Robert Moses and The Market As God

Robin’s Book Report #56
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

-new writing
-reading list

New Article Alert

A new Wegmans is being plopped down in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and I went out to talk to the NYCHA residents in the area about how the new fancy grocery store may or may not help them. It’s my first big feature, and first article for Gothamist. Give it a read.


My article about Bill de Blasio’s failure to imagine a new way to develop low income housing without enriching private developers and supercharging gentrification was recently translated into Spanish. I can’t read Spanish, so I remain blissfully unaware of the quality of the translation. Though they misplaced the hyphen in my name, which is not a good sign.


Reading list

Is Poverty Necessary?” by Marilynne Robinson (Harper’s)

Great essay. It stays to true to the titular question, which is not an easy task because it is an incredibly complex question. The question about why poverty still exists sprawls across the regions of not only economics and politics, but philosophy, anthropology, any other number of fields.

Best clip:

This prompts a question that we ask with some urgency now. To quote Henry George: “Why, in spite of increases in productive power, do wages tend to a minimum which will give but a bare living?” I believe the short answer would be: because they can, neither ethics nor law intervening.

Trust me, she doesn’t settle for the short answer. This essay will allow you to see the issue of poverty anew. Restricted access online, but I’ll scan the issue and send you a PDF if you’re interested.

The Brooklyn Heights Promenade Was a Robert Moses Head Fake

By Thomas J. Campanella (Intelligencer)

The dramatic, tricky, tactical side of Robert Moses:

In all likelihood, Moses ordered the Hicks Street survey simply to provoke the Heights, fanning its worst-case fears so that almost any alternative would be embraced by relieved and grateful residents.

Apologias Halfway House

by Jacob Shell (n+1)

Jacob Shell visits three exhibitions dedicated to Robert Moses (in 2007) and finds that while all the shows try to rehab Moses’ imagine, they neglect a major aspect of Moses’ program: that he was trying to design a city that would retain it’s industrial backbone. He built public housing so factory workers would have a decent, affordable place to live, highways to move goods in, around, and out of the city, hospitals to keep workers healthy, and schools to educate them. What we forget is that the city (New York City, but most U.S. cities actually) bowed before the altar of Fordist manufacturing. This obviously makes no sense to a contemporary denizen of New York. The highways seem to be ugly streaks across perfectly good real estate! Our urban new religion is real estate, and to a smaller degree, retail.

Anyhow, Moses failed to retain New York’s industrial economy, and that spine dissolved between the fingers of city leaders in the late 1960s. But thinking about Moses in this way makes his authoritarian interventions make a little more sense, like the radical transformation of Taiwan in the last half of the 20th century, or even China for that matter.

The Market as God”

Living in the new dispensation

By Harvey Cox (The Atlantic)

Cox, a theological scholar at Harvard, had a realization in 1999 (when this article was written). The business pages of the newspaper professed a new, complicated, almost totally realized faith: the market.

Alan Greenspan vindicated this tempered faith in testimony before Congress last October. A leading hedge fund had just lost billions of dollars, shaking market confidence and precipitating calls for new federal regulation. Greenspan, usually Delphic in his comments, was decisive. He believed that regulation would only impede these markets, and that they should continue to be self-regulated. True faith, Saint Paul tells us, is the evidence of things unseen.

I, of course, agree wholeheartedly: it is the true faith!

Soon I began to marvel at just how comprehensive the business theology is. There were even sacraments to convey salvific power to the lost, a calendar of entrepreneurial saints, and what theologians call an “eschatology”—a teaching about the “end of history.” My curiosity was piqued. I began cataloguing these strangely familiar doctrines, and I saw that in fact there lies embedded in the business pages an entire theology, which is comparable in scope if not in profundity to that of Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth. It needed only to be systematized for a whole new Summa to take shape.

We see the eschatology of the market prophets play out almost daily. Dark seers take to the New York Times to warn of an oncoming recession. But read the column and what do they know? A decline in the price of pork bellies indicates a slow-down in Rust Belt consumer spending? Maybe they’re right, but they’ve definitely been wrong.

As I tried to follow the arguments and explanations of the economist-theologians who justify The Market’s ways to men, I spotted the same dialectics I have grown fond of in the many years I have pondered the Thomists, the Calvinists, and the various schools of modern religious thought.

A sort-of Marxist conclusion:

The willed-but-not-yet-achieved omnipotence of The Market means that there is no conceivable limit to its inexorable ability to convert creation into commodities.

Adam Curtis Predicts the Future

This is a copy of my newsletter, sent out every week on Tuesday. Sign up for my newsletter here.




Robin’s Book Report #38
A culture and economics reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein


-Letters from you
-Book Report


I received many responses to last week’s letter. I am going to include reader’s thoughts about the last letter (which you can read here) in this issue, and do a separate email next week, with a list of what other readers are reading/watching/seeing. Please reply to this email with what you have been ingesting.


Pete, agreeing that NYC is not the only city to be suffering a crisis of affluence:

“A few years ago, the vacancy rate of rental places in Zurich was around *0.3%*, and rents were rising. Case in point: 8 years ago, when H and I left our previous 2-person apartment because the neighborhood was going through a paroxysm of renovation including the impending renovation, of our building, we hosted visiting hours for potential new renters, and had more than 100 visits in 2 hours — people were lined up in the corridor and stairway waiting to get in — many of them families of 4, 5, or 6 persons; several people tried to bribe us to help them rent the place. That’s a sign of sickness in the housing market.”

Peg, who enjoyed Kevin Baker’s Harper’s article (whereas I did not):

“I don’t think Kevin Baker is stupid, but rather nostalgic for a time when New York was more middle class. He bemoans the loss of small businesses and the social fabric that they have been part of, things that make a big city more homey and distinctive.
  Baker’s article was full of information, and in that respect was so interesting to read. The ins and outs of the notion of rent stabilization, how it is supposed to work, and how it’s been manipulated, were fascinating (and awful at the same time). Thanks for linking to it.”
Book report

“Elon Musk’s Fall From Grace”  by Andrew Elrod (Boston Review)

This article is about how Elon Musk is funding his dream on the backs of the American taxpayers. The tax-breaks for electric cars have subsidized his enterprise with multiple billions of dollars. Why do we continue to provide welfare for delusional billionaires, but not regular people? This makes no sense. Great article.

I am beginning to think our culture is enamored with tech companies only because, as capital-seeking hounds, they are the only ones selling an optimistic vision of the future. In recent decades, politicians have failed to present any comparable visions. So into this vacuum has rushed private wealth, and corporate interests. The corporate wealth that Robert Reich warned about at the end of his term as Secretary of Labor in the 1990s has come to pass.

“Why Do We Care So Much About Privacy” by Louis Menand (The New Yorker)

The definition of privacy is fluid and ever changing, so why and how do we care about it?

Eyes Wide Shut directed by Stanley Kubrick

Eyes Wide Shut is a movie based on the 19th century Viennese novel called Dream Story. And it does indeed drag along like a fever. Kubrick died three months before it came out and it is almost too clumsy and rough around the edges for most to considered it a 100% Stanley Kubrick film. While he technically turned in his final cut to the studio, he was notorious for re-cutting up until the release, sometimes after early screenings. Eyes Wide Shut gets extraordinarily boring at times (which people also said about 2001: A Space Odyssey, q.v. this New Yorker article). The heartbeat of the movie often slows down to a dangerously low rhythm. This makes sense in light of his untimely death: maybe Kubrick was enamored with the hermetically sealed stillness in editing, but would have changed his mind after seeing it in application. There is no way to say. What you can say, is that the elements of the movie are brilliant and haunting, and other elements are confusing and clunky. I often found myself wondering if Eyes Wide Shut was the worst movie I had ever seen, or one of the better ones. Once again, hard to say.

Certainly The End of Something or Other, One Would Sort Of Have To Think” by David Foster Wallace (The Observer)

David Foster Wallace’s take on John Updike’s late career novel–Towards The End of Time. He tackles the major issue with Updike: most people can’t stand the guy. What I found interesting, was to think about how Updike was once refreshing, in the era of sexual liberation, and is now tedious. Attitudes can change quickly in a few short decades.

“Been Down So Long It Looks Like Debt to Me” by M.H. Miller (The Baffler)

This is the story of a family in debt. It went semi-viral on the internet last week. I am not diminishing the importance of the tale to say that I am familiar with and exhausted by it. How many times will we have to read this type of story before something changes?

“In Conversation with Adam Curtis, Part 1” interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist (e-flux)

This is Adam Curtis, the British documentary filmmaker, in an interview in 2004:

“I think the mood of the moment has to do with a sense that if you’re going to the woods on your own, it’s scary, and you feel weak. But if you go with your friends, it’s fun. A lot of politics hasn’t understood this. And the trouble with it is that it actually leaves a gap for the return of totalitarian politicians—and I mean in America, more than here in the UK. Someone pointed out the other day that the Republican Party is still captive to the oil industry, while the Democratic Party, even under Obama, is totally captive to Wall Street. So there is this great gap for a politician to come in and start talking about how people are afraid and need to come together and protect themselves.” [my emphasis]

Interesting, thoroughly prescient comment.

Let me know what you’ve been reading!