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.

Risks and Riddles

Risks and Riddles” by Gregory F. Treverton (Smithsonian Mag)


Former National Security advisor Gregory Treverton explains why there is a difference between mysteries and puzzles. Puzzles are problems that have a solution, you just might not know what it is yet. Mysteries are problems with no clear solution, and it might not even be clear that there is no clear solution. Treverton contends that the Soviet Union was a puzzle, and Al Qaeda is a mystery.


“Risks and Riddles” references an article by Malcolm Gladwell that he wrote about Enron. Gladwell wondered which elements of the Enron scandals were puzzles, and which were mysteries. While I don’t generally like Gladwell’s writing, this strikes to the core of my interest in finance: how financial tools (like the tools that Enron abused) can become so complicated that even the people who created them don’t understand how they work. I see a parallel with art here. Artists often makes things that they don’t completely understand. (Often the best art is like this.) In this case, the artist has made a mystery. The worst art is often a puzzle, one that once solved, ceases to be interesting. Abstract painting used to be a mystery, now it is often a puzzle.


Midwestworld by Meghan O’Gieblyn (The Point)


This essayist visits a living history museum in Michigan. What she finds is an undefrostable delusion.


Eberhard Faber Mongol (Pencil Pages)


Images of a great pencil, the Mongol, that used to be produced in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.


It’s Good to Be Michael Lewis by Jessica Pressler (NY Mag


Michael Lewis gets paid $10 a word, and imagines, while writing, that everyone loves him.


The Secret Lives of Central Bankers By Annelise Riles


Central Bankers all love the arrogant, patrician Sherlock Holmes!


If the US unemployment rate included everyone who says they want a job, it would be nearly double by Dan Kopf (Quartz)


The unemployment rate is not what you think it is.


We’re Measuring the Economy All Wrong By David Leonhardt (NYT)


More proof. Don’t listen to the unemployment rate.


Trump wants to slash welfare with stricter work requirements (Vox)


The diminution of the welfare state, unilateral tax cuts for the rich: are we speeding a tad faster down the road to plutocracy that we turned on to during the Reagan era?


Taxpayer dollars fund most oversight and cleanup costs at Superfund sites (Washington Post)


Why would it be in the interest of the public to pay for the clean-up of toxic-waste, when a tax that fed a trust fund was established in 1980? Wouldn’t the public love a trust, that grew as the economy grew, and would pay for pollution clean up on the dividends of growth?


How the Koch Brothers Are Killing Public Transit Projects Around the Country (New York Times)


Again, why would the public want less public transit? They wouldn’t! So there must be a vested interest, doing information warfare to destroy the plan. More corporate information warfare, pitting individuals against each other, ultimately winning in the end.


Taxing the Poor by David Cole (The New York Review of Books)


Equality is good for democracy. But is democracy dangerous for the rich? The founding fathers solution to the question of whether the poor would vote to take the money of the rich away was to suppress voting. Still happening!


Do Americans sympathize with the poor?

This is a copy of my newsletter that I send out every other Tuesday.
Three questions #35
Eclectic cultural artifacts and the questions they raise
A newsletter of culture and economics
Americans sympathize with the poor, so why is it assumed we don’t?
Some ideas are too large to contend with. One seems to be that Americans hate the poor. The attacks on Medicare/Medicaid, the Clinton-era diminutions of welfare, the attempts to privatize social security. The problem with this story is that Americans resolutely support programs that help the poor, it just seems like politicians don’t. Meagan Day reviews Spencer Piston’s Class Attitudes in America, a book that makes this case. Piston is a political scientist, who examined extensive polling data, only to find that most Americans are willing to give money to the poor, and to tax the rich.
In Adam Davidson’s TED talk, he explores this same idea, and why it gives him hope for the future.
What makes a story funny?

“How To Tell a Story” by Mark Twain

Humor is notoriously hard to comment on. (For good reason: good humor works on a subtextual and unconscious level, which means that it’s too complicated to explain. Like the bottom of the ocean, the workings of the unconscious are largely unexamined. We embrace and ingest comedy, but still hold it suspect. It’s why comedy doesn’t win Oscars.) In this short article, Twain tries to parse the difference between a funny story and a humorous one. Twain finds the latter to be estimable and uniquely American. Instead of winding up for the punchline, the humorous story is told dead-pan, and is often funnier because the narrator seems to be unaware of how funny it is.

How does a connoisseur develop their taste? Accidentally? By force of will? And after all this development, this exploration of nuance, is something betrayed by writing it down?

Playing Doc’s Games-II” by William Finnegan

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

In the mid-1980s, William Finnegan, an avid surfer since childhood, lived in San Francisco. There, in a city where most residents think there is no surf culture, Finnegan fell in with a surfing zealot. This fanatic, Dr. Mark Renneker, is the subject of Finnegan’s 1992 profile in The New Yorker. Renneker is a complicated figure because of his religious and crazed devotion to surfing in a city with unforgiving (often quite cold) surf. In many ways, this profile covers Finnegan’s development of a connoisseurship, a complicated love of waves. The irony is that he comes to write about surfing for the first time at the same moment that he was finally becoming serious about something else (journalism). The complexity of this work is grounded in how terrifying and brutal surfing can be, how often surfers will inspect the surf and decide stay to ashore, fearing that it exceeds their limits, but day after day, returning to the sea, like a gambler to a casino, hoping to find that one great wave.

Upon hearing that Finnegan was giving a talk at Hunter College, I looked him up and found the previously mentioned profile. It was this talk that inspired me to read Barbarian Days, a book that I was previously not interested in. At the talk, I asked him a question about the New Yorker profile. I wondered if writing about surfing, something he claimed to have never written about, betrayed anything about this hobby. (This is cliché question, to wonder if putting something down in words betrays the essential and assumed unknowability of lived experience, but he suggested as much in the profile, so I felt compelled to ask.) Was anything lost in the process of recording the experience? Did surfing change after writing so earnestly about it? (He often refers to waves as “lumpy,” indicating, to me at least, that surfing a wave is texturally something I can barely approach imagining.) Something had changed, he said: it was the time in his life when he became a full-time writer. While writing the book, he imagined the part of his life in which he gets to San Francisco (where it would overlap with “Playing Doc’s Games”) that the tone would change. That it would be a postlapsarian shift. But his agent knew better, and the tone remained even throughout the book. The content of the 1992 profile was re-engineered. What was betrayed, he said, was the subject of his surfing life in San Francisco, Dr. Mark Renneker. He hated the profile.

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