Sunday, January 24, 2016

How "dull" Des Moines got its groove

I'll be writing a bunch about urban innovations in U.S. cities for Politico this year as I help spearhead their What Works series. My first effort -- on how Des Moines, Iowa transformed itself from dull to cool -- posted Friday. Short answer: it took a generation, a lot of cooperation and a long-term vision, and the execution was more akin to setting up the conditions for a chemical reaction than working one's way through a checklist.

I'm humbled at all the attention for the piece: 30,000 Facebook shares in the first 24 hours, media coverage in Iowa, and even this Des Moines Register article on its "takeaways."

Whats next month's installment? Hint: it's Manchester, New Hampshire. (Yes, there's a certain geographic pattern to be detected here.)

Oddly enough, my last piece for Politico was also from Iowa, on what makes that state tick. It's something of a companion piece to the Des Moines article, as it explains the Midland ethos (as per American Nations) that's at the root of the Iowa advantage: an almost uncanny ability to cooperate, undercutting the need for strong government steering.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

"New York Values" are New Netherland Values

Ever since presidential hopeful Ted Cruz (R-Deep South) accused his fellow demagogue, Donald Trump of having "New York Values", the internet has plunged into a discussion of what constitutes such values and whether distancing oneself from them will "work" politically for Sen. Cruz. Trump predictably went to the 9/11 response as illustrative of such values; Cruz responded with a denouncement of abortion and gay rights, correctly said to be widely championed in the Big Apple.

It should come as no surprise that I'd argue "New York Values" are centuries old, dating back to the fundamental ethos of tolerance, materialism, and multiculturalism of the New Netherland colony and the Golden Age Amsterdam culture that created it. It's an argument laid out in my book, American Nations, of course, but I haven't had a chance to distill it for insertion the current debate.

Thankfully, Jordan Fraade, a student of urban policy at UCLA, has done it for me. Writing at Al Jazeera America, Fraade lays out the city's culture, correctly recognizing that tolerance is a double edged sword: tolerant of difference, yes, but also of slavery. It's the sort of place that would never vote for Donald Trump, but certainly helped nurture the creation of a morally flexible, highly materialistic real estate baron with global branding ambitions and a relatively liberal stance toward social programs (for "real Americans" as opposed to those dirty "others" on whom the people's problems can be blamed.) He's not a tolerant fellow, to be sure, but in other ways he's recognizably New Netherland-ish. It's hard to imagine him having grown out of Greater Appalachia, even though that's where the core of his support is.

For Ted Cruz, attacking the tolerant, diverse world of New Netherland makes sense: his base isn't much fond of either, nor are the Evangelicals who mysteriously support Trump, who Cruz needs to peel off to win the GOP nomination.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Reviewing "Prisoners of Geography" at the Washington Post

Tim Marshall, veteran foreign correspondent for Britain's SkyNews, has a new book out on geopolitics. Prisoners of Geography argues the influence of geographic elements is under recognized in our contemporary foreign policy and historical discourse and aims to fix that.

He does so with mixed success, as I argue in my review in yesterday's Washington Post. Marshall is strong on Russia, weak on North America and the Pacific, and doesn't really make a case for a new (or even renewed) way of analyzing world events.

My last review for the Post was on Brand Luther, a new book on Martin Luther's game-changing effect on the greatest social media innovation of his time: the printed book.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Explaining the Bundys' ideology at National Geographic

The occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon by armed militants rightly surprised many Americans. Their aims and ideology, however, are part of a regional heritage that goes back to when it was first colonized by European-Americans.

I lay out the historical-cultural origins of the Bundy family's ideology over at National Geographic today. In the Far West, demands that the federal government relinquish ownership of public lands go back to the early 1890s, when Washington first started putting limits on the exploitation of resources found therein. National parks, monuments, and forests have all been the target of such demands, as indeed was the Malheur refuge itself, back in the 1920s and 1930s.

For more on the Far West, its history and dominant political ethos, consider reading American Nations, my book on North American regionalism.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

American Character -- the first review

My fifth book, American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good is out on March 15th, but Kirkus has their advanced review up now at their website and in the new issue to hit the stands this week.

The pull-quote: "Thoughtful political theory for divisive times."

The book is available for pre-order at Amazon and presumably your local independent bookstore which, in my case, is Longfellow Books (where I'll be doing one of my first book tour appearances), Gulf of Maine Books, or Sherman's.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Maine PUC declares documents at center of bias allegations to be "trade secrets"

To kick off your New Year, I have an update on an ongoing controversy at Maine's Public Utilities Commission, where an outgoing commissioner months ago charged that pricing forecasts are being manipulated to kill projects unloved by Governor Paul LePage and to boost those he likes.

That commissioner, holdover Gov. Baldacci appointee David Littell, said in dissenting opinions last winter that some of those forecasts should be made available to the public immediately to maintain accountability, transparency and the reputation of the PUC. The LePage appointees on the three-member commission overruled him, saying the data was still in active use, but could be released when this was no longer the case.

Faced with a public records request from yours truly, the PUC has, however, changed its mind on the last point. The forecasts in question -- now more than a year old and not in active use -- are now said to be "trade secrets" that will perhaps never be released.

My story in today's Maine Sunday Telegram lays out the situation, including comment from current PUC chair Mark Vannoy, the public advocate, and attorneys representing conservation groups.

I wrote about the PUC regularly in 2013, when the body was involved in a conflict of interest controversy involving Nestle Waters North America.