Reform vs. Reformism

Urban politics in what’s now the US Rust Belt has been dominated by the same battle between the machine and the reformists since the machines first came into existence in the 19th century. Since the national partisan battles weren’t too applicable, especially after the cities became dominant-party Democratic, the battle lines cemented based on this reform vs. machine issue, creating the same intense partisanship as at the national level.

I encourage everyone to read the Historic American Engineering Record‘s first two articles about the New York City Subway, by Wallace Katz and Clifton Hood. The importance is that the same battles are being fought today, with the same social ideas behind each group. The people Katz calls the patrician reformers still try to fix social problems with engineering and design, only they’re disaffected with cars and suburbs rather than cities.

The ultimate symbol of machine politics in New York is Sheldon Silver; the ultimate symbol of reformism is Michael Bloomberg. The former bloc has gotten almost as much beating as it deserves from Streetsblog, Cap’n Transit, and other congestion pricing supporters. But the reformists must be equally examined, because although they want transit to be better, they want it better their way and this is not the same as transit advocacy.

The reformists’ idea of reform is framed in partisan opposition to the machine; bipartisanship in the national sense of liberal vs. conservative is just part of the plank. They’re not wedded to competence, which is a different animal. Being seen as doing something is more important than success. That’s why Jay Walder uses the high costs of the MTA as an excuse to go through with another failed smartcard scheme. Reformists have a lot of valuable outside knowledge to bring to the table – for example, proof-of-payment on buses and commuter rail – but so far the administration hasn’t really done any.

The opposite of outsider knowledge is insider knowledge, and reformists that ignore it will not succeed. The Swiss and the Japanese grew expertise from the inside, and learned from outsiders where needed. When overstaffed, they lost workers to slow attrition, rather than mass layoffs whose size is determined by labor lawyers and which are not targeted at the most redundant workers. Of course, the only people with insider knowledge are the union members who’d be let go – but this underscores the need for consensus, not heavyweights.

Another reformist problem is the unwillingness to invest in the lower class, except for paternalistic redevelopment schemes. This was true in the urban renewal era and is still true today. JSK’s bike lanes and pedestrian plazas, almost the only good import of the city’s reformist class, are a sop to gentrification. The opposition of community boards is part of the mythology of fighting for the greater good, leading to the same predictable authoritarianism as that of Robert Moses. In reality, when East Harlem practically begged the city for bike lanes, JSK ignored it.

Bloomberg impresses people who don’t know which good reforms he’s squandered because they don’t fit his preconceptions. A friend of a friend wrote a computer program that would automatically match substitute teachers to principals who needed them, back when Bloomberg’s focus was reforming education. The program would’ve saved the city $20 million in administrative costs. The administration refused to consider it, because it conflicted with the idea of running schools like businesses.

Reform should instead be done right. The first traditions to go should be those that impede the formation of consensus; unfortunately, this requires learning from the political systems of non-English-speaking countries, which means it’s extremely unlikely to happen. Beyond that, learning from outsiders should be done in the tradition of Japanese industrialization and European proliferation of good industry practices rather than in that of American companies bringing heavyweight CEOs to save them. The CEOs and the reformists are both more mobile and more insulated from their mistakes than the shareholders or city residents they affect. Perhaps the first thing American cities need to learn from the outside is what the proper way to learn from the outside is.


  1. Pingback: Machine Politics vs. Reformers: The Rust Belt Political Parties | Rust Wire
  2. Steve

    Agreed on all counts.

    Philadelphia sees many of the same battles happening, in the form of Nutter v. Street. Nutter came into office as a reformist, and his reforms have been both quiet and effective, given how ghastly fucked-up city policy was when he came into office, but the fact that they are quiet has gotten him much too much flack from both the machine (who hates his guts anyway) and other reformists (because they misinterpret the lack of sound and fury as a lack of reform). It’s really weird.

  3. Pingback: Machine Politics vs. Reformers: The Rust Belt Political Parties … – Politics
  4. EngineerScotty

    A big problem is that many elected officials seem to be more interested in winning elections than in governance. Both of the major parties exhibit this behavior in different forms. The Republicans openly express disdain for government, and frequently seek to dismantle it rather than use it to advance the public weal (one should keep in mind, I suppose, that many of them genuinely believe that government is inherently destructive, and thus don’t see any contradiction in this position). And many Democrats seem more concerned with getting elected (and then getting re-elected), and are terrified to expend any political capital once in office.

    And yes, many political outsiders (on both sides) seem more interested in settling scores than on good governance.

    The interesting question, though, is which lessons ought to be learned from the outside. Several important points have been articulated–such as the Not-Invented-Here tendency among American public officials (I won’t comment on the UK as I’ve never lived there), which is no doubt encouraged by a not-insignificant fraction of the electorate which holds other countries, particularly western Europe, in contempt. But how, precisely, are the Japanese more successful at “growing expertise from the inside”? How much of a role do the political and cultural attributes of Japan (such as a largely monocultural society, and decades of political dominance by one party, among others) affect this?

    • Alon Levy

      The learning process I’m describing about Japan goes even further back than the war. From the Meiji Restoration onward, Japan sent emissaries to the West to learn how a modern state operated. Lately it’s developed the same not-invented-here attitude as the US and Europe, though. The reason it’s less destructive in the transit field than in the US is that there already is a lot of domestic expertise, tailored to the needs of Tokyo and Osaka.

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