James Q. Wilson: A Modern Day Renaissance Man

Caricature of James Q. Wilson which appeared in American Interest in 2006.

James Q. Wilson passed away today at the age of 80 after a battle with leukemia. It’s hard to image a more influential scholar in contemporary criminal justice/criminology than James Q. Wilson. I am quite confident that had he never published much of his works that I would have never begun my own intellectual path. I’m quite confident that Professor Wilson influenced many scholars, whether they agreed with many of his premises or not. He opened dialogue to understanding the complexity of crime and opened our eyes to things that many had not even considered before. Rare is a man who can offer such insight, and I am truly saddened that the world shall no longer read new words penned by one of the most profound scholars of our lifetime.

Professor Wilson had an impressive career. Professor Wilson received his B.A. from the University of Redlands and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago. He was the Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard from 1961 to 1987. From 1987 to 1997, he was the James Collins Professor of Management and Public Policy at the UCLA Anderson School of Management at UCLA. From 1998 to 2009, he was the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. Professor Wilson authored many scholarly articles, opinion pieces, and several books during his impressive life.

The first book that I read by Professor Wilson was his The Moral Sense which he wrote in 1993. I read the book as I was just entering Methodist College in 1998. I literally picked the book at random from a bookshelf at a bookstore in the Political Science area. I had no idea what I was about to read, but I had hoped that it would assist me as I began studying for the first time in quite a few years. I had spent most of 1997 in Bosnia while I was in the Army, and I often thought about the Balkan war and how a once unified nation could go to war and how some people – some of whom were once neighbors – could commit such atrocities as genocide. The Moral Sense actually provided some insight to me regarding how humans could be so cruel to one another, while at the same time accounting for why we value social cohesion. In particular, I recall his chapter on self-control and how a lack of self-control could lead to a plethora of personal and social ills. His arguments weren’t just scientific but also entailed a careful blend of philosophy which made the book quite readable for me and many others who may not have had the background that he had in asking the question of whether humans have a shared sense of morality. It literally opened my thoughts to a broader range of ideas that I had never considered.

In my later studies, I read several other books written by Professor Wilson, including Varieties of Police Behavior, Crime and Human Nature, and Bureaucracy. Personally, I believe no one since Max Weber has written so eloquently on the topic of Bureaucracy, and I find myself always referring back to the book in my lectures. But of course, the most influential piece penned by Professor Wilson was co-authored with George Kelling in Atlantic Monthly in 1982, “Broken Windows”. Many readers initially thought that Wilson and Kelling were simply advocating increasing foot patrols by police officers. In fact, that is somewhat correct as foot patrols would have been a more efficient tool to identify the real problem for communities: disorder. In fact, it is this paragraph that is perhaps the most influential to what became known as “The Broken Windows Thesis”:

“…at the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in run-down ones…”

The point that Wilson and Kelling would make is simply that if disorder is left unchecked, it sends a message to the social world that deviant behavior is tolerated in the area. That is, signs of disorder beget criminal behavior. This was a profound suggestion for police departments who grappled with a mandate to control crime and who had no real tools or theoretical underpinnings to get at the source to control crime. In fact, Wilson and Kelling closed their article with the following:

“Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police – and the rest of us – ought to recognize the importance of maintaining intact communities without broken windows.”

In 2006, Wilson and Kelling reflected on the influence of their seminal article, commenting on critiques of their thesis as well as extolling successes which were based on the application of their ideas. They commented: “The broken windows idea does two things, one indisputably good and the other probably effective: It encourages the police to take public order seriously, something that the overwhelming majority of people ardently desire, and it raises the possibility that more order will mean less crime” (p. 172).

I’ve written a bit on Broken Windows and I have developed my main critique concerning a lack of cultural issues with any application of the thesis. However, I don’t think anyone should dismiss the main idea of the thesis (identifying disorder and returning it to order). What ultimately has been taken as a “conservative” approach to crime fighting isn’t really all that conservative or liberal; in fact, I think it is an honest approach to finding ways to make our communities safer.

James Q. Wilson has been considered a conservative scholar, and I think the point is fair given some of his opinion pieces. However, Professor Wilson always remained grounded to truth and approached his scholarship with pragmatism, an approach that I quickly culled and am always trying to develop. His intellectual sojourn on crime and bureaucracy cannot be replicated by one of the rare men I can call a true renaissance man.

Wilson, James Q. and George L. Kelling. 1982. “Broken Windows.” The Atlantic Monthly, 249(3): 29-38
Wilson, James Q. and George L. Kelling. 2006. “A Quarter Century of Broken Windows.” American Interest, 2(1): 168-172.


New Website

I just wanted to point out that I have launched my website which presents my intellectual sojourn in Urban Studies. It’s taken about three years to complete, and I will update it as time allows.


Does Urban Studies Exist on the Web?

While developing my forthcoming website I thought that it would be useful to set up some Urbanist Links to assist students who were interested in locating theoretical resources as well as other resources. I was reminded of Cecil Greek’s criminal justice links (sadly, it appears that the site no longer exists) and how nice it was that he took the time to develop a “mega-links” site that was well-organized for scholars and practitioners. I thought that perhaps developing a lesser endeavor would be a nice complement to my website; that is, I thought that I would point people to some of the “common” urbanist webpages.

Surprisingly, I found none.

What I found was shocking to me: there aren’t a lot of websites devoted strictly to Urban Studies. You can locate Urban Studies programs without much effort, but the lack of urbanist links to theory is disappointing to say the least. I don’t really have an answer to why this is, but I  am willing speculate a bit. I believe the problem lies in the question: What is Urban Studies?

The Question

As I wrote my personal statement on my application to the Urban Studies Ph.D. program at UW-Milwaukee, I had a daunting dilemma. The personal statement required that I address my reason for desiring to become an urbanist. So, of course, my first question was: what is an urbanist?
The question became more complex because I definitely was not sure what Urban Studies was at the time. Somehow I had to decide what both of these terms were and I only had a few days to develop a personal statement to meet the admission deadline (I applied, literally, at the last possible minute). To attempt to understand the question, I looked carefully at the course descriptions attributed to the program. All I knew at this point was that I was intrigued with understanding the complexities of cities.

Oddly, I couldn’t really answer the question. I believe that the personal statement attempted to capture what I had learned from my criminal justice and sociology programs – I’ve since lost that statement due to a computer crash a few years ago – so, in reality, I skirted the answer. I believe that the statement simply attributed my conception of urbanism being intertwined with criminology and sociology. After all, social disorganization theory was developed in an urban setting and I relied heavily on that understanding.

I’m fairly certain that I still lacked any understanding of what  urban studies was for about a year from writing that statement. The issue was, at that point, I had no background in Urban Studies. Yet, as I meandered through the program, I began to embrace what I believed to be the “pillars” of urban studies: time, space and place. This was easy for me because I was intrigued by Lefebvre’s conception of social space as well as David Harvey’s concepts of time compression among other interesting ideas.

The more I read about the intersection of these “pillars” the more I became intrigued with the background that I had (it’s easy, for example, to consider time, space and place when you consider the criminological theory Routine Activity Theory) and tried in my mind to compartmentalize reading along those self-defined pillars. Sometimes readings did not conform neatly into either of those three pillars, but in general, I could find a way to make them fit.

So, years later, there I was, discussing urban issues, scrutinizing research studies with new eyes, when I was suddenly given a kick swift in the gut. In 2010, William Bowen, Ronnie Dunn and David Kasden published an article titled “What is Urban Studies? Context, Internal Structure, and Content” in the Journal of Urban Affairs. The Urban Studies Programs director at UW-Milwaukee, Amanda Seligman, suggested that students should read it and I believe she held a workshop (which I could not attend) on the article with students and faculty. As I read the article, the authors’ finding did not really surprise me, but what did surprise me was that I had not EVER been able to articulate some of their findings.

First, I was greatly intrigued by what they claim were two propositions which promulgated the field: 1) urban areas are phenomenon worthy of investigation in their own right; and 2) the development of knowledge specifically about urban areas can help in the solution to urban problems (p. 199). The driving question, though, was whether Urban Studies was fully conceptualized. What stood out next fully formed my idea of Urban Studies and that concerned identifying seven subfields: 1) Urban Sociology; 2) Urban Geography; 3) Urban Economics; 4) Housing and Neighborhood Development; 5) Environmental Studies; 6) Urban Governance; and 7) Urban Planning, Design and Architecture.

Next, the article situates the formation of urban studies after the findings of the Kerner Commission. What struck me were really two things about this discussion. First, Urban Studies was neophyte compared to so many other social science fields. Second, I can talk for days about the history of sociology, but I was virtually mute about the history of Urban Studies (I generally changed the discussion back to sociology if a history of urban studies were to arise in conversation). The significance of this, for me, wasn’t really that I was clueless regarding the history of urban studies, but rather, I failed to recognize the need for a field at that time. That is, the other disciplines which study problems tend to be quite constrained in developing their research questions, so taking on issues regarding findings of the Kerner Commission would be extremely limiting; a newer field which could broaden questions was actually needed. And, hence, Urban Studies (usually referred to as Urban Affairs in its genesis) was born.

It was disconcerting to me that I had somehow failed to understand this. I believe that I was exposed to how urban studies was formed, but I had somehow failed to crystalize this in head. And, after doing a little digging, I think I am not alone among urbanists who may not really understand their field’s genealogy.

Urban Studies’ Elusiveness on the Web

If you go to Wikipedia and search for Urban Studies, this is what you will be directed to:

Snapshot taken on 1 December 2011

In other words, there is no page dedicated to Urban Studies!

Additionally, I made numerous searches on Google looking to locate a few Urban Studies link pages. I could find none. I looked for a page which could define Urban Studies. I could find programs and upon those pages I could find variations of definitions on Urban Studies. But there were no easily accessible Urbanist pages on the web. I found that quite disheartening, especially in light of the fact of the relative ease I have in locating link pages for criminal justice as well as sociology.

As I am wont to do these days, I am intrigued by signs and codes. Applying a pseudo-semiotic analysis on the lack of link pages – while an intriguing endeavor – simply would bely the reality that urbanists are not a significant presence on the web. Or perhaps they have very few central locations to share their findings; they lack an online community.

So, it occurred to me to attempt to locate online communities. After all, at this point, I thought maybe urbanists had simply placed their theory and their research on fora rather than on webpages. Using Urban Studies Forum was a bad idea…UW-Milwaukee conducts a student lead Urban Studies Forum annually and the Google search culled a lot of hits on that.

I found a promising site called http://www.urbanist.org, but unfortunately it was designed as a project which was rejected. From the website: “Urbanist.org is a project I proposed to the Urban Planning Program at Columbia University. The idea was to create a multidisciplinary web review on “the city” with contributions from students, professors, and practitioners. The staff would have been mainly constituted by students working for academic credits and by a couple of permanent editors.” The author was unable to obtain funding and so the mockup page remains parked on the URL.

Globalurbanist.org, on the other hand, is an interesting site. From the website: “The Global Urbanist was created in 2009 by alumni of urban policy and international development programmes at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and maintains relationships with several faculty members of the school.” Unfortunately, the site does not have theory on it, but it does in fact explore issues of cities.

So what does this mean, this curious omission of web sites dedicated to urbanist ideas? I truly believe that the lack of a distinct presence suggests that many people still do not know what Urban Studies is, even four decades after its founding.

The Future

I’d like to think that this lack of a presence is only temporary, but most likely it may continue for some time.
As mentioned at the beginning of this blog, Cecil Greek once had the standard for students of Criminal Justice and Criminology. In fact, between 1998 and 2001 I was involved in developing a links site for the criminal justice studies (now justice studies) at Methodist College (now Methodist University). We developed a site that could be used by students in addition to the one developed by Cecil Greek. I returned to the links site to see if it had changed, and I see that it has had some growth.

It was an effort that was definitely fruitful, because I still used that site for several years after I graduated. It made locating resources much easier, but it also had links in the subfields of criminology which made locating useful sites very easy. Yet, part of the success of Cecil Greek’s page and the Methodist College page was that there were numerous sites devoted to theoretical and practical development in criminology and criminal justice; there just don’t seem to be the same types of pages that are easily accessible in urban studies.

The web is a remarkable place to get a name out, and presenting urban theory might be an advantage for those who are unaware of urban studies. I’d like to think that there are urbanists who may ameliorate this issue in the near future, but I also know that taking on such endeavor requires teamwork and a community who are unafraid to present their interests to the public on the internet.

Until urbanists can firmly grasp the answer to the question “what is urban studies?” I doubt their presence on the web will become prominent. Fortunately, scholars are coming to grips with this question, as Bowen, Dunn and Kasdan have in 2010.

What Makes Neighborhood Community?

The main inspiration for this blog was the result of two conversations that I had in a span of one week. The first conversation was with my future son-in-law, Beau, who considered the community issue in his sixth grade class. He had an assignment that I would argue might be advanced for many adults. His teacher asked him to write a paper on what was a community. Beau struggled greatly with the assignment because he, like so many people, conceives community as merely the buildings and physical structures that are empirical. After prompting Beau with some ideas, be began to move away from the physical structures and I was quite impressed as he began to understand community required interaction with other people. The next conversation arose in my Introduction to Sociology course that I teach at MATC. The question was raised, “What is a community?” in relation to a question I posed regarding society. Most of the students, interestingly, reduced community much in the same way that Beau did initially.

The idea of community has struck me for several years now. I am well-read in much of these ideas of community and neighborhood, yet I see that it’s a difficult idea for many people to understand. It makes sense as neighborhood and community are so similar, but people have drastic ideas of what neighborhoods are. A growing movement among sociologists has been that community is not has geographically bound as it was once considered. So, let’s consider these ideas.

3rd Street in the Walker's Point Neighborhood, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Structure, Structure, Structure

You are given the task of creating a community. What do you need to do to build it?

Drawing a blank? Let me try and assist you.

Perhaps your first thought is that you should build some houses. Maybe you should consider building parks? Schools? Maybe some roads? Then, maybe some other things like community centers? You know, physical structures? That is, maybe you consider the Field of Dreams model in that if you build it, people will come? So, do buildings and roads and other physical structures build a community?


In fact, when I talk to a lot of people about how to define community and / or neighborhoods, the first thought considered are the physical things because, honestly, I think the issue is that we are used to defining what we see and feel. But communities and neighborhoods have something that is a little different and difficult to see; they possess social bonds, granted they may differ in intensity between people. But, it’s the social bonds that make community and neighborhood.

A collection of buildings is not a sufficient and necessary condition for community. In fact, the way buildings are placed can either increase or decrease interaction between people. Community actually transcends the buildings and other physical structures. When I read a definition of a Levittown that was built in the 1950s, I cringe as it begins: “Levittown is a suburban planned community planned by Levitt & Sons” (Wikipedia). In my mind, it was a planned bunch of buildings; communities are not “planned” but instead emerge largely as a result of social processes.

You can set up a fish tank, but it doesn’t come to life until you add your fish. I remember once setting up a fish tank in a very orderly manner, believing that my plan would keep the fish somewhat entertained, as much as you can entertain fish. I did not consider at all that the fish would change their environment. A Jack Dempsey that I added into the tank moved some of the gravel around to create a little bed. The Oscars moved the driftwood that I carefully placed in one side of the tank to the other side and tipped it over. The fish eventually set some crude norms and established their environment the way they wanted to. So, merely creating an environment does not mean you will create the processes to sustain life. The living do all of that.

An interesting conundrum can be added to the issue of community: while community arises as a result of social processes, the urban form is greatly impacted by social processes. Even when you consider Levittown, the urban form arose as a result of numerous structural and social reasons. Levittown (there were several, so I am basically discussing all of them as a “generalized other”) arose due to a postwar housing shortage, governmental programs that greatly assisted war veterans, governmental programs that favored new housing over old housing stock, and a desire for many people – especially returning war veterans – to own their own new home. People who moved there did so with a great deal of restrictions. For example, no African Americans were permitted to own homes there. Residents had to comply with a large list of rules. The houses essentially all looked the same. Yet, as people moved in, the environment became reshaped. For example two big rules – no fences and no laundry on lines on Sundays – changed largely because of new norms that emerged among residents. First, residents desired having pools in their yards, and thus there was a necessity of fences. Second, many people desired to do laundry on Sunday.

Ultimately, rather than physical structures, what impacts and influences the emergence and sustenance of communities is social structure. That is, community cannot be sustained without those social structures that allow society to remain intact. In this case, community arises because of norms that are created among people. Levittown actually started out with rules which were formal norms, but people are far more influenced by informal norms. Thus, an important emergent factor in the development of norms is the interaction that occurs between primary groups (family members, peers, and close friends) and secondary groups (co-workers, fellow church members, club members, schools, etc.) and the interplay between them and social institutions and statuses. This interaction between society and ourselves allows us to participate in society and it allows communities to emerge.

Yet, even when I think on neighborhoods that I live in, I am aware of a geographic component. It’s easier to say that I lived at a place rather than among large groups of peoples. And we may even describe those places in terms of the physical rather than the social. And such is the conundrum in trying to understand what a community is.

How Do We Define Community?

Humans are interesting as they create social patterns. If you watch people who have never met before participate in various situations they will establish patterns in each of those situations. For example, a crowd at Milwaukee’s Summerfest can become quite massive. Yet, movement streams within the crowd emerge, allowing people to pass through dense crowds. There are no signs or police directing people to go in any direction; they just form. Interestingly, in many cases, the streams often do adhere to a social norm regarding how we drive (staying on the right side as you move about).  Mark Buchanan in The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You (2007), comments on this ability: “Where people go, along circuitous, snakelike paths, may well not reflect the actual desire of any single person or even an average of them all” (p. 7). So, perhaps this ability to establish patterns seems logical in the establishment of community. That is, emergence is a concept that we should really consider rather than destiny.

What I am referring to here is that, generally, there is no such thing as a planned community. This may seem repetitious, but to explain this idea it needs to be placed in proper context. Instead, what is planned is merely the establishment of physical structures. We often refer to those as subdivisions. Sometimes, developers use the words community because they denote exactly what we want when we live somewhere: a safe, warm and welcoming place. But an actual community requires a bit more than the physical structures.

And here’s where things become murkier. Let’s examine just what a neighborhood is and what a community is.

Neighborhood versus Community?

Neighborhoods are essential to the vitality of a city. They are “geographical islands of autonomy” (Barbara Fermen, 1996, Challenging the Growth Machine: Neighborhood Politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh, p. 14) all of which comprise the environmental elements of the city of which they are a part of. Because people live in these areas of the city, neighborhoods have a rich social history, and as such, they have drawn the interest of scholars, especially with regard to how neighborhoods impact they lives of those denizens. Neighborhoods are ultimately a microcosm of the urban whole, a place where “We can begin to examine questions of participation, and quality of life, the fundamentals of a polity, a human city, and a humane society” (Ferman, p. 13). Jane Jacobs (1961) suggested that cities and their neighborhoods share a symbiotic relationship as she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “We must never forget or minimalize this parent community [the city] while thinking of a city’s smaller parts [the neighborhoods]” (p. 153). That is, as the health of the neighborhoods go, so too goes the city.

In neighborhood scholarship, what has been problematic is a unified concept of the term neighborhood. The terms community and neighborhood have been used interchangeably in contemporary research (Phillip Olson, 1982, “Urban Neighborhood Research: Its Development and Current Focus,” Urban Affairs Quarterly, 17(4): 491-518) leading many to infer that the terms are synonymous. Most of the neighborhoods that have been observed were abnormal neighborhoods, have generally described as existing in distressed conditions, such as being “disorganized” or “slum” or lacking some ideal character, while presuming at the same time the primary issue for these neighborhoods was the lacking of community. Much of the confusion, therefore, has been the result of scholars etching their analytic lenses in such a manner that they have imposed their own conception of neighborhood upon the denizens; rarely have scholars considered the salience of the neighborhood with regard to the residents’ own conception.

Certainly, the Chicago School scholars greatly influenced the way that neighborhoods were conceptualized in urbanist research. In their undertakings, they generally set geographic boundaries to the neighborhoods under study, rarely identifying the geographic referents that the denizens had of their own environment. With regard to the names of Chicago’s neighborhoods, Albert Hunter (1974) observed, “only God and [Robert] Burgess” knew how the neighborhoods came to be named as they were (Symbolic Communities: The Persistence and Change of Chicago’s Local Communities), suggesting that he played a role in those names. Instead, scholars would better understand these areas by examining what Hunter describes as their “cognitive image.” He notes:

Residents’ ability to name and bound their local areas is considered an operational measurement of the clarity of their cognitive image of the local area. Those knowing no name and unable to give boundaries are considered to have a less clear definition of their situation than those who both know a name for their area (whether it is shared or not) and are able to completely bound it (whether or not their boundaries coincide with their neighbors’). (p. 95)

A person who is able to define their space thus identifies with that space; their locale thus has salience.

Failing to account for what residents conceive as their neighborhood leads to confusion because labels ascribed to these areas do not necessarily conform to the meanings that people have of their environment. This failure can lead to some discord between social reality and researcher bias. Consider the example that Zorbaugh (1929) notes when he examined Chicago’s Near North Side, otherwise “known” as “North Town,” and the “Gold Coast.” He paints a picture of what he calls “cultural disorganization”:

The isolation of populations crowded together within these few hundred blocks, the superficiality and externality of their contacts, the social distances that separate them, their absorption in the affairs of their own little worlds – these, and not mere size and numbers, constitute the social problem of the inner city. The community, represented by the town or peasant village where everyone knows everyone else clear down to the ground, is gone. Over large areas of the city ‘community’ is little more than a geographical expression. Yet the old tradition of control persists despite changed conditions of life. (The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago’s Near North Side, p. 16)

This description that Zorbaugh provided is characteristic of many scholars’ own concept of the problems of the urban environment. For example, Ferdinand Tönnies made a distinction between Gemeinschaft – loosely, the pre-modern society in which feelings of togetherness [community] and mutual bonds exemplified by family or neighborhood – and Gesellschaft – often explained as society in which groups are driven by members’ individual aims and goals and thus characterized as individualistic. Tönnies thus made this distinction based on the norms that he perceived from his own background of growing up in a wealthy farming community. Scholars, therefore, have imprinted their own biases when they examine what a neighborhood and/or community as. More recently, Robert Slayton (1986) commented that biases were introduced by the Chicago School scholars whose own upbringing in rural communities contrasted sharply to what they were viewing in the city; that is, these scholars made comparisons to their own notions of social reality that was salient to them (Back of the Yards: The Making of a Local Democracy). This is emblematic of the main problem in which the social reality of the denizens is overshadowed by the researcher bias. In reality, neighborhoods are “social constructions named and bounded by different individuals” (Barrett Lee, R. S. Oropesa, and James Kanan, 1994, “Neighborhood Context and Residential Mobility,” Demography, 31(2): 252).

Arguably, these biases played a role in the descriptions of some of the downtrodden neighborhoods. For example, Jacob Riis’ description of the conditions of the tenements of New York in 1890 opened a path for many to scrutinize slum areas. His opening description of the “genesis” of the tenement clearly is a lamentation of the loss of community:

The first tenement New York knew bore the mark of Cain from its birth, though a generation passed before the writing was deciphered. It was the “rear house,” infamous ever after in our city’s history. There had been tenant-houses before, but they were not built for this purpose. Nothing would probably have shocked their original owners more than the idea of their harboring a promiscuous crowd; for they were the decorous homes of the old Knickerbockers, the proud aristocracy of Manhattan in the early days. (How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York, p. 1)

Not to denigrate the story that Riis told – he certainly pointed out serious social issues – but the language that he chose illustrates the lens that he uses to describe the environment; that of a middle-class reformer who extolled the “nurture” view of humanity.

The phasing of these slum areas from once existing as vibrant communities to distressed areas is perhaps the most common theme one finds in early scholarly research (Gilbert Osofsky, 1972, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890-1930, 2nd ed).Roy Lubove (1963) noted that slum areas were frequently marked with underlying socioeconomic conditions that progressives rarely attempted to ameliorate. Slums were often described as present in a transitory state, morphing from their earlier purposes of being permanent homes (The Progressives and the Slums: Tenement House Reform in New York City, 1890-  1917). Akin to the slum, the ghetto was an area described as being marked by the same kinds of deterioration as the slums, but what distinguished ghettos were their strict boundaries that confined specific groups through external, institutional and structural influences. For example, Osofsky described the process of how a former white upper class suburb – Harlem – became a ghetto due to the overextension of housing and changes in the American economy. Blacks who had migrated from the South and who possessed little to no specialized labor skills were housed in apartments meant for couples of higher socioeconomic means. What resulted was an area marked by overcrowding, poverty (confounded by exorbitant rents and occupational discrimination), landlords who failed to maintain their properties, and ultimately oppression as the residents, once they moved into the area, were unable to leave.

The scholarship of distressed residential areas cannot be understated, however much confusion has arisen as to the priority of community and neighborhood. That is, are all neighborhoods communities? Scholars have been wont to interchange the terms frequently, adding much to the confusion. For example, scholarship (especially emanating from the Chicago School) examining ethnic enclaves later exchanged the words describing enclaves to those of community where they had “territorial integrity…identifiable borders and…separated from its neighbors by natural or manmade boundaries” (Sudhir Venkatesh, 2000, American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto). There exists, then, a problem in describing the nature of neighborhood: is neighborhood inseparable from community? The answer to that is mercurial, unfortunately for scholarly purposes. That is, a neighborhood is not necessary for a community to exist.

The term community suggests that people embedded share common cultural attributes, such as a common language, symbols and values. To be a part of a community requires membership which facilitates the burgeoning of “a common perspective and a common culture” (Albert Hunter, 1974, Symbolic Communities: The Persistence and Change of Chicago’s Local Communities). Communities are social spaces which do not have limiting physical boundaries (Henri Lefebvre, 1974, The Production of Space) and as such they should transcend any geographical limitations that residential spaces have. Communities also have a social network which can bridge across from one place to another, depending on the strengths of the bonds in that network (Bender, 1978, p. 11). Ultimately, communities can be inclusive and exclusive, and their geographies are not necessarily fixed; communities can thus exist within neighborhoods, but often communities transcend them (more about this below).

There is scholarly tradition, however, suggesting a neighborhood-as-community perspective which postulates that the two terms are interrelated. Slayton (1986) cited George Hillery’s (1955) definition of community as having three elements: networks of interpersonal ties which provide sociability and support; residence in a common locality; and solidarity of sentiments and activities (“Definitions of Community: Areas of Agreement.” Rural Sociology, 20, pp. 117-119). This definition is ascribed to a rural description of community as opposed to an urban perspective, and it is similar to what many of the Chicago School scholars adhered to. The neighborhood thus conceived becomes a generator of community and neighborhoods failing in creating community are thereby deviant in nature; a neighborhood which produces no community can therefore be neither. Generally speaking, Chicago School scholars lamented the failure of community when they could not identify viable social interactions and networks within immigrant neighborhoods. More recently, the neighborhood-as-community perspective appears to have coalesced the terms by ascribing geographic referents to the notion of community. For example, Edward Orser (1994) defines community as “…a relatively small area with defined boundaries shared by a population whose sense of common space, form of social interaction, and broad consensus…provides the basis for common identity” (Blockbusting in Baltimore: The Edmondson Village Story, p. 12). The distinction here is important since it departs from the concept that communities can transcend geographic boundaries.

The problem with the neighborhood-as-community perspective is that neighborhoods do not always have like-minded residents who communicate within the parameters of cultural norms that are necessary to produce a community. Neighborhoods would be better understood as the space allocated for the primary purpose of residence. Certainly, the builders of housing stock adjacent to the stock yards in Chicago or the housing stock on the south side of Milwaukee were less concerned about generating communities than they were about creating residences for working class families. Communities can emerge from neighborhoods because they are environments which elicit social interaction, but communities can exist within neighborhood space, span across into other neighborhoods, and communities can transcend into regions or even nations. An excellent example is described by Gina Pérez (2004) regarding the nature of community of Puerto Rican families between San Sebastian, P.R. and Chicago, noting that their transnational practices and imaginings have shaped the cultural, economic, and political landscapes in both places (The Near Northwest Side Story: Migration, displacement, and Puerto Rican Families, p. 7)

Perhaps freeing community from neighborhood has led to some convenient operationalization by researchers in neighborhoods. This has led to a common acceptance toward examining neighborhoods as census tracts or other notional entities. To be fair to researchers using these methods, this operationalization is often due to the available data that can be used to describe or explain the phenomena under study. As a result, the concept of neighborhood is generally reduced to an array of variables to be scrutinized, but the reality may be skewed to meet the needs of the researchers. For example, Sampson, Raudenbush and Earls (1997) applied what they termed a “spatial definition of neighborhood” in their research design. They combined 847 census tracts in Chicago to create 343 neighborhood clusters, with each cluster representing approximately 8,000 people in geographically contiguous census tracts and “internally homogenous on key census indicators. The creation of the neighborhood clusters allowed for statistical analyses, yet a question remains on whether they truly represent the neighborhoods as the residents imagine them.

In George Galster’s (2000) definition of neighborhood, he suggests that neighborhoods do contain clusters or residences as well as other land uses, becoming what he terms as a “composite commodity.” The following are what Galster describes as the attributes which comprise the “complex commodity” of neighborhood: 1) structural characteristics of residential and non-residential buildings; 2) Infrastructural characteristics; 3) Demographic characteristics of the residents; 4) Class status characteristics of the residents; 5) Tax/public service package characteristics; 6) Environmental characteristics; 7) Proximity characteristics; 8) Political characteristics; 9) Social-interactive characteristics; and 10) Sentimental characteristics. Galster, however, goes on to describe the nature of neighborhoods by noting four distinct consumers of neighborhood space: households; businesses; property owners; and local governments. It is these consumers who then become producers of the neighborhood. Galster recognized the complex nature of many attributes which, in concert, impact the social production in the neighborhood (“On the Nature of Neighbourhood.” Urban Studies, 38(2), 2111-2124 ). In this conceptualization, Galster conforms to Lefebvre’s statement: “every social space has a history, once invariably grounded in nature, in natural conditions that are once primordial and unique in the sense that they are always and everywhere endowed with specific characteristics” (p. 110).

What Galster’s definition contributes to urbanist literature is that it recognizes the complexity of neighborhoods. While researchers have attempted to reduce this complexity identifying key variables or easily conformed data sets, ultimately the problem with not including a historical analysis of the neighborhood fails to capture the evolution of phenomenon. Before one can a ghetto, a barrio, or a slum emerged, one has understand the etiology of the neighborhood. One has to ask why structures were placed where they exist today, why did people migrate into the space, and why did they chose to leave. The understanding of the distribution of the key characteristics of the neighborhood permits a detailed understanding of the present state of the neighborhood, as Galster states: “what attributes that place will possess – what that neighborhood will be – will be shaped by the decisions of current and prospective consumers” (p. 2116).

The Destructive Force of National Debt

After a summer long absence from this blog, I am returning to my thoughts about incivilities and other social issues of the city. Recently, I’ve been concerned about public debt and the deleterious impact it has on American society at all levels of governance. This blog considers US Federal debt. I think the way the US has accumulated debt should be considered by urbanists because many of the processes that led to fiscal crises are similar at all levels of government. Ultimately, I believe that politicians and the American public need to learn to live within their means. Taking that phrase to heart would ultimately change not only the debt accumulation but shrink the government structure. Let’s take a look at the problem and ask some real questions about our current path.

At a time when American municipalities are plagued with shrinking coffers with pundits often citing the ongoing recession which started in 2008 as a major factor (I don’t believe we’ve ever come out of that recession, despite what some economists suggest), a question arises as to who should shoulder the public debt. In a very short time, the nation has increased its public debt to a very unreasonable level, and this debt is not as much a result of the recession as other processes. Beginning in the 1970s, who shared the burden of debt began to change quite dramatically, perhaps contributing greatly to the shrinking middle class in this nation. If you have never considered government debt to be a major problem, if you’ve never even thought about government debt, then please read on and at least consider some concerns that I am raising.

In this blog, I will concentrate on the Federal debt, but the story is very similar at other levels of government. That is, for many years, there has been a Keynesian approach regarding public funding: public debit is posited to be a primer to the economy. At times of economic downturn, taking on debt and infusing the money into the public is believed to help stabilize the economy. Yet, the Keynesian approach was mishandled; it has been applied during times of economic prosperity.

Much of the debt, in my opinion, is the result of politicians who have very little intestinal fortitude to simply say, “We must live within our means.” Politicians want to be re-elected and they make promises to fund things that their constituents desire – some needed, some not. Politicians have a small window by which they will be judged; generally four years. So, budget shortfalls pose no significant problem in the short-term because they want to be re-elected AND, more importantly, they wish to maintain a stable government.

But, taking on debt to ensure the stability of government structure has resulted in nearly $15 trillion debt and some of the worse in-fighting at the federal level that’s ever been seen. That’s just at the federal level. The figure would be sickening if the debt of all state governments, municipal and county governments were added as well. There are approximately 307 million Americans. If the Federal debt was to be suddenly called in, each person (including infants) would be responsible for approximately $50,000, and it’s about $130,000 per each taxpayer. Public debt accumulation is simply unsustainable. Currently, the Public Debt to GDP Ratio is about 60%; if it grows to 90% (which is projected to occur by 2020 if the government continues its current policies), the economy cannot grow and the value of the dollar will weaken. A weaker dollar will make it more difficult to pay back because investors may demand higher interest rates as the dollar’s value depreciates.

Debt not only undermines economic growth but it is also a significant danger to the security of our nation. If the US continues to accumulate debt with no real plan to remove it, foreign investors – including nations – can make demands that will affect decision-making in our government. For example, China currently owns 36% of all foreign-held U.S. Treasury securities which amounts to 16% of total US debt (“Major Foreign Holders of Treasury Securities”, US Department of Treasury). As the government continues to sell off its debt, it has to become mindful that it is a debtor, not a creditor, nation, and this has real consequences regarding foreign policy. On August 6, China’s state-run Xinhua News commented about the US’s credit downgrade: “The U.S. government has to come to terms with the painful fact that the good old days when it could just borrow its way out of messes of its own making are finally gone” (Huffington Post, August 6, 2011). Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin commented that the United States was “living in debt and this, for one of the leading economies in the world, is very bad. This means that they don’t live within their means and are shifting some of the burden of their own problems onto the entire global economy. To a certain extent, they are parasites on the global economy and their own monopoly on the dollar” (Radio Free Europe, August 3, 2011). These are very powerful statements by very powerful nations, both of whom have bought a sizeable portion of US debt.

I think a lot of Americans – including myself – have not understood the problem nor even its genesis. The overwhelming debt emerged as a result of a multitude of social processes, all very rational ones in and of themselves. US policymakers need to step back and consider both the real ramifications of taking on unsustainable debt growth and the rewards for eliminating it.

The National Debt – An Abbreviated History

The United States was essentially born in debt as the Revolutionary War and the Articles of Confederation government played chief roles in the earliest debt accumulation. Just between those two situations, debts amounted to nearly $76 million. Yet, by 1832, even with debts incurred as a result of the War of 1812, the nation managed to pay 99.97% of its debt. At no other time in its history was the Republic nearly free of all of its debt. To put things into perspective, as of December 2010, the Federal debt was estimated at $14 trillion (“Making dollars and sense of the U.S. government debt”).

Part of understanding the Federal debt is to consider the annual budget deficit (the difference between actual cash collections and budgeted spending) spanning a fiscal year (a Federal fiscal year begins October 1 and ends September 30). Since 1970, the Federal government has run federal deficits for every year except between 1998 – 2001. Between the years 2003 through 2007, the national debt increased roughly $550 billion annually. Debt increase rose dramatically to $1.88 trillion in 2009 and $1.65 trillion in 2010, mostly as a result of the global financial crisis that arose starting in 2007.

Some economists and politicians agree that debt is a vital component to growth. Businesses cannot grow without accumulating debt, at least in theory. Businesses, however, are constrained greatly by debt as well as by the motivation to seek profit. If debt cuts too deeply into profits, then the business cannot grow, in very simplistic terms. Public bureaucracies, on the other hand, have considerably different motivations than businesses. At the heart of their motivations is merely the dilemma that they face, as Michael Lipsky (1980) noted: infinite demands and finite resources (Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services). That is, they redistribute resources to various peoples. At the end of their day, however, they are not motivated by profit but rather survival to attain funding to be redistributed later. Going into the red for a public bureaucrat – while uncomfortable – does not have the same impact that a business bureaucrat might face – that is, the loss of profit, stockholders, etc.


A contributing factor to US debt has been what is commonly referred to as bailouts. Bailouts present a real moral question for Americans: does it make sense for taxpayers to shoulder the burden of failing companies? The US government has decided that there are times where direct intervention to save failing companies did indeed serve the best interest. In general, the argument has been that if a large company goes under, many jobs will be lost, and the market may panic due to investors’ concerns that there is a larger issue with the economy. Both democrat and republican led governments have lent a hand. The selling point has almost always been how bailing out will benefit the people with jobs.

According to ProPublica.org, the US Federal Government has, to date, bailed out 926 recipients, committing over $633 billion, of which over $579 billion has been disbursed. Of that money, almost $278 billion has been returned (this is accounting for both TARP and the Fannie Mae / Freddie Mac bailouts). Here’s how 15 of the largest bailouts since 1970 have fared:

Industry / Corporation Year Cost in 2008 U.S. Dollars
Penn State Railroad 1970 $3.2 billion
Lockheed 1971 $1.4 billion
Franklin National Bank 1974 $7.8 billion
New York City 1975 $9.4 billion
Chrysler 1980 $4.0 billion
Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Company 1984 $9.5 billion
Savings & Loan 1989 $293.3 billion
Airline Industry 2001 $18.6 billion
Bear Stearns 2008 $30 billion
Fannie Mae / Freddie Mac 2008 $400 billion
American International Group (AIG) 2008 $180 billion
Auto Industry 2008 $25 billion
Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) 2008 $700 billion
Citigroup 2008 $280 billion
Bank of America 2009 $142 billion
Total Cost of bailouts   $2.1 trillion

Source: http://www.propublica.org/special/government-bailouts

This is merely a historic presentation of how much money taxpayers shelled out to assist these companies (and one city). In some circumstances, the Federal Government actually made some money from the bailout (for example, the 1980 bailout of Chrysler). In general, the government has lost money while taxpayers have been left with paying off the debt.

Additionally, the Federal Government has indirectly assisted foreign entities in these bailouts. In 2009, the AIG bailout led to significant funds being disbursed to the following foreign banks: Société Générale of France and Deutsche Bank of Germany (each nearly $12 billion), Barclays of Britain ($8.5 billion), and UBS of Switzerland ($5 billion) (source: New York Times).

AIG, of course, gained further notoriety in handing out bonuses to executives who were responsible for the crisis that ensued in the first place. AIG has managed to repay some of their loans back to the US. They still owe over $50 billion. They’ve at least made some repayments; Fannie and Freddie have not paid any money back, although technically the government took over both companies in 2008. The government has managed a revenue stream from the companies of nearly $15 billion dollars, but the net outstanding is still $89 billion.

Are bailouts a good use of taxpayer money? Whenever businesses gain assistance from government entities, it weakens our economic principles in my opinion. Instead of espousing a free market economy, we instead move closer to a social market economy (not, as some would argue, socialism). The government is given more of a chance to be quite intrusive to the market, whereby innovation and growth can be greatly stifled. This is a disincentive in the sense that too many regulations will become controlling; GDP would thus be greatly reduced leading the American wage earner to lose a great deal of money to support companies that may not be competitive in the market anymore. Many of the large companies that gained assistance failed because of poor management. The question at hand, then, is why should taxpayers fund assistance to companies that failed due to incompetence or corruption?

Apart from the government gaining a hand in businesses, there are several other arguments regarding bailouts. First, if businesses understand that they can take unmitigated risks, they will do so with regularity, using the taxpayer as a safety net. Second, bailouts allow the government to restructure the assisted business, and thus gain a hand in organizing it. This is a huge concern: the marrying of public and private bureaucracies. Both have very different goals, and creating a hybrid from the two can only lead to confusion just as to what the overall goal is for the organization. Additionally, Ron Paul sums up the consequences of bailouts: “In bailing out failing companies, they are confiscating money from productive members of the economy and giving it to failing ones. By sustaining companies with obsolete or unsustainable business models, the government prevents their resources from being liquidated and made available to other companies that can put them to better, more productive use. An essential element of a healthy free market is that both success and failure must be permitted to happen when they are earned. But instead with a bailout, the rewards are reversed – the proceeds from successful entities are given to failing ones.” (Source: The Bailout Surge, by Ron Paul, 11-24-2008).

One of the rare times that I would consider assistance in the form of bailouts would be in extreme circumstances such as those that the airlines found themselves after the events of September 11, 2001. The airlines had a substantial and quick decline in passenger rates as a result of external events that were not entirely their own doing. That bailout, though, actually led to a profit for the Treasury Department of between $141.7 million to $327 million through stock warrants (source: http://www.propublica.org/special/bailout-aftermaths#airlines ). In general, though, bailouts tend to do far more harm for the free market than good because they do not allow the market to sanction incompetence or poor business models or corruption.

And bailouts contribute an unnecessary burden to our national debt.

Additional Sources of US Debt

Department or other Unit 1990 2000 2005 2011

(Billions of Dollars)

Legislative Branch 2.2 (0.16) 2.9 (0.15) 4.0 (0.15) 4.9 (0.11)
Judiciary Branch 1.6 (0.12) 4.1 (0.21) 5.5 (0.20) 7.4 (0.18)
Agriculture 45.9 (3.40) 75.1 (3.83) 85.3 (3.16) 152.1 (3.72)
Commerce 3.7 (0.27) 7.8 (0.40) 6.1 (0.23) 11.9 (0.29)
Defense – Military 289.7 (21.43) 281.0 (14.32) 474.4 (17.58) 739.7 (18.11)
Education 23.0 (1.70) 33.5 (1.71) 72.9 (2.70) 79.4 (1.94)
Energy 12.1 (0.90) 15.0 (0.77) 21.3 (0.79) 44.6 (1.09)
Health and Human Services 175.5 (12.98) 382.3 (19.48) 581.4 (21.55) 909.7 (22.27)
Homeland Security 7.2 (0.53) 13.2 (0.67) 38.7 (1.43) 48.1 (1.18)
Housing and Urban Development 20.2 (1.49) 30.8 (1.57) 42.5 (1.58) 60.8 (1.49)
Interior 5.8 (0.43) 8.0 (0.40) 9.3 (0.34) 13.0 (0.32)
Justice 5.9 (0.44) 16.8 (0.86) 22.4 (0.83) 33.5 (0.82)
Labor 26.1 (1.93) 31.9 (1.63) 46.9 (1.74) 148.0 (3.62)
State 4.8 (0.36) 6.7 (0.34) 12.7 (0.47) 28.9 (0.71)
Transportation 25.6 (1.89) 41.6 (2.12) 56.6 (2.10) 79.5 (1.95)
Treasury 253.9 (18.78) 390.5 (19.90) 410.2 (15.20) 532.3 (13.03)
Veterans Affairs 29.0 (2.15) 47.0 (2.40) 69.8 (2.59) 141.1 (3.45)
Corps of Engineers 3.3 (0.24) 4.2 (0.21) 4.7 (0.17) 10.6 (0.26)
Other Defense – Civil Programs 21.7 (1.61) 32.8 (1.67) 43.5 (1.61) 59.2 (1.45)
Environmental Protection Agency 5.1 (0.38) 7.2 (0.37) 7.9 (0.29) 11.1 (0.27)
Executive Office of the President 0.2 (0.01) 0.3 (0.02) 7.7 (0.29) 0.5 (0.01)
General Services Administration -0.2 (-0.02) 0.1 (0.01) 0.0 (0.00) 3.1 (0.08)
International Assistance Programs 10.1 (0.74) 12.1 (0.62) 15.0 (0.56) 25.2 (0.62)
NASA 12.4 (0.91) 13.4 (0.68) 15.6 (0.58) 19.5 (0.48)
National Science Foundation 1.8 (0.13) 3.4 (0.17) 5.4 (0.20) 8.6 (0.21)
Office of Personnel Management 31.9 (2.36) 48.7 (2.48) 59.5 (2.21) 80.6 (1.97)
Small Business Administration 0.7 (0.05) -0.4 (-0.02) 2.5 (0.09) 6.2 (0.15)
Social Security Administration (On-budget) 17.3 (1.28) 45.1 (2.30) 54.6 (2.02) 170.5 (4.17)
Social Security Administration (Off-budget) 245.0 (18.12) 396.2 (20.19) 506.8 (18.78) 630.9 (15.44)
Other Independent Agencies (On-budget) 68.7 (5.08) 8.8 (0.45) 16.8 (0.62) 23.0 (0.56)
Other Independent Agencies (Off-budget) 1.6 (0.12) 2.0 (0.10) -1.8 (-0.07) 1.5 (0.04)

Source: The 2012 Statistical Abstract: Federal Government Finances and Employment, US Census Bureau

The above table is a snapshot of the US Federal Budget. The numbers in parentheses represent the percentage of the budget for that department or unit. In a sense, these represent social values dictated by the federal legislature.

What is significant, though, is that we maintain budget shortfalls despite being alert to a lack of revenue stream. That is, tax breaks and people unable to pay tax each has contributed to the fiscal problem. A New York Times analysis suggested four major reasons for the shortfalls:

  • Recessions or the business cycle (37%)
  • Policies enacted by President Bush (33%)
  • Policies enacted by President Bush and supported or extended by President Obama (20%)
  • New policies by President Obama (10%) (Source: New York Times June 10, 2009)

The public debt has increased by over $500 billion dollars annually since 2003, and we have had increases of $1 trillion in 2008, $1.9 trillion in 2009, and 1.7 trillion in 2010. The gross debt as of October 2011 is $14.86 trillion. Policies of slashing tax breaks, the funding of two wars, and the enlargement of federal bureaucracies have certainly contributed heavily to the largest deficit in the history of the US.

Ramifications of Government Debt

Earlier, I mentioned that China and Russia each issued opprobrium regarding the US debt. Of course, the criticism was interjected with geo-political rhetoric, but the point should have been clear to all Americans: our debt is tied up with other entities, all of whom have considerable stake in whether the US can maintain its standing as a debtor.

Consider this analogy, one which many Americans consider personally in their own lives. When we attain debt there is an obligation to repay that debt. If a person continually adds on debts, then as each debt is taken on, the debt itself becomes a constraining force; it constrains a person in decision making. For example, a person may not be able to replace clothes, buy a home, or even marry because the debt burden is too high. If circumstances change in the person’s life, creditors may also request information on these changes (new address, marriages, divorces, children). If the market itself changes, creditors may change the stakes by changing interest rates and/or fees, reducing income. The more income that has to go to debt, the more constraining the debt becomes. Defaulting on debt becomes even more constraining as it destroys credit ratings and the ability to borrow.

This constraint has serious ramifications for a person. For one, the person’s purchasing power becomes limited to only needs, which means as a consumer, the person does not contribute to economic growth. Additionally, if there are many people in this condition this amplifies a stagnation regarding economic growth of the country. Second, critical decisions may be greatly restrained regarding potential growth. For example, a person has a job opportunity that would increase income, but in order to take on the job, the person would have to relocate. However, due to debt already incurred, the person’s borrowing power has been squeezed, thus moving is not a viable option. The person then remains in the same income level.

At a national level, the debt that has been purchased can restrict and restrain policymaking. For example, China’s rebuke of America’s debt opened a serious political issue regarding the US military. China remarked at how much spending was placed into the US military, a military that is seen as a critical force by the Chinese leaders. If the US must reduce its military to appease creditors, this can greatly impact the national security of the nation. In other words, creditors may impose harsh restrictions to demand repayment on debt.

Creditors may also ask for special favors from the government. If creditors know that government regulations are restrictive in some way, they already have a great deal of access to policymakers which allows them to influence changes. Creditors make their money on the fees and interests of loans, and if the government is slow to make payments, then creditors make seek assistance to change banking rules. For example, let’s say that banks are not allowed to charge for debit transactions at a certain level, a government imposed regulation. Let’s also say that the government would like to take out additional loans because the budget is not able to fund some projects. The creditors could use this to their advantage and agree to making loans while removing the restriction on charging for debit transactions.

In general, debt has the potential to restrict policy decision making and it places the nation into an inferior position among other nations in the world. In essence, debt seriously damages our national security, exposing us to the whims of elites and powerful nations.

Fiscal Responsibility

Recently, presidential hopefuls have extolled their plans – some amorphous, some fairly concrete – with the same assertion that I have been pointing to: we need to get our spending under control. Most of these plans, in simple terms, attempt to assert fiscal responsibility can only be attained when we simplify the tax code and find a way to make budget cuts.

The tax code is quite cumbersome. Just for me to complete my taxes I use a computer program, and honestly, my taxes are not that complicated. But the tax code itself has grown so complicated that algorithms ensure that you are in compliance with the tax code. Since 1913 when the national income tax was first written on 400 pages, it has grown an estimated 15,000 pages in 20 volumes. Of course, simplifying the tax code does is not, itself, a simple task. Consider criticisms regarding Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, which would eliminate the current system for a 9% corporate business tax, 9% income flat tax, and a 9% national sales tax. The Tax Policy Center notes that implementation of the 9-9-9 plan:

“The Tax Policy Center estimates that, if fully phased in, the plan would raise about $2.55 trillion of revenues at 2013 levels of income and consumption, virtually the same amount that would be collected if current tax policy were in place that year (that is, if 2011 tax law, other than the payroll tax reduction, were extended). However, the plan would raise about $300 billion less revenue than would be raised by current tax law, under which most 2001-2010 tax cuts would have expired by 2013”

So, the Cain plan is attacked because it does not raise enough money and allegedly 84% more people will have to pay more…Other ideas touted call for some kind of a national flat tax, but ultimately the main idea is that we need a simpler tax code. Of course the concerns raised are that flat taxes may favor the rich, the 9-9-9 plan may mean more people will have to share the tax burden, etc. But that distracts from what I contend is the real issue: whatever money we raise via taxes is what we should count on; we need to realize that that’s the money we have to work with. We should not borrow more to sustain a burgeoning government and programs. It’s unsustainable, irresponsible, and we need to consider real options regarding spending.

How do we control spending? Simple, the same way we control all aberrant behavior: with law.

I suggest that we take a close look again at the table above that accounts for our federal budget. My suggestion is that we move away from looking at dollar amounts regarding where the money is going. Instead, Congress should evaluate what percentage of money will be specified for those large entities above. Once taxes are collected, the monies are then released within those percentage parameters. Those large entities (Treasury, Justice, etc.) would then internally decide where their money is going to go. That is, they will determine how much funding they can release to sustain programs. They may also be forced to reduce staff and other non-efficient entities within their realms.

The percentage idea satisfies quite a few interesting problems. First, politicians will be less likely to clamor for more short-term fixes regarding the budget. Instead, the budget will control itself. The only real thing Congress can change is how much percentage of funding can be changed. Second, we would no longer contend with budget deficits nor extra money. Removing budget deficits would reduce our debt significantly. The idea here also ensures that every program and every department shares the same burden. That is, the percentage is set, and if less money comes one year, then everyone feels the effects. Congress would not suspend jobs, programs, etc., but instead the bureaucrats would make those decisions. Finally, the uncomfortable problem of what programs and cuts need to be conducted will be left for the bureaucrats who understand the problems more than the politicians who may have very little understanding of how bureaucracies work.

Additionally, I think that we should be aggressive in eliminating national debt. I would argue that we should immediately trim 20% of the tax collections. We could then place 15% toward eliminating debt and 5% could go to reserve.

I firmly believe that establishing percentages eventually will increase efficiency in our government. No business could survive as long as the government has regarding its spending. Informing the Justice Department, for example, that it has 0.82 percent of the money raised in taxes to fund all of their personnel, offices, programs, etc., is something is workable; it’s a real number. That number then may mean that all programs and personnel are funded, or that cuts may be needed. If the department wants to create a new program, it has to contend with the real money coming in; it cannot expand unless more money is coming or it makes cuts elsewhere in its department.

Establishing percentages controls government growth. The amount of money coming in is the controlling force of whether the government expands or is reduced. Obviously, if the economy is doing well, the government can grow, but when the economy is not faring well, the government can grow smaller. Ultimately, the percentages constrains the bureaucratic tendency to grow; real money constrains the decisions of bureaucrats to grow or not.

Whatever controls that we can put into place should be quite simple. I strongly argue that the tax code needs to be simplified and that budget spending should be set in such a way that we only spend what we take in. And both parties need to come to an agreement with this, otherwise debt will get the best of our country. It will erode our economy, our national security, and ultimately, our own viability.

A Declaration of Independents: Continued Discourse on the Incivility of Politics

I wrote this in about four hours while reflecting on political issues in America. While this does not necessarily discuss urban semiotics or social disorganization, it is relevant as I firmly believe that major problems in our society cannot be resolved until we return to the basics of good governance. I had hoped to develop the role of culture in influencing political affiliations, but I think that has to be developed a bit more.

Sometimes I forget about the larger social structures which can influence civil disorder. For example, the political polarizing of America is often believed to a result of the major political parties and their manipulation of the media to exploit their rhetoric to rally people to their cause. Yet, I believe there is a lot more going on with this polarization, one which each American should become aware of. The fragmentation of America over political ideology is but one symptom of something far more nefarious; we are fragmenting over clashing values and culture. This is largely being accomplished without people even being aware of it.

This essay will discuss the problem of political parties. I view political parties as problematic because they are rooted in ideologies that people are often unaware of. Typically, people affiliate themselves to a party because of either tradition or because they see some matched values between themselves and the party. Either of these reasons can be flawed.

In reality, I argue that many Americans affiliate themselves to a political party due to their cultural upbringing. That’s really not unusual, since culture tends to provide us with strategic devices to survive in both the social and the physical world. What has been passed down from generation to generation is a series of known methods that have worked to better strengthen people of that culture. It does not necessarily mean that those devices or methods are the optimal ways to promote their best interests; humans operate rationally, not always optimally.

Political parties are an adventure in the constraining of the people of America. They tend to protect segments of the population while leaving exposed many other people in the process. Many people choose a party almost akin to the process of felons in prison choosing a gang: for protection. Many Americans believe that affiliating with a political party is the only way to get their interests heard. But is this truly the case?

This essay will consider the ways that culture and political affiliation have become intertwined in contemporary society. First, I provide an example of how politicians have exploited culture to maintain power. Second, I consider what happens when cultures are fragmented. Third, I look at George Washington’s Farewell Address in which he warned of the outcomes of political parties. Finally, I discuss what I believe way that the political process was intended by the framers of the Constitution, thereby advocating citizens to maintain independence from political parties. While I am certain many people will disagree with my premise, I only ask that people can at least question why they are affiliated with a political party. Over time, I am sure to re-visit this essay and improve it.

The “Melting Pot” and The Falsehood of Pluralism

Pluralism does not exist in the United States. I realize that this is a heated statement; one which I am sure will lead to much vilification upon me, for many people in the United States love to discuss the so-called “melting pot” and how it leads to greater unity among all the various immigrants, past and present. However, it does not exist; people do not merely “melt” into the prevailing culture. Instead, it takes generations of people before they can assimilate, and even then they may not fully assimilate.

Consider political history and the way that it has rallied people around race and ethnicity. For example, Tammany Hall in New York City politics exploited ethnic enclaves to assure their political power in the 19th century through the 20th century. The Irish remained somewhat secluded, but gained political acumen because they understood that their unity meant better opportunities for themselves. They weren’t worried about the Yanks, Slavs, or other groups in New York City who were in the same conditions as themselves. They surrendered their votes to Tammany Hall in exchange for patronage; Tammany Hall provided these immigrants with a prosperous survival path than had they gone at it alone.

People who advocate pluralism, on the other hand, often suggest that people in the same circumstances will rally together and form a similar mindset. Why didn’t other groups of immigrants succeed as quickly as the Irish did in New York City? Humans really don’t coalesce with others once they understand that the group they are a part of is viewed by the mainstream as “outsiders”. Generally, they will rally around their own group and attempt to gain better positions mostly as a survival strategy, not so that they can become “good Americans.” Looking back on the Golden Age of Immigration, I am compelled to argue this point; people came to America for better opportunity, not necessarily for civic discourse.

What happens when groups begin to successfully gain political acumen and better resources for themselves? In 1924, one of the most strict and racist immigration laws was put in place, restoring a balance in which white protestant peoples had a higher likelihood of immigrating to America; those from southern and eastern Europe were severely restricted as were Asians. For many Americans, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, southern and eastern Europeans represented peoples who were not white and did not fit the “Yankee” template. Plus, many of these immigrants were believed to be bringing anti-American ideas regarding government from their homelands, such as socialism and communism.

Yet, over time, things changed and some groups who were once viewed as non-white became seen as white in American society. The clearest example of a “melting pot” emerged out of the Depression of the 1930s and World War II. Douglas Massey (1995) argued that a kind of social pause occurred (“breathing space” as he called it) as a result of these three conditions (immigrations laws, the depression, and the war). Even so, just under a few layers, elements of ethnicity could easily be seen. For example, it was not uncommon for soldiers to use ethnic slurs against one another when they first met, or even in heated moments (this is well-portrayed, for example, in several episodes of the mini-series Band of Brothers. In one scene, while the troops were traveling on boat to England, Bill Guarnere describes some of the officers in the company along religious and ethnic lines, commenting that Captain Sobel was a “son of Abraham”; a Jew. This infuriates Liebgott, a Jew, who then fights Guarnere).

African Americans and Latinos who endured the same conditions as these other groups did not fare as well in the post war era. In fact, as the Depression worsened, many Latinos (some of whom were natural citizens) were sent south of the border because it was believed by Americans that they were taking up jobs that “good” Americans needed. African Americans were not permitted to serve in fighting units in the service branches and remained in segregated units.

So, while some groups were able to coalesce, others remained in the “outgroup,” chiefly the result of a systematic process that was promoted by the government. For example, the government created the Home Owners’ Loan Company (HOLC) through the National Housing Act of 1934, which was designed to assist people to improve their homes or to gain access to mortgages on homes. The Federal Home Loan Bank asked the HOLC to evaluate 239 cities and create “residential security maps” to develop protocols by which banks could use to determine whether homes or areas in which were located met the government criteria. Maps were created based upon assumptions about the community rather than on the ability of the blocks to be a viable investment. The maps consisted of color-coded lines and houses which were in areas that were “red-lined” could not receive government assistance. Generally, these areas included houses that were of old stock, run down, or had any Jews or African Americans residing in them. In the post-war era, ethically questionable practices emerged among some realtors who used “blockbusting” as a means to move people from older, well-preserved neighborhoods to suburbs where newer homes were being built. This practice exploited the people who most desperately wanted to own homes, but had to endure terror on two fronts. On one front, the white Americans who wanted to preserve the integrity of their neighborhood knew that all it took was one African-American to drive down the value of their homes. The second front was the exploitative practices conducted by home lenders, whereby high interest or floating interest rates could suddenly impact the loan. The African Americans who bought their homes – many of whom merely wanted to live in better housing than they had available to them – put so much of their income into their payments, so much so they could not conduct house repairs. Later, the jobs that they felt secure about suddenly abandoned the cities, leaving them with a loss of income and ultimately a loss of income. Thus, middle-class white Americans who left for the suburbs left to better housing and took the jobs with them. The cities lost their tax base and home values plummeted, while cities attempted to correct the course by increasing taxes on businesses, which prompted businesses to head to suburbs where taxation was lower. Lower-class Americans thus remained in the cities, entrenched with debt and decay, and the response by many white Americans has been “why don’t they just move out of the city?”

I illustrate this for one simple reason: this country has always been divided between in-groups and out-groups, and it has been done at all levels of society. It has occurred at the neighborhood level. It has occurred at the city level. And it has occurred at the national level. Specifically, structures at these various levels have been able to manipulate various groups to either position them for better or for worse. It all depends on whether you are a part of the mainstream or not. This has had severe consequences for many different groups of people, not the least of which has led to the formation of various cultures.

The Production of Multiple Cultures

In a fictional story that I have been writing on and off for about a year, the protagonist, a survivor of the Civil War, reflects on what he perceives as the main cause of the war. His belief is that, despite all of the rhetoric concerning slavery or states’ rights, he thought what caused the war was a lacking of a common American culture. He reflects upon the great empires of the past, such as Rome, and (at times erroneously) believes that a common culture helped unite the citizens. Thus, he argues that to fix the country so that it never encounters a civil war again is to produce a truly American culture.

Today, we see various cultures existing simultaneously in the country. This is easily manifested by the many variations of the American dialect in different regions (for example, consider which parts of the country refer to soda as “pop”, “soda”, “soda-pop”, “coke” etc. In fact, many southerners, particularly from the southeast, refer to all soda as coke, perhaps due to the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia).

What exactly is culture? Culture is composed of complex rule-like structures which influence strategic use of the environment to negotiate it as well as to attain desired resources and outcomes (Bourdieu 1990). In this view, people use culture in strategic decision-making (DiMaggio 1997). But culture is also salient; it can constrain people limiting the shaping of strategies to meet desired resources or ends (Bourdieu 1990; Gramsci 1990). This is due to how one’s culture impacts ones schemata – representations of knowledge and information-processing mechanisms – in simplifying cognition by biasing thought (DiMaggio 1997). With this view in mind, one may be able to understand the implications for areas which have their own cultural identities, especially when their expression differs from other cultures in the city.

If multiple cultures exist in an area, then people will use different strategies to meet desired ends. This is often the root of many cultural clashes between different groups of people. Consider also that Americans value attaining the so-called “American Dream”, basically attaining wealth and expressing it to show success. There are varied paths by which one may achieve this goal depending on one’s cultural background. For example, Poles in the late 19th century made significant sacrifices to become homeowners and to expand their homes on the south side of Milwaukee. They often resided in dirt basements and rented out their small cottages to pay their mortgages. This had a significant impact upon their health, and they were largely dependent on their employment (a recession could have dire impacts on families in these families). Yet, to become land owners (something they could do in the former Poland) and home owners was such a significant sign of success that they were willing to make sacrifices. On the other hand, Yankees viewed these sacrifices as lower class and unique only to the Polish immigrant, even though the Polish immigrants were attempting to attain the same status as their Yankee counterparts. Accordingly, the late criminologist Robert Merton (1968) suggested that some criminal behavior occurs because of the pressure of society to achieve success; different strategies, including criminal activity, may be employed to achieve the American Dream.

Bearing this in mind – varied cultures use different means to attain different ends – one can see how varying strategies can eventually lead to balkanization of groups. Not surprisingly, I take the view that we have so many views which are seen through varying cultural lenses, that in fact we have very strident political views which are, oddly, not so fragmented. Instead, what I think is happening is that many people have learned political views via their culture. So, what does that portend?

Left versus Right

George Washington’s farewell address was written to the “People of the United States” and was originally under preparation in 1792 when he was finishing his first term as president. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, concerned about growing divisions by people aligning themselves as Federalists and others as Democratic-Republicans, convinced the President that he should run for another term, which he did and won. Thus, in 1796, Alexander Hamilton assisted the President in writing his address.

In paragraphs 20-25, he presented a stern warning on the creation of political parties. One of the most important parts of this speech is as follows:

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”

George Washington makes two major points in this passage. First, factions rip apart the liberty of America; we cannot achieve the things that we should be achieving because everything will be rooted in emotion, especially revenge. If one party gets a foothold and later loses it, the victorious party will rip apart anything that was done previously not for the good of the Republic, but rather, simply for revenge. Secondly, political parties, by coalescing people, become too powerful and they are the antithesis of what the founders were trying to accomplish at the advent of the Republic. Statespersons should be elected on their own merits, decided by the people, and not by political parties and the outside agents who influence the decisions of who may run as representatives of those parties.

Another point that George Washington makes concerns how parties can weaken the American resolve:

“[The actions of parties] agitates that Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.” (Paragraph 24)

Parties can, thus, create hegemony by which they will maintain their power base. And if that is not enough to evoke concern, he argues that foreign influence could penetrate the government via political parties.

Looking back at this document, Washington’s address certainly brings some rather poignant points to light. Perhaps one thing that he and Thomas Jefferson would not have seen, though, was how parties achieved their own culture and have rooted themselves into ideology. In fact, the idea that citizens would vote a straight party line on any voter card would probably have been an inconceivable notion; they would have thought that citizens (the term citizen was initially severely restricted to landowners) would have been taken the time to conduct their homework on who they were to vote for.

Many people today surrender to political parties. When you ask a common citizen how many political parties there are today, they generally state two: GOP and Democrats. If you name other people who are not in those two political parties, the common citizen will say that they have never heard of that candidate. This is what worries me more about the future of our country: our citizens don’t know who they are voting for!

Onward the Republic

I occasionally ask this question of my students in sociology classes that I teach: “Which document has the word ‘Democracy’ written in it? Is it the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the State Constitution?” Often, students will say all three or, at the very least, the US Constitution. The correct answer? None of them.

This is a quandary for many students, and I suspect for many people in general. We often hear our leaders espouse the virtues of democracy. Some of our greatest speeches include the word democracy. And yet, it is a word that is omitted from our most important documents. Why?

True democracy failed in ancient Greece, and democracy would not work in our nation today. In fact, had we set up a democracy instead of what we have today, I would argue that the United States would look quite different. The reason? True democracy yields mob rule. If every citizen had equal say and equal vote, it would be arduous to even complete a vote, much less attempt to create any legislation to vote on. Many voices would become lost as the majority would always get its way. Democracy also has a greater preponderance to corruption as it moves too slowly to resolve problems.

Consider this dynamic and then consider this at a broader level. You work in an office and the office has been tasked with completing a major project and the office works using a democratic form of organization. Suppose the deadline for completing the project is three days. The project is intricate and will require a significant amount of hours of work to coordinate the work as well as complete it. Everyone in the office has an equal say and the project cannot get started until everyone is able to meet and discuss how to complete the project. Several hours pass before everyone meets, perhaps even a half day. Once everyone meets, the project must then be discussed and analyzed and it has to be agreed upon by the majority that the work will be doled out. Yet, suppose also that the minority does not agree with the work that has been meted out or the direction of the project; they have a more efficient way to complete the project. The majority – all of whom know each other better and have a history of working together – disagree with the minority and a vote is take and the majority wins. The project is completed, but it is not efficient nor did it reach its full potential. The minority’s voice was silenced, as will always be in a democracy.

Democracy equates to mob rule in which the minority loses its voice. This is why the tyrants were able to attain power in the Greek city-states. And it was something that was discussed at great lengths by the authors of the so-called Federalist Papers as well as the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Ultimately, what was developed was a representative form of government: a republic. A representative form of government allows people to have an equal say in government. Regarding the former example, consider the office project again. Instead of a democratic arrangement, there is a representative organization or workers (which is typically how offices are arranged anyway!). Each representative has an equal say in how the work is to be completed, thus all possibilities are examined and can move far more efficiently than awaiting a democratic vote. The decision to proceed is based on consensus and not by mob rule. Eventually, the work that is produced is done smarter, quicker and allows for a great deal of innovation.

The republic is strained, however, by two overarching problems, in my opinion, and they may not have been considered at the writing of the Constitution. Problem one: the main dilemma of government is dealing with infinite demands with finite resources. Problem two: the power of political parties. Let’s consider each of these two issues.

How does the representative form of government contend with infinite demands on public resources when the main tool to resolve the dilemma is consensus? Governments will often develop “mandates” to identify the resolution of problems. This is merely prioritizing problems in society, but it does not necessary resolve problems. Prioritizing problems essentially resorts to mob rule. How can this be? It seems that prioritizing problems can help resolve them systematically, right? The problem lies with the tool that governments use – in fact almost all politicians use – to prioritize problems: public opinion polls.

Why do politicians care about public opinion polls? Because many voters read them, even if they do not participate in the polls. This is a huge conundrum, and it’s one many people probably don’t consider. This issue really is this: public opinion polls cause elected representatives to stray from the voice of their constituents. Rather than listen to the people who live in their jurisdiction, it’s easier to get a read on general issues by reading polls. But not everyone really has access to participate in these polls (regardless of the scientific methods employed, many people’s views are not solicited). And voters should be alarmed by this because, rather than consider your voice, politicians are considering the polls…ergo, my claim that polls are perpetuating mob rule.

Basing the prioritization of public resources on public opinion polls has an additional component to it, which is related to public opinion polls. Politicians are more concerned about resolving issues that can be done in four year increments. That is, they want credit for solving problems so that they can use this as a way to convey their prowess to their constituents when it’s time for re-election. So while major problems abound, some of which may take a decade to resolve, politicians will often target lesser problems that can easily be resolved, often at the beginning of their terms. These are still problems that often register on public opinion polls. So, to gain political capital, the easy path to maintain power is to solve easy problems that can be resolved short-term.

The political party issue is even far more pervasive. Previously, I mentioned that political parties are rooted in ideology, and as such, people tend to surrender to them even though they are not aware of it. Many people align themselves to a specific political party because they have learned to through their culture. That is, families align themselves often based on tradition as opposed to each individual aligning themselves because they have done their own research on the party. Sometimes, people align themselves with a particular party because there are values that the party espouses which are comparable to one’s own values. For example, when I was younger, I aligned myself with the Republican party for several reasons: 1) my parents were Republicans; 2) they supported economic policies which I believed at the time would benefit the nation; 3) they supported strengthening the US military; and 4) they seemed more Christian. Honestly, my views changed over time as I became more educated. I questioned, for example, the viability of the death penalty and the continued war on crime as viable policies espoused by the GOP. I soon realized that my values didn’t match perfectly with GOP or Democrat party values, but I did vote in 2000 the straight ticket GOP. Why? Because of tradition.

If you have selected a party because you have learned to do so culturally, then you may wish to question whether the party actually matches your values. You may be surprised to learn that you will have conflicts with some of your party’s values (or maybe not).

The real issue, though, is that political parties typically make it easier for Americans to get out and vote. Many voters do not wish to take the time to research the candidates, so it is easier to vote if you more or less agree with a party. But what if the party creates a machine that can run roughshod over the constitution? It happens. Wisconsin voters are amazed by the GOP response to gaining power. Some voters are expressing regret at losing collective bargaining rights for public workers, new voter ID laws that are being quickly run, and the stripping away of environmental laws. On the other hand, many people who voted for President Obama have expressed outrage at some of the policies that have been enacted in his administration. But, had voters actually done their homework, they might have understood fully what it was they were voting for.

The key issue with political parties has to do with ideology, and I will state emphatically that the average American is unaware of this issue. It’s one that George Washington warned us about in his farewell address. Ideology, in general, doesn’t have to be a negative. Ideology permits vision, and any leader should have a clear vision of what she or he is planning to implement. But the main issue with political parties is that they have well-developed ideologies, but they rarely express them entirely to the public. Instead, the typical American voter is exposed to vestiges of ideology, often rooted in emotion, via the media. A kind of shock value is attached to political campaigns (especially in commercials) to tap into specific values…therefore, a hegemonic approach is used to attain voters so that the party can gain power and implement its ideology. Fear as a decision-making tool was NOT something that they founders of this nation had foreseen. They honestly believed, in my opinion, that each citizen would vote for candidates based upon their merits.

A representative form of government can only be efficient if each elected official truly represents her or his constituents. Our modern-day government does not do this because, in general, people cannot see through the rhetoric or the ideology that it attached to political parties.

A Call for Independents

It’s an expensive proposition to become an elected official. The major political parties have a foothold with regard to this issue as they have for over a hundred years been able to attain great financial connections. To be able to run on a party ticket assures access to great resources which can facilitate a candidate’s ability to be seen more in public via many networks, not the least of which is the popular media. To run a campaign outside of a party is difficult…but it was the way that government officials were intended to be elected.

I have occasionally made statements to people that being affiliated to a political party is really un-American. I generally acquiesce, though, if the person I am discussing this with has obviously done her or his homework and is satisfied and knowledgeable of their party’s ideology. Otherwise, I typically challenge people on whether it’s necessary to align with a party.

I am probably of a small minority when I state that I advocate the elimination of political parties in the US. This is why I declare myself an independent, politically. It also means that I have to do additional work to consider political candidates. But I truly believe that to be an effective voter each of us should consider each candidate’s merits carefully, and be quite cautious of political ideology that could be lurking behind the candidate’s party affiliation.

Recently, the so-called Tea Party has managed to assist conservatives into getting elected. Their voices seem to shake these elected officials quite a bit, so much so that the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, came out against raising the debt ceiling without making significant cuts. This position was largely influenced by Tea Party activists who claimed he was becoming a “surrenderist” to the normal operations of the political process. Imagine what can be accomplished if, instead of a very loud minority, every constituent could voice her or his opinion and influence the actions of the elected officials. This was, after all, the intended way the political process was supposed to be. Elected representatives bringing the views of their constituents and then working out issues through consensus…that’s what was intended. But that’s not how things have been.

Political parties are influenced by a large array of interests, all of which impacts the direction of a party’s ideology. It’s not just big business, but anyone who wants easy access to the government. Because, you can never convince me otherwise, once you have received a favor (such as an “endorsement” or a “political campaign contribution”) you are going to be expected to return the favor at some point, regardless if it is for the best of your constituents. Thus, if a business wants to build on an environmentally protected area, it may be prone to contribute to a candidate or a party for the purpose of later requesting a change to the area. It’s the way the process works, but it was not supposed to be this way. If you read to George Washington’s Farewell Address, you can see for yourself that he did not expect this as the government was being formed.

It’s far more constructive to be independent of political parties. In order for constituents to really have access to government we have to strip away outside interests and allow government to return back to its main function: to deal with the infinite demands and finite resources and solve the demands based upon consensus. Any other way fails us as a nation.

Final Thoughts

Why should a future urbanist be concerned with the way that politicians are elected? The answer is quite easy: politicians determine who gain resources who does not. Political ideology can greatly influence decision-making, so much so that I think we as a nation have become inured to it.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990 [1980]. “Structures, Habitus, Practices.” In The Logic of Practice, Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 52-65.

DiMaggio, Paul. 1997. “Culture and Cognition.” Annual Review of Sociology, 23, pp. 263-287.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1990. “Culture and Ideological Hegemony.” In Culture and Society: Contemporary Debates, ed. J. Alexander and S. Seidman. New York: Cambridge University Press. Bourdieu, 1990.

Lipsky, Michael. 1980. Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Service. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Massey, Douglas S. 1995. “The New Immigration and Ethnicity in the United States.” Population and Development Review, 21(3): 631-652.

Merton, Robert K. 1968. Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: The Free Press.

Urban Semiotics Methods – Part I

Many of us experience the city almost solely as a physical presence: even the people who live and work there tend to be perceived as bodies, part of that physical presence, and it is their speaking and communicating with one another that sustains the human life of the city and indeed the material city itself.

Yi-Fu Tuan, 1994, page 145


In 2008 while working on an archive project as a project assistant for the Center for 21st Century Studies at UW-Milwaukee, I came across a series of lectures which examined something called Semiotics, a term that I was unfamiliar with. For example, in 1975, Thierry Kuntzel gave a seminar on “Semiotics of Film.” When I read this title I thought this term was exclusive to theatre and just recorded the event and moved on.  But then I came across someone named Umberto Eco who gave a lecture titled “Towards a Semiotics of Performance” in the fall of 1976. In fact, 1976 seemed a watershed for discussions on semiotics at the Center as I noted that there was a workshop in the fall symposium centered on this concept. As serendipity would have it, I ran into the term around this same time once more in a book written by Dick Hebdige (1979) in which he too used and described the term.

While developing my research proposal for my dissertation, I struggled greatly to operationalize what was in my head regarding the role of culture in social space. I was interested in entering the discourse of social disorganization theory, and I perceived the main issue with the scholarly development was cultural.  That is, culture seemed to be a glaring omission or was merely reduced to some questionable variables that could not capture the complex role culture has in influencing the behavior of social groups.

The Broken Windows Thesis and Collective Efficacy (what I have come to define as the two contemporary theories of social disorganization) attempt to define behavior in terms of the impact of the environment. Broken Windows posits that environmental cues suggest to those with criminal intent that crime is tolerated in areas in which norms are not maintained. These cues are reduced to signals of disorder, such as the failure to maintain lawns, garbage, abandoned cars, etc. Collective Efficacy, on the other hand, suggests that the mutual trust and maintenance of norms reduced the likelihood of crime. In a sense, the two theories conflict over whether the issue is “top down” (broken windows which emphasizes the cues) or “bottom up” (collective efficacy which emphasizes the agency of the users of space). Which is it? Why are these interpretations so different?

I suggest that understanding the role of culture will ameliorate some of the tension between these competing hypotheses. A close examination of the role of culture in society leaves one with a sense that it really is an important component in our daily lives. We learn how to survive from culture. We learn our social rules from culture. And cultural cues impact the way we see and negotiate the world. If you lived your entire life in one region of the world and then travelled to another region you may seem lost or confused – you might encounter a condition known as culture shock. Interestingly, culture shock is something that can occur at various distances, from merely going into an unfamiliar neighborhood in the city, to entering an unfamiliar city, etc. Beginning at birth and through our lifecourse, we learn a kind of schemata, and when we encounter cues which conflict with this learned schemata, it can create a great deal of confusion, and it can lead to deleterious effects.

With this in mind, how does one examine the role of culture in space? How can I literally examine how cues can shape the behavior of social groups? And if I can develop this, how might it be reconciled in terms of social disorganization theory? These were the questions which truly haunted me after my proposal defense, because these were the real questions that I was bringing forth in my intellectual sojourn.

As I kept centering on these questions I came to the stark realization that I was ready to make a reorientation of my dissertation. I knew it would an enormous and risky undertaking, but it was really the only thing that made sense given that the center of my interest lay in understanding the role of environmental cues. After attempting to write a methods chapter for my dissertation I was finally convinced that I had to seriously return to the notional drawing board and understand a little more about what the role of environmental cues really was. Serendipity struck me once again as I was shifting some papers in my apartment; the page which addressed Dick Hebdige’s point about semiotics opened on a copy of my research proposal. I looked up the term semiotics in Google and initially thought this was what my undergrad advisor Darl Champion once warned me against: chasing rabbits in a hole. Just as I was ready to give up, I ran across a strain of semiotics called urban semiotics. As I read this literature, the world began to open up to me.

The purpose of this essay is to consider the role of urban semiotics in terms of urban studies.