For Richer or Poorer

Like many of you, I am digesting this Times piece about a groundbreaking longitudinal study by Raj Chetty et al on economic mobility by race.  The piece and the study are full of incredibly interesting points, but the headline finding - that boys from rich black families are just as likely to end up poor as boys from poor white families (and this is not the case for girls) absolutely stunned me.

Hailing from a high-earning household should put you on solid footing for your own economic achievement.  And, despite the mythology around economic mobility in America, by and large your parents' present salary levels is a pretty good predictor of your future salary levels.  Except, it seems statistically, for black men.

Amy and I are parenting a future black man. We want to believe that he will be a decent human being, raised in a respectable family and given every opportunity and advantage to flourish.  But the cold hard facts tell us that this society pushes a disproportionate number of black men who start from a very high position down to a very low position, in ways that it does not do for any other race, ethnicity, or gender.

One of the luxuries of affluence is being able to afford the time, money, and connections to provide the best prenatal care to your child to be.  This is increasingly understood as being a huge difference maker in the future health and well-being of kids from rich families versus poor families.   Yet this head start that rich black families give their boys does not appear to be strong enough to countervail other forces that hold those same boys back.

I will not disclose what level of prenatal care Asher received, but even if it was the best it would not be enough.  We are preparing him for a world that we increasingly understand to be difficult for and hostile to black men.  May God have mercy on him, and on us as his parents, and on our society that too often holds back people who look like him.


ISO Real Places

I am, in an urban context, unashamedly pro-growth, much to the chagrin of many of my colleagues who are leery of capitalism, developers, and congestion.  I am also on the board of the region's
historic preservation advocacy non-profit, the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.  But there is less conflict than you might think from this duality. 

After all, part of what is driving growth in our modern economies is a clamoring for real places, which is to say locations that are not manufactured or set apart.  Rather, they are in real neighborhoods, with real income diversity and real mixing of uses (commercial AND retail AND residential AND recreational).  And while new, high-end office space is in high demand, so are real buildings with real histories to them. 

In other words, historic preservation doesn't have to mean thinking of growth solely in terms of bulldozing old buildings and therefore wanting to stand in front of the bulldozers.  Historic preservation can also mean an essential characteristic of real places that must be salvaged and valued in order to growth to happen.  And growth can also mean resources to take on preservation projects that may not narrowly pencil out but that contribute invaluable broader aesthetic and historic gains to an area.  At least that's how I think about the intersection.


Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 117

Here's an excerpt from a book I recently read, "Rediscovering Americanism and the Tyranny of Progressivism," by Mark Levin:

Hence, for Jefferson, and most of the Founders, virtue was an essential element of liberty; if the people lack virtue, no form of government can rescue them from tyranny. Again, it must be remembered that the Founders relied on the wisdom of such thinkers as Aristotle, Cicero, and Locke and were influenced by such contemporaries as Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, among others, all of whom spent considerable time contemplating virtue. And the Founders returned repeatedly to the importance of natural law, eternal truths, and the transcendent moral order, including virtue.

Indeed, French philosopher Charles de Montesquieu (1689–1755) and his book The Spirit of the Laws (1748) were widely embraced by the Founders, especially during the constitutional period. Montesquieu explained: 

“There are three kinds of government: REPUBLICAN, MONARCHICAL, AND DESPOTIC. To discover the nature of each, the idea of them held by the least educated of men is sufficient. I assume three definitions, or rather, three facts: one, republican government is that in which the people as a body, or only a part of the people, have sovereign power; monarchical government is that in which one alone governs, but by fixed and established law; whereas, in despotic government, one alone, without law and without rule, draws everything along by his will and caprices. . . . There need not be much integrity for monarchical or despotic government to maintain or sustain itself. The force of the law in the one and the prince’s ever-raised arm in the other can rule or contain the whole. In a popular state there must be an additional spring, which is VIRTUE. What I say is confirmed by the entire body of history and is quite in conformity with the nature of things. For it is clear that less virtue is needed in a monarchy, where the one who sees to the execution of the laws judges himself above the laws, than in a popular government, where the one who sees to the execution of the laws feels that he is subject to them himself and that he will bear their weight. . . . But in a popular government when the laws have ceased to be executed, as this can come only from the corruption of the republic, the state is already lost.” In despotic government, “virtue is not at all necessary to it.”


Women's History Month Bleg

Ack, Women's History Month is almost half over and I haven't thought through my reading rotation in response.  So far, since December 1st about a third of the books I've read or am reading have been written by women (including one by Condi Rice and a couple by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), and some have covered women's history (e.g. first ladies, "Negroland: A Memoir").  Still, I'm making up for lost time because up until the recent past the vast majority of my book consumption was from male authors.  So I welcome any suggestions of authors, titles, and genres. 


Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 116

Here are two excerpts from a book I recently read, "Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court," by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar:

Trying to apply his philosophy solely toward winning would be like doing good deeds only because you hope it will get you into heaven. Being good is the payoff, athletically and spiritually. That’s why he didn’t care for sports movies in which the underdog team or player learns the hard way that winning isn’t everything, but then they go on to win at the end. To him, those movies should have ended with the lesson learned, the team taking the court happy in their newfound wisdom, the whistle blowing to start the game, and then freeze-frame and run credits. Showing the team winning sends the wrong message: that life lessons exist to serve as a guide for acquiring things that make you feel like a success. His point was that the life lesson is the success. The traveling is the reward, not reaching the destination. 

This book is not just an appreciation of our friendship or an acknowledgment of Coach Wooden’s deep influence on my life. It is the realization that some lives are so extraordinary and touch so many people that their story must be told to generations to come so those values aren’t diminished or lost altogether. 

Coach was an old white Midwesterner with old-fashioned ideals; I was a quiet but cocky black kid from New York City who towered eighteen inches over him. He was a devout Christian; I became a devout Muslim. He loved big band music of the swing era; I loved modern jazz. On paper, it’s understandable that we would have a good working relationship as coach and player. But nothing on that same paper would even hint that we would have a close friendship that would endure a lifetime. 

It’s appropriate that the first photo is black-and-white. That accurately defined our rigid relationship in the beginning. In this photo he is leading me. He was the coach; I was his player. He made the rules; I followed them. Black and white. Mutual respect but not warmth. It’s also appropriate that we were posed, because we both look a little awkward, stiff as mannequins in a store window. As if there were something artificial about the roles we were forced to play in the photo and in life. 

The second photo, with its rich, warm colors and candid appearance, more accurately reflected the depth of our friendship. Our two hands—one fragile and one strong, one white and one black—entwined. His white head barely clears my elbow, yet I am standing straight and proud, like a man showing off his hero dad. In that photo, I appear to be leading him. But knowing how much he taught me, I knew I was still following in his footsteps, even though he was beside me.


Looking to the Future But Knowing and Building from the Past

The activism of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School teens in the wake of our nation’s most recent major school shooting compelled best-selling author Tim Kreider to pen this op-ed in the Times earlier this month: “Go Ahead, Millennials, Destroy Us.”  Here is the impassioned last

My message, as an aging Gen X-er to millennials and those coming after them, is: Go get us. Take us down — all those cringing provincials who still think climate change is a hoax, that being transgender is a fad or that “socialism” means purges and re-education camps. Rid the world of all our outmoded opinions, vestigial prejudices and rotten institutions. Gender roles as disfiguring as foot-binding, the moribund and vampiric two-party system, the savage theology of capitalism — rip it all to the ground. I for one can’t wait till we’re gone. I just wish I could live to see the world without us.

Whoa. At the risk of sounding like a crusty old man yelling at the young’uns to “get off my lawn,” I think some moderation is in order here. 

Yes, no matter where you are on our contemporary gun-control debate, you have to admire and appreciate the passion of the MSD students to agitate against the status quo and demand real answers and real action.  And, pulling the lens back, we absolutely need our young generation to feel that they have a voice, and to use that voice to advocate for the things that matter to them.  For, by definition, their time horizon is longer than ours, and their perspective often more informed than ours, so they are able to push for the greater good more easily and more forcefully than we can.

However, the best dissent and the best advocacy is an informed one.  And part of  being informed comes from the perspective of time.  A lot of who we are as a society has to go, and the long narrative has borne out and will bear out that much progress has been made and still needs to be made.  But that doesn’t need to mean that every generation needs to burn everything to a crisp and start from zero.  That does a disservice to the collective wisdom that has built up over the years, some of which needs to be updated but much of which needs to be retained and cherished and built on top of.

I realize I am treading on thin ice here.  I am not saying “wait your turn, kid” – oh how I hate that posture.   Absolutely young folks ought to take action and not wait for their time, for their time is now.  But, when up to bat, it’s not good to just start swinging at everything, with no regard to knowing and learning from the lessons of the past and the insights of those who have gone before.  I am humbled by young folks I know who are deeply steeped in history and who have demonstrated commendable wisdom in drawing from history the lessons that inform their view of the world today and tomorrow.

I am also not saying that it is never appropriate to dismantle and start anew.  There are times when entire systems need to be protested and replaced, and at times that even requires civil disobedience and violence and destruction.  But this is more often than not the exception and not the rule, and it certainly is not the case that every single thing needs to be brought down and built back up.  Again, I am appreciative of young folks I know who know the difference, and are brave enough to use extreme measures when it is called for and restraint when it is not.

Again, perhaps I am hopelessly “unwoke,” my words belying my privileged and clueless status.  I’m just nervous about a thought process that takes something noble – young people standing up for what they believe is right – and assigning to that sentiment absolute leeway to consider all things old worth burning to the ground and all things new unassailable.  I hope to be respectful of and open to the things our youth care deeply about.  But I also hope that their desire to effect progress includes room to learn from the past and to accept and steward the good parts of that past into the future.


Upcoming Events You Might Be Interested In

It is fundraising and conference season, and I am honored to be attending or presenting at a number of upcoming events.  Please follow these links for more information and considering coming or
otherwise supporting.

March 9 - New Jersey Redevelopment Forum (New Jersey Future)

March 9 - Sustainaball (Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia)

March 29 - Region on the Rise (Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce)

April 10 - Leverage (Community Design Collaborative)

April 13 - Urban Economic Policy Conference (Drexel University School of Economics and Econsult Solutions)

April 19 - Gala Awards Ceremony (Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations)

May 3 - Solas Awards (Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians)

June 6 - Preservation Achievement Awards (Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia)