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Tracy Morgan, Glenn Beck, and Marauding Motorcycle Gangs

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Last night's episode of 30 Rock featured Tracy Morgan's character obliviously fanning the flames of a financial meltdown in Asia as a guest on Larry King Live. As he warns that the ensuing financial crisis will remake the cushy, urban paradise New York of the 2000s into the crime-ridden urban hellhole of the 1970s (think The Warriors), Kenneth the Page is tagged and Liz Lemon blackmailed by a loathsome cabbie. New York City seems to collapse as banks fail, the Asian markets crash, and Jack Donaghue forsakes his buxom love, played by Selma Hayek, to save his collapsing media network.

The episode reminded me, interestingly enough, of a segment, which Josh Marshall recently flagged, on Glenn Beck's aptly titled War Room, a show which carefully warns its viewers that:

The views expressed in this program are not predictions of what will happen, but what could happen.

In other words, Beck and his guests (temporarily) remove their soothsayer hats and traffic in the simple hypotheses of mere mortals. (We would learn nothing more of a North American Union between the Southwest and Mexico on this day!) After all, one of Beck's guests, Gerald Celente of the Trends Research Institute, really does fancy himself a clairvoyant, having predicted the 2001 recession, the real estate fizz, and, of course, the increase in Halloween retailing in 1989. The New York Post likens him to Nostradamus and, at least according to his website, lots of MSM sources dig his work (though the NYT promotional quote on the Trends Institute website seems a bit lackluster compared to the Post's: "Mr. Celente tracks the world's social, economic and business trends for corporate clients.").

On the program, Beck and his guests "gamed out" possible scenarios in which the American public feels increasingly disenfranchised and militaristic, scenarios that Beck called mere "bedtime stories" compared to what could actually happen. Evidently, such feelings would be the result of tax rates of "80, 90, perhaps even 95 percent" that would be needed to pay for recent bank bailouts and fiscal stimulus, according to the WSJ's Stephen Moore, also a guest.

In such an environment, Mr. Celente's predictions were grim:

The cities are going to look like Dodge City. They're going to be uncontrollable. You're going to have gangs in control, motorcycle marauders. You're not going to have enough police or federales, just like Mexico, to control the situation.

And in a previous scenario involving high unemployment in which "Government and unions (!) control most of the business", Celente warned that:

New York City looks like Mexico City. If you have money or they think you're going to have money, you're going to be a target for a kidnapping. We're going to see major cities look like Calcutta. There is going to be the homeless, panhandlers, hookers.

On 30 Rock, we find out that Tracy Morgan's rant - surprise! - has no effect on the U.S. economy or on New York. I presume that Beck and Celente's comments will be similarly ignored. But the identification of U.S. cities as the eventual signposts of economic decline is retrograde, returning to the myth of urban decline that in the last 40 or so years Republican presidents have employed to ignore cities and Democrats have used to (attempt to) assist them.

Of course in a time of economic decline one would expect an increase in crime and homelessness. Yet, in recent years cities have been centers of economic growth and, indeed, of innovative policymaking to confront the significant economic, health, housing, and climate issues that have been ignored by the federal government.

Celente's comments reflect concern about a breakdown of the rule of law and he identifies urban areas as the places where such a breakdown is most evident. Would motorcycle gangs terrorizing the soon-to-be car-less zones in Times Square be scarier than motorcycle gangs riding through, say, Nebraska? Certainly. Yet are the experiences of Ciudad Juarez (where, dare I say, the illegalization of drugs in the United States is disrupting the rule of law) equivalent to those of cities in the United States where, yes, inequality remains a problem but where the rule of law has worked to create prosperity that radiates outward from central cities to entire metros? The economic decline will surely hurt urban areas, but cities are in fact the very places that contain the people - not to mention the jobs - that will spur economic recovery.