THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Remembered Cause of the Forgotten Columnist

In one of those incisive, zeitgeist-capturing essays that makes you nod in agreement, T.A. Franks wrote recently in The Washington Monthly:

The first thing you need to know about New York Times columnist Bob Herbert is that he's always right. No, not in the way a drunk in a bar is always right -- Herbert's genuinely right, or at least close enough that it'd be petty to look for exceptions. When the majority loses its bearings, Herbert sticks with the sane minority.

So it was yesterday when Herbert used a dustup (or flap or whatever these disputes played out primarily on Twitter and YouTube are called these days) between Mayor Cory Booker of Newark and comedian Conan O'Brien to highlight the challenges of unemployment, housing, and crime that persist in our nation's cities. Instead of focusing our money and attention on Afghanistan, the columnist argued, we should turn to American cities which are "poverty-stricken, run down, often unsafe."

Herbert is, of course, right. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show that the unemployment rate is exceptionally high in many of our nation's metros. In fact, the unemployment rate for black males in New York City is an astounding 50 percent. Further, city governments are only now about to feel the real crunch of the economic downturn, as property tax assessments sink revenue collection even further and the stimulus runs out. Service cuts and further delays for infrastructure projects are inevitable.

At the same time, however, one comes away with a very different impression of cities when listening to urban advocates. Urban boosters (such as Streetsblog and my home blog) emphasize the great cultural and economic production that goes on in cities. Even more frequently, advocates of cities discuss a more environmentally friendly existence that is achieved through density, public transit, and independence from car travel.

This focus on the benefits of city living seems to obscure with a rosy tint the issues of crime and poverty, not to mention access and tolerance and equity, with which Herbert wants us to reengage. Indeed, some organizations that are currently focused on cities are overly interested in creating efficiency in city service delivery (as Jill Lepore reminds us in The New Yorker, the pursuit of efficiency in management really hasn't been all that great for the ordinary worker) or in creating products that only benefit the iPhone-owning elite.

The truth, however, is that urban advocates' talk of environmental sustainability and the cultural and economic production of cities is most times an attempt to create a broader coalition around urban issues than is possible when speaking only in terms of urban poverty and urban crime. Support for public transit -- perhaps the most blogged about "urban cause" -- is not just about reducing reliance on car travel, but about improving affordability -- and options -- for households whose budgets are consumed by costly car trips. "Sustainable communities" that link transportation choices to affordable housing are one of the best examples of how policy can be used to achieve both the goals of rebuilding dilapidated communities and of building efficient cities.

The tension between the potential of cities and the problems that persist in them is not easily resolved, perhaps least so for the policymakers who must design policies adapted to both. Indeed, the trick is to exploit this tension: as in the climate debate, as in the health care debate, the best argument for addressing a problem is a description of how it will benefit the person you are trying to persuade.

Perhaps, then, Herbert's argument is too pessimistic. Still, I hope T.A. Franks's conclusion about Herbert is untrue:

So let's recap: Bob Herbert is a sensible person who usually assesses things more accurately than his colleagues, regularly hits the streets to report on the world outside, shines a light on people and issues that deserve far more attention than they usually get, and tells you things you really ought to know but don't. But here's the catch: you don't read Bob Herbert. Or, if you say you do, I don't believe you.