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The Power Broker I

The New York Sun reports Moses, in the totality of his reign as ‘Master Builder,’ “built 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, 658 playgrounds, and 150,000 housing units, spending $150 billion in today’s dollars” across the City of New York. Nearly unfathomable nowadays is that Moses was able to wield such lofty power, from the mid-1920′s through 1968, without holding any elected office. Instead, as reported by Paul Goldberger in his New York Times obituary, Moses “held several appointive offices and once occupied 12 positions simultaneously, including that of New York City Parks Commissioner, head of the State Parks Council, head of the State Power Commission and chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.”

These notes are on roughly the first 1/6 of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Since I listened to this as an audiobook, it’s hard to reference specific chapters etc. I can say that the notes below are based on Caro’s retelling of Moses’ life up until his mid-30’s, shortly after he is finally made Park Commissioner.

Early on, Moses is presented to the reader (or listener, as the case may be) as very smart, very literate and extremely self-assured. He also demonstrates an extreme attention to detail, a very elitist attitude, a high tolerance for risk. Robert Moses is a voracious reader, a lover of poetry, and also maybe cruelly aggressive. In the prologue, the author (Robert Caro) offers two glimpses of Robert Moses: one is college-aged Robert at Yale, threatening to quit the swim team if the team’s funding needs aren’t met (which includes his plan to be less-than-forthcoming to a potential donor about where the money is going… this turns out to be a motif); the other is a middle-aged Robert, self-assuredly threatening to quit his assigned posts if he does not also get a seat that he coveted but was denied by the Mayor, who gave him two other seats instead. Young Robert failed and quit swimming altogether. Older Robert Moses got exactly what he wanted, presumably as he always does. Caro questions how a person can have that kind of power in a democracy.

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Before Reading “The Power Broker”

I’m 1/6 of the way through The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. The audiobook doesn’t divide in exactly the same way as the book does, but that sixth takes me through Moses’ first 35 years. Most of that time, he personally has no power at all.

Brief overview: Robert Moses would become one of the most influential public officials in 20th century New York. As a city planner, he would build and run unaccountable public authorities to achieve his vision of New York, which favored cars over public transit and dotted and crossed the metropolitan area with public parks and highways (often without regard for who or what was already there). He was the model authoritarian urban planner.

And it’s how he did it that was so remarkable. Robert Moses never held elected office. Mayors came and went, Governors came and went, but Robert Moses was a constant force in shaping New York for decades. He’s a man who turned roadbuilding into a method to reward or punish his political enemies, who invented laws and boards and then used them to sculpt the city as he saw fit.

At the time this book was published, New York was in a nadir. The subtitle, The Fall of New York, in hindsight, can now be seen as a comical overreach. As one reviewer put it, Moses’ surgical modifications to the city were not necessarily in the public interest, but they weren’t fatal. Cities don’t die easily.

The book is still highly lauded as a story about New York City, about “cities in general” (especially since Moses’ model influenced other cities), as a biography of a fascinating person, and as a study in power.

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The Internet is a Red Pill Dispensary

I very clearly broke my promise to “see you next week”. I deserve to be shamed.

Below, I take what I think might be a pretty mixed metaphor, and stretch it pretty badly. As I’ve done before, I figured I’d publish it as a snapshot of an idea-in-progress to reference and clean up later.

I would promise to get more anchored and concise with future posts, but you know by now that you just can’t trust me.

I.  The Hairpin Bend

Xianhang Zhang is constantly inventing terms that I wish I knew about ages ago. On Quora ~5 years ago, he casually dropped this answer that has stayed on my clipboard for (literally) years. Disclaimers later.

Libertarians, in my perception, are stuck in what I term a “hairpin bend”. That is, the people who are less wise than them are frequently indistinguishable from the people who are more wise than them.

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What I don’t know

I had a great year last year, although I didn’t return to publish much of anything here (3 pretty short posts in 2015).

The previous year (2014), I published 74 posts, some of which I was even pretty proud of. I felt that writing helped me to crystalize my thinking, even when I didn’t publish. When I did publish, the feedback was useful. I want that back this year. I’ll try for at least one post per week, on the usual topics. Whatever those are.

 

I

We consistently overestimate the power of our own judgment. There is no reason that you or I would have looked at the nascent automobile, airplane, radio, penicillin, or the internet, and understood any second-order implications that seem obvious now that they’ve happened. Few at the time had much of any idea, even for years after the idea’s conception. We have records of unimpressed or confused (or even contemptuous) responses by authority figures to these technologies as they developed. Many crackpot websites share quotes of these misjudgments to suggest that their particular wares are in the same category as other revolutionary, once-ridiculed technologies or ideas.

We also have many records of weird wishlists and wayward projections of where the “inevitable” and “totally not path dependent” technology tree will grow and blossom. Various tomorrowlands are forced to close by economic/technical constraints or changing priorities. (Vaguely related, and worth checking out: “Web Design: The First 100 years“, and observations on longing for closed technological frontiers.) Jetpacks and flying cars, etcetera.

In any of the common threads of “progress”- economic, technological, or ethical– there is no particular reason that a given person would be on what we today might consider to be the right side of history. I certainly have preferences. There is no law of nature defending my preferences into posterity.

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How I Have Become Even More Boring (Part 1 of 1000)

This recent(ish) Ribbonfarm article about banal ideas becoming loaded with meaning got to me. I immediately deleted an old draft I had left unpublished on a similar topic, one of a flurry of scribbled-out ideas from my post about Law of Unrecognized Novelty last year that I never picked up. The gist of it was that phrases or concepts can become imbued with incommunicable meaning over time, and seemingly banal phrases can mean much more than the unprepared listener can comprehend.

But anyway, it got me to return here.

This is a post about habits I’ve changed in the past year. In short, I now think accounting and nutrition are interesting, which 2009Me would find totally insufferable.

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Coatesian History

Reading this warmed my heart:

God does not care about history, and history does not care about humans.

It’s a great joy to find someone articulate your beliefs even better than you do. It’s perhaps an even greater joy to find those string of words that you almost feel that you felt all along. It’s as much the appreciation of the prose as the actual content.

I finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” recently(ish). It was just short enough, concise without being too bare. My favorite thing about Coates as a writer is his cold, “atheistic” view of history. It is the same flavor of thought that I praised from Kevin Simler’s work on “Personhood“, and that I enjoyed from morphological definitions of species, the same interest that led me to read about others who were tired of the concept of the essence, and to renewed secularized concepts of essence.

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