’s leadership but a massively successful global city economy in the Loop and hundreds of thousands of well-heeled residents, it makes me pause. If Chicago struggles with its problems, how much more so other cities facing similar or worse problems but with much weaker leadership and no global city money and firepower? It really makes me wonder if a lot of places are simply going to die a slow death barring some lucky break from a change in the marketplace.

This ultimately is what I’d challenge the residents of other cities to think about when watching this show. Look at Chicago and what it is dealing with. Think about your own problems and your resources for combating them vis-a-vis Chicago. If that doesn’t make you sober up, I’m not sure what will.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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