In his 1976 book, Toward a Planned Society: From Roosevelt to Nixon, the historian Otis L. Graham surveyed the rise of government intervention across multiple spheres of American life, from economic management to urban and regional development. In the 1930s, the New Deal and FDR left had revolutionized the role of the state and vastly expanded its powers. By the early 1970s, even mainstream conservatives, led by then president Richard Nixon, had come to accept the inevitability of large-scale planning. After decades of an expanding administrative state and major increases in public spending, the nation was, as Graham saw it, “on the eve of a workable consensus that the time has come to plan.” 1
As it turned out, the nation was not, in fact, about to enter a golden era of energetic government planning. Quite the contrary: we now know that the last quarter of the 20th century witnessed a major reconsideration of state power across the developed world — a reconsideration that is ongoing today. In the United States, government at all levels retreated along many fronts. The federal government disassembled the negotiated détente between capital and labor, rolled back direct welfare to individuals and families, and shied away from the demands of the civil rights movement. And nowhere was this political reversal more dramatic than in the field of spatial planning. When Graham’s book was published, urban and regional planners could reasonably have anticipated a near future in which billions of public dollars would support gargantuan efforts to redesign and remake communities. Barely a decade later, that possibility would come to seem remote, if not impossible.
What political story, what realignment of material and ideological forces, can account for the shifting fortunes of government planning?
What political story, what realignment of material and ideological forces, can account for the shifting fortunes of the planning state? In the U.S., this shift has typically been understood in terms of a sequence of victories by an ascendant right wing. In national politics, the story runs from radical Republicans like Barry Goldwater to movement conservatives like Ronald Reagan and finally to third-way Democrats like Bill Clinton. That shift was also driven by the rise of an influential cohort of right-wing intellectuals who sought to recast state planning as a form of totalitarian control, an overweening constraint on the dynamism of markets. In hindsight, the consensus that was emerging in the mid-1970s was not that “the time has come to plan.” Rather the time had come for limited state power, for public disinvestment, for laissez-faire capitalism, for the growing market domination of Western society.
But it was not only the political right that worked to unravel the consensus around the importance of state power and planning. Indeed, an even more radical and wide-ranging critique came from an opposite camp — from the left. This is the history that Paul Sabin tells in his lively new book Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism (W.W. Norton, 2021). As Sabin argues, the evisceration of big government in the final quarter of the 20th century cannot be blamed solely on conservatives and their allies. Instead, he seeks to trace “the more complex and bipartisan origins of American assaults on government power,” and to show “how the left grew suspicious of the grand projects, social engineering, and pro-growth policies of the postwar period.” 2
The evisceration of big government in the final quarter of the 20th century cannot be blamed solely on conservatives and their allies.
Sabin sets the scene by emphasizing just how dominant the New Deal order once was. As an exemplar of the ambitions and achievements of Big Planning, he cites the Tennessee Valley Authority. Praised by historian Henry Steele Commager as “the greatest peacetime achievement of twentieth-century America,” the TVA was the pinnacle of New Deal efforts to comprehensively plan the economy, society, and environment of a region. 3 This immense project, comprising hydroelectric dams and utility agencies across seven states, was, at least in its early years, perhaps the closest the U.S. has ever come to a Soviet-style command economy. Although outright public control did not become the predominant model for postwar economic development, the New Deal nevertheless produced a new set of relationships in which the state became, as Sabin puts it, “an active partner” in managing the nation’s resources. “Labor, capital, and government worked in tandem to fuel the postwar economic boom,” he writes, “remaking the American landscape with complex infrastructure to manage water, energy, transportation, and housing.” 4
Large powerful actors — government, industries, labor unions, universities and their scientific laboratories — might all share an optimistic faith in technical and economic progress as the means for delivering a prosperous, well-ordered society. Yet critics quickly emerged, concerned that in this nexus of technocratic bigness there was little room for the small-scale, democratic participation of the many groups that constitute the ambiguous and capacious category of “the public.” One of Sabin’s crucial observations is that it was precisely in these years that both the environmental and localist movements emerged in campaigns led by figures like Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs. Carson’s 1962 bestseller Silent Spring did not merely denounce the use of synthetic pesticides; it was also a “forceful attack on government agencies for their misguided pursuit of risky, large-scale, capital-intensive chemical spray programs.” 5 Jane Jacobs’s 1960 The Death and Life of Great American Cities, another bestseller, began with this salvo: “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.”
Ralph Nader inspired a generation of ‘public interest’ lawyers eager to reform the perceived injustice of a bloated state bureaucracy.
The central protagonist of Public Citizens is Ralph Nader. Nader was just 31 years old when, in 1965, he published Unsafe at Any Speed. The book was, as Sabin describes it, “a blistering attack on the poor safety record of the American automobile.” It was also an indictment of “the federal government’s failure to force American automakers to build safer cars.” 6 Its publication made Nader, the son of Lebanese immigrants and a graduate of Harvard Law School, not only a celebrity but also the inspiration for a generation of liberal “public interest” lawyers. Today Nader is best remembered as a third-party (and spoiler) candidate in the 2000 presidential election. But Sabin argues that Nader’s greater importance lies in his instrumental role in the “complex attack on traditional liberalism” that began in the 1960s:
Nader and other public interest advocates, including many in the burgeoning environmental movement, crusaded against what they saw as a misguided and often corrupted federal government. They targeted for reform the cozy post-World War II alliance between government, business, and labor. In the process, Nader and his allies changed how American public policy is made, while raising many still unresolved questions. Is government the solution to, or an important cause of, societal problems? How do we balance collective action and the exercise of institutional power with individual needs and citizen participation? 7
This “complex attack” forms the core historical narrative of Public Citizens, as Sabin examines how liberals came to develop a confrontational disposition towards state power. In this realignment, class position was a critical factor. The generation of progressives that arose during the Depression and New Deal found their political base in the working classes, labor unions, and early civil rights activists. In contrast, Nader and his followers were mostly members of the growing professional classes who came of age amidst postwar prosperity, and who were profoundly shaped by the widespread protest against the Vietnam War. Armed with degrees in law and sociology, they were eager to expose and reform the perceived waste and injustice of a bloated and unresponsive bureaucratic sector. To focus the energies of the nascent movement, Nader set up the nonprofit Center for Study of Responsive Law in 1968. “We are creating,” he said, “a new professional citizen role.” 8
In the summer of 1970, a third of the Harvard Law School student body applied to work with Ralph Nader.
Thus did the courts became the primary field of battle and lawyers the main combatants in a series of confrontations that sought to force (or shame) the government to act more responsibly. An early campaign targeted the Federal Trade Commission, described by Nader as a “self-parody of bureaucracy, fat with cronyism, torpid through an inbreeding unusual even for Washington.” 9 Later investigations focused on the Food and Drug Administration, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Department of Agriculture. With its heady mix of ethical zeal and youthful idealism, the public interest movement grew. “Young people flocked to work with Nader,” writes Sabin. “At a time of tremendous social turbulence and political uncertainty and conflict, Nader’s reform strategy was optimistic in its assertion that careful research and reasoned argument would change policy.” The Naderites were widely admired as smart, enterprising reformers, and in the summer of 1970, a “third of the Harvard Law School student body” applied to work with the group. 10
Meanwhile, other nonprofit organizations were forming with similar goals of safeguarding consumer and environmental interests. The Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now Earthjustice) were all founded in these years, as were a network of Public Interest Research Groups, often based on university campuses. The rise of this reformist sector was at once an institutional and conceptual shift for liberals, as the locus of democratic action moved away from the state and towards a series of nonstate actors funded by charitable foundations. As Sabin puts it, “the public interest,” for Nader and his allies, “lay outside government in an unrepresented citizenry whose cause the new law firms would champion.” 11
In hindsight, Reagan’s landslide victory marked the close of the New Deal era. It was also a profound defeat for Nader and his allies.
Sabin is clear about the effectiveness of the citizens’ rights movement. “By the end of the 1970s, Ralph Nader and his allies had made the nonprofit sector and issue-based advocacy a potent force in U.S. politics.” 12 He is equally clear about the challenges that followed these early successes. The election in 1980 of Ronald Reagan — who declared, in his inaugural address, that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” — was a profound defeat for the Naderites. In hindsight, Reagan’s landslide victory marked the close of the New Deal era. In what has now become a familiar right-wing approach to governance, Reagan appointed well-connected insiders and industry lobbyists to leadership positions in federal agencies. The goal, he said, was to “relieve the regulatory burden” on private corporations; the result, according to a contemporaneous critic, was an “assault on public health and safety programs.” 13 Crucially, the new attitudes towards state power became the prevailing consensus, one that endured even when liberals were back in power. “The era of big government is over,” Bill Clinton asserted in his 1996 State of the Union address — a concession which, Sabin argues, can be traced back to the transformations set in motion by Nader and his allies.
Sabin does not use the realpolitik term “useful idiot,” yet it’s hard not to wonder whether that old formulation does not to some extent capture the role of the public interest movement within the broader trajectories of American politics and governance. The role was unintentional, to be sure. Unlike Reagan, the public interest advocates wanted the government to do more, not less. “Nader and his allies,” Sabin writes, “demanded more aggressive government actions to serve the ‘public interest,’ instead of the interests of industry.” 14 Nonetheless, by attacking “big government” as sclerotic and corrupt, unaccountable and complacent, they provided a kind of political cover for the revolutionaries of the right who, over the past four decades, have thoroughly remade America.
Despite its outsized role in contemporary narratives, the era of Big Planning was remarkably brief.
One of the casualties of that remaking has been the field of urban planning. For decades now Jane Jacobs’s “attack” has shaped the debate about mid-century city planning and its legacies, and “urban renewal” continues to epitomize the colossal failure of “top-down” projects. Many liberal critics now see this period as less heroic and emancipatory than hubristic and racist. Yet despite its outsized role in contemporary narratives, the era of Big Planning was remarkably brief. Barely more than a decade elapsed between the ascent of an activist bureaucracy dominated by liberal reformers who pushed for large-scale public intervention, and the arrival of an activist left that set itself in opposition to such ambitions.
This brief heyday is the subject of historian Lizabeth Cohen’s Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019). Cohen’s book is at once a biography of Edward J. Logue — a “titan in the redevelopment of America’s ailing cities for a quarter century after World War II” — and a history of the shifting politics of government power.15 Cohen carefully tracks Logue’s career from its origins in labor organizing, to leadership positions in the planning bureaucracies of New Haven and Boston, to his tumultuous years as head of a powerful New York State development agency, and finally to a far more modest position as director of a nonprofit in the South Bronx. Logue’s biography, in Cohen’s telling, offers an “ideal lens through which to view postwar urban history,” in particular the swift rise and precipitous fall of state power in American cities. 16
Ed Logue’s career offers an ‘ideal lens through which to view postwar urban history,’ in particular the swift rise and precipitous fall of state power in American cities.
Logue was often likened to Robert Moses, though the comparison obscures more than clarifies. A life-long progressive, Logue was far more concerned with social change. As a colleague would recall at Logue’s memorial service in 2000: “He would think as large as Moses and had no less ability to implement … But unlike Moses, he was as committed to social transformation as he was to physical building.” 17 In his first significant position, as administrator of the New Haven Redevelopment Agency in the mid-1950s, Logue worked closely with the city’s mayor to steer major federal redevelopment funding to a city that was struggling with rapid deindustrialization. From New Haven, Logue jumped to Boston, where he led the Boston Redevelopment Authority from 1961 to 1968, overseeing some of its most dramatic projects, including the creation of the modernist Government Center complex. After a failed bid to become mayor of Boston, Logue moved to New York, where he served as president of the New York State Urban Development Corporation until what Cohen describes as his “humiliating, forced resignation” in 1975. 18
Logue’s tenure in these cities was shaped by the opportunities of Big Planning. In each situation he headed government agencies well-staffed with technical experts, operating under the aegis of reform-minded politicians, and empowered to create massive redevelopment projects that reshaped entire districts and neighborhoods. A “die-hard New Deal liberal,” in Cohen’s words, Logue was driven by the conviction that government planners should play a crucial role in protecting and advancing social welfare. He was also equipped with keen political instincts. In his view, well-funded public planning was a necessary counterbalance to powerful economic forces like finance capitalism and powerful technical forces like automobility. “Eager to achieve greater social and economic opportunity in American democratic society,” writes Cohen, “he became deeply invested in an expert-driven activist government.” 19
Saving America’s Cities is not hagiographic; Cohen is a sympathetic yet critical biographer. Today some of Logue’s most ambitious projects — the redesign of downtown New Haven with a new shopping mall, parking garage, and elevated high-speed connector to I-95; the immense hardscape of City Hall Plaza in Boston; the establishment of several “new towns” in New York — have become controversial monuments to large-scale urban planning. Cohen convincingly argues that the problem is due not simply to well-intentioned projects which have aged poorly. Instead, she points out, resistance to these works was present from the start, and centered around the challenging question of how “the public” was defined by the various agencies that were set up to serve it.
Logue was driven by the conviction that government planners should play a crucial role in protecting and advancing social welfare. Yet he could appear imperious.
Logue did believe in “planning with the people”; the phrase even became a kind of slogan for him. But as with many bureaucrats of his generation, “the people” were usually represented by a well-connected cohort of stakeholders, including leaders of church groups, labor councils, and civic improvement societies. In Boston, for instance, Logue’s redevelopment plans for the largely Black neighborhood of Roxbury — including municipal investments in schools, housing, and parks — found enthusiastic partners in the reformers Muriel and Otto Snowden, who in 1949 had founded the civil rights organization Freedom House. But for other activists in the neighborhood, like the Lower Roxbury Community Corporation, Logue’s Boston projects appeared grandiose and detached, dreamed up by downtown technocrats who spent more time poring over maps than meeting with “the people.” As Cohen puts it, Logue “found it easier to work with an older generation of integrationist Black leaders than with their more demanding successors.” 20 And Logue, like Moses, could appear imperious and dismissive. “So convinced was he of the righteousness of his goals and his own ability to deliver them,” Cohen writes, “that he sometimes paid mere lip service to community input, sanctioning a less-than-democratic process that marginalized and alienated the very people whose lives he had set out to improve.” 21
Logue’s grandest plans were thwarted not by community activists but by political and financial interests whose rising power would also cripple Nader’s citizen-advocacy movement.
In the end, Logue’s grandest plans were thwarted not by grassroots, left-leaning community activists, but rather by entrenched political and financial interests whose rising power would also cripple Nader’s citizen-advocacy movement. In New York, as head of the Urban Development Corporation, Logue initially enjoyed the backing of the liberal Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller, and his notable efforts included such immense projects as the transformation of Welfare Island into Roosevelt Island (which featured a memorial to Franklin Roosevelt designed by Louis Kahn). 22 But when he extended his focus beyond the struggling city and sought to introduce integrated and affordable housing into the affluent White suburbs of Westchester County, Logue was met with powerful opposition. By then the political climate was rapidly shifting. The generous federal funding that had been irrigating the UDC’s projects was drying up. In reaction to these new fiscal constraints, the city and state began renegotiating their bond obligations. Finally, the bankers called the game by refusing to underwrite the agency’s operations, and, in 1975, the UDC defaulted on $135 million in loans. This was a catastrophe that not only brought about the collapse of the UDC but also tarnished Logue’s personal reputation, leading to what Cohen describes as “a very public downfall.” 23
Ed Logue never lost his faith in the vital role of government planning. “When purely private interests make development proposals,” he said, “their overwhelming concern is private profit, not the public interest.” 24 Saving America’s Cities does not aim to rehabilitate Logue’s complicated career; rather, it seeks to tell a more subtle story about the legacies of postwar urban planning — to move beyond the reductive framing of the era “as a monumental battle between the clashing visions of the villainous Robert Moses and the saintly Jane Jacobs.” 25
It is in fact hard to reach the end of Cohen’s book without recognizing that the planners of Logue’s generation were, for all their faults and flaws, doing important work. The book also prompts us to consider whether the rejection of planning — due either to well-deserved pushback or reactionary retrenchment — has left American cities in a perilous condition. Cohen concludes by hoping that “a better understanding of this history will … reawaken from a long slumber the will and wherewithal to revitalize cities that still struggle for economic survival, to invest in neighborhoods still lacking adequate services, and to improve the prospects for those Americans still poorly housed or, in the worst cases, homeless.” 26
The fact that Ed Logue’s ambitions were defeated not by vocal community activists but by powerful financiers will not be surprising to readers of The Bonds of Inequality: Debt and the Making of the American City (University of Chicago Press, 2021). In this astonishing new book, historian Destin Jenkins explores the longstanding structural relationship between city government and private capital through the nexus of bonds. In particular, Jenkins focuses on the history of municipal bonds in San Francisco — “one of the most unequal cities in one of the wealthiest states” — through a series of public finance regimes from World War II to the present. 27 In the process, he reveals an underlying power stratum that has remained remarkably durable across the decades, no matter which party or politicians hold office.
The municipal bond market has been one of the critical forces shaping American cities — and a prime culprit for the persistence of racial injustice.
By delving into the intricacies of municipal financing — bond markets, rating agencies, bankers, comptrollers, analysts, accountants — Jenkins has produced a fascinating study of a highly technical subject. What is more, he has also raised important questions about the power dynamics of U.S. cities, and about who possesses the ultimate power to reshape cities and control the form of urban societies. So many planning histories concentrate on emotional and photogenic narratives of projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority and Boston’s Government Center, or on the noisy and passionate clashes of figures like Jacobs and Moses. Yet perhaps all along the crucial battles and key decisions were happening elsewhere, in the boardrooms where commercial bankers and municipal finance officers were meeting to determine what to underwrite, silently steering the flow of money and resources while remaining largely invisible to outside scrutiny. “A bond is more than a financial instrument issued by borrowers, rated by credit analysts, purchased by financiers, and sold to investors,” Jenkins writes. “A bond entails indebtedness, a condition entangled with governance and democracy, social welfare and capitalism.” 28
Jenkins argues persuasively that the bond market has been one of the critical forces shaping American cities — and what is more, he argues that it has also been a prime culprit for the persistence of racial injustice. “The history of inequality in twentieth-century America is, in part, the history of municipal debt,” he writes. 29 In telling this neglected history, Jenkins aims to produce a counter-narrative to what historian Michael B. Katz has described as “public failure as the master narrative of urban history.” 30 It is a deeply unsettling counter-narrative in which even a city that prides itself on democratic and progressive values turns out to be controlled by abstruse financial machinations that usually evade public oversight. It is a counter-narrative that reveals, in Jenkins’s words:
[T]hat the breakdown of public housing does not make sense without exploring bondholder guarantees; the revenue problems of major American cities do not make sense without considering escalating fixed expenditures for debt-service payments; and the prioritization of some infrastructural projects and the steady decline of others is not legible without discussing the evaluative rubrics of bond rating agencies. So many of the social, fiscal, and political ills of American cities can be traced, in a fundamental way, to structural dependence on the municipal bond market. 31
Jenkins elucidates in painstaking detail the racial calculus that determined countless choices about debt financing over many decades: whether to invest in sewers or roads, in parks or schools or libraries, and whether these investments should be made in the Castro or the Mission, in Haight-Ashbury or Chinatown or Pacific Heights. He argues that decisions that might seem at first to be “public” or “political” are in fact reliant upon the political-economic negotiations of municipal financing. Jenkins coins the terms “creditor supremacy” and “bond-holder supremacy” to describe the operationalized forms of White supremacy within the fiscal workings of American cities, and shows how these mechanisms served to encode racial prejudice into the built form of the city.
In San Francisco, bond issues were subject to popular referenda, and often as not voters prioritized projects for White neighborhoods.
Unsurprisingly, this system was reinforced by networks of exclusive clubs that enabled the “homosocial bonds” of privileged White men who were as misogynistic and homophobic as they were racist. 32 But racism was hardly limited to an elite financial class. In San Francisco (as in many jurisdictions), bond issues were subject to popular referenda, and often as not voters prioritized infrastructure and amenities for White neighborhoods. In the late 1960s, after the grueling defeat of a $6.4-million bond measure that would have provided for new playgrounds and swimming pools in the city’s long neglected Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, one activist put it bluntly: “We failed because we called upon the voter to do something for someone else and that someone was Black.” 33
The Bonds of Inequality underscores that finance has long been one of the great structuring forces in urban development. The greatest innovation of Baron Haussmann, after all, was not the grand radial boulevards of Paris, but rather the complicated public-private financing scheme backed by Napoleon III and Credit Mobilier which generated the capital necessary for massive reconstruction of the city. 34 Jenkins’s book also provides compelling new context for the history of American cities — for White flight and the populist tax revolts, for the civil rights and Black power movements, for cities in which not simply capitalism but racial capitalism has systematically privileged the White middle classes and demarcated the bounds of possibility. In this light it’s hard not to wonder whether the big-scale projects of technocratic planners, or the clamorous demands of community activists, have mattered much at all, given the steady underlying machinations of the bond market over many decades.
Jenkins’s book also poses a question about state power in the 20th-century American city: what if planners were not too powerful, but rather too weak? Is the profound inequality that persists in our cities today really the legacy of overambitious government control — or instead the legacy of a feeble planning state, one which had little chance of escaping the structures of capitalist society? To be sure, as these three books and countless others have documented, the state does deserve sharp scrutiny. The federal government did cozy up to chemical companies while downplaying the dangers of pollution. Ed Logue did believe that a cadre of mostly White men with Ivy degrees could be entrusted to plan the future of vast metropolitan areas. The municipal government of San Francisco was subservient to credit markets that systematically undercut the goals of multiracial democracy.
How to reconcile the failure of the state to advance egalitarian programs with the fact that the evisceration of state power has undermined the very possibility of creating those programs?
How, then, to respond to the historical conundrum posed by these books? How to reconcile the failure of the state to advance emancipatory and egalitarian programs with the fact that the evisceration of that same state power has undermined the very possibility of creating those programs? It would be foolish to blame the excesses of neoliberalism on Nader’s public interest lawyers or to suggest that community activists provide the model for the Tea Party. One can’t draw anything like a straight line from the anti-freeway protestors to the anti-vaxxers. Yet contemporary challenges from the global pandemic to the world-altering climate crisis can only be met and managed through public programs that plan and regulate the workings of markets, cities, and environments. Together these books track an evolving historical understanding of how and why the U.S. left turned against the planning state. They also hint at an emerging political impulse to reclaim it in the interests of democracy, and of the public.