From The Progressive November 1967
Joel Rogers is no Pollyanna Sunshine. But the well-known academic, activist, MacArthur “genius,” and director of COWS, the national think-and-do tank based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is optimistic about building a greener, more just, and happier future.
The secret, he says, is to work at the local level.
Rogers flies around the world talking to local officials and business leaders about the benefits of the “high road” strategy for development. (He coined the term.)
Taking the high road means building communities where wages are high, the environment is protected, and democracy is strong.
The low road, in contrast, is the Walmart vision of America: businesses seek to lower costs by sweating labor and suppliers, damaging the environment, and avoiding taxes. Low-road politicians abet all this through deregulation, tax cuts, and an assault on democracy that helps big money make the rules.
The difference between the high road and the low road is described in elegiac terms by former University of Wisconsin-Madison chancellor John Wiley, in a profoundly moving magazine article he wrote last year, recollecting what it was like to move from the hardscrabble Indiana town where he grew up to Madison, Wisconsin, where he came to the university as a grad student in the mid-1960s.
As soon as he crossed the border, Wiley writes, the road smoothed out, the farms and houses looked bright and neatly kept. The grim poverty, crumbling infrastructure, resentment, and racial strife that formed the backdrop to his childhood faded away behind him. People seemed less beaten down. Gas station attendants and convenience store clerks knew how to make change. There was no trash in the streets and no potholes in the roads.
Wiley got his PhD, and and went on to become a famous and highly patented scientist before returning to the UW-Madison and becoming its chancellor. It cost him a pittance to go to college—about $125 in tuition for his first semester—so he carried no college debt when he arrived, on a graduate fellowship from the National Science Foundation, which covered his tuition and living expenses. The scholarship would have paid for him to go anywhere, but Wisconsin looked like heaven to him.
Everything Wiley loved about Wisconsin—the top-flight academic institution, the clean environment, the educated populace, the well-maintained roads—are threatened by the politics of austerity and resentment promoted by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature, he points out. The title of his article is “Wake Up, Wisconsin! Recover Your History and Legacy.”
Rogers is as critical as Wiley of the Walker regime and the national Republican drive to bust unions, turn the economy over to unfettered corporate greed, and impose austerity on the people. But he thinks we can do a lot more with what we still control in Madison and other cities.
Cities that take the high road can combat the ill effects of rightwing politics and even globalization. “Fix your cities,” says Rogers, “and you’re going to be fine.”
Most people in the world already live in cities, Rogers notes, and nearly all will by the end of this century. The top 100 metro areas in the United States—of which Madison is one—account for about 80 percent of our nation’s gross domestic product, but occupy only 12 percent of its surface area.
In other words, taking control of cities means taking control of the national economy. How do you do it? You put them on the high road. “You make them productive, but very, very green,” says Rogers. “Democracy makes that possible. We set the rules: Don’t treat people like road kill and the earth like a sewer.”
Take Madison, where The Progressive is based. Despite the Republican takeover of our state government, “We were born on third base,” says Rogers. We live in an agricultural hub, in a beautiful natural environment, and we have the legacy Wiley describes of great public services and infrastructure.
All of that gives us the power to build a bright future. “There’s really no good reason we can’t organize ourselves as a community to give every kid who lives here a good start on life,” Rogers says.
Here is the appealing proposition Rogers makes to citizens: Live in a city with an interesting job at a modest salary, save money by ditching your car, spending less on energy and on your cable bill, and take advantage of free, high-speed broadband, great public transportation, and great public schools.
Most of this vision can be realized at the local level.
“Get rid of waste,” Rogers says. “It’s all over the place. It resides heavily in necessities we all rely on—mobility, energy, communication.” Providing these things more efficiently would reduce the cost of living for everyone, and particularly help the poor, who are victims of brutal price-gouging. “Use your land use and planning powers to make more mixed use and more walkable and bikeable neighborhoods; promote energy efficiency and local clean power generation; get everybody connected on fiber optic,” Rogers says. “These things pay for themselves through the value they create or the savings they permit. You can finance them.”
Europe has demonstrated what’s possible when cities take the high road.
Rogers uses the example of a hotel housekeeper in Denmark. “After taxes, she’s not making much more than a housekeeper in the United States. The difference is she doesn’t need a zillion cars to get to work. She can use a high-quality, state-of-the-art transit system. Her young kid is in a beautiful day-care center full of love and laughter. The kid’s education is assured. If she gets sick, she can stay home without fear of losing her job. And if she wants a better job, she can easily get the training and employment services to land it.”
The goal for all cities, Rogers says, should be to lower the cost of living and have great public services. If we build up all that infrastructure, individually we don’t need much money to live on.
And this is not just a pie-in-the-sky vision that can only be achieved in a monolithic European socialist democracy. Americans can buy into a vision of equal opportunity instead of growing inequality. “Everyone should have a chance,” says Rogers. “I still think most Americans believe in that.”
Even Trump voters, who have seen jobs disappear overseas and their communities decline and who distrust the national government to look out for their interests, could conceivably get behind a high-road vision along with progressives.
Plus, working on the local level is relatively easy—if people are willing to get off the couch and try. “With a good local political organization behind you, it’s not that hard to dominate a planning board, city council, county board, maybe even an executive office.” Nor does he think that taking the high road requires a life-and-death struggle with area business. “Do you see a well-organized business community blocking better transportation options in Madison, or preventing us from making our buildings more energy efficient? I don’t.”
But progressives have to be willing to do the hard and unglamorous work of local politics. They often aren’t. “Most of us would rather think and agitate around the grander issues than clean up our own backyard,” Rogers says.
COWS works with local elected officials all over the country, and abroad, to help advance high-road policies. “People often say that local politics is boring or trivial, which it can be,” he notes. “But done well, it’s really neither. It’s intellectually demanding, and has huge immediate effects. It’s very satisfying, and good work, improving the world and the person who does it.”
Time to hit the high road!
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive.