Sunday, December 11, 2011

Depressing Stuff, Past and Present

This story from yesterday's New York Times is one of the most depressing ones I've seen in a long time. I know that's saying a lot, and I'm not completely sure why it hit me so hard. It's not like I haven't been disappointed about other actions taken by our government since January 2009. But this one reminds me of how essentially screwed up our law-making process is.

In a nutshell, the Times tells how the Obama administration had set out to take on for-profit colleges that rip off their students. In response, the "colleges" bankrolled an army of lobbyists who used to be Democratic members of Congress (like Dick Gephardt) or aides to Democrats to beat back any meaningful changes. Kaplan University (owned by the Washington Post Company, by the way) hired Obama's former communication director. The founder of the University of Phoenix didn't have to hire anyone; he's a close personal friend of Nancy Pelosi.

In all, industry advocates met more than two dozen times with White House and Education Department officials, including senior officials like Education Secretary Arne Duncan, records show, even as Mr. Obama has vowed to reduce the “outsize” influence of lobbyists and special interests in Washington.

The result was a plan, completed in June, that imposes new regulations on for-profit schools to ensure they adequately train their students for work, but does so on a much less ambitious scale than the administration first intended, relaxing the initial standards for determining which schools would be stripped of federal financing.
The final plan affects only 5 percent of the schools -- the very worst of the worst -- instead of the 16 percent that would have been motivated to change by the original plan.

The revolving door in D.C. needs to be nailed shut. It's bad enough having lobbyists who outnumber members of Congress by more than 30 to 1, but at least we should change things so they aren't former members of Congress or even their staff, exploiting their connections.

The Metropolitcan Building in 1960, 12 stories of dark stone and castle-like towers
Enough about the present. Today's depressing story from the past is from the Star Tribune, where Rick Nelson writes about the destruction of Minneapolis's Metropolitan Building in the early 1960s. It's already a locally famous case; if the building -- the first skyscraper built west of the Mississippi -- were still around today it would be home to all those creative businesses Richard Florida says make a city vibrant. Instead, it was torn down, along with about a third of downtown Minneapolis in the age of "urban renewal."

What Nelson added to the depressing file of knowledge I already have about this debacle were quotes from Ben Palmer, general counsel for the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Agency, who led the campaign to tear it down:
While describing the building's exterior as "a monstrosity in the eyes of most observers," Palmer noted that Sheraton, IBM and other top-tier tenants would steer clear of the [urban renewal area] if their modern structures sat adjacent to something so old-fashioned. The CEOs of both businesses issued contrary statements shortly thereafter.

"Thirty years from now the buildings in the renewal area will be 30 years old, while this one would be 100 years old and showing it." Palmer wrote, a bitter irony given the brief lifespan of many of the [replacement] throwaway structures. (IBM was razed in 1985 after just 22 years, and the 27-year-old Sheraton went down in 1990.)
And what replaced the Metropolitan, which was called "A fantasia in glass and cast iron" as late as 1955 and which took almost a year to demolish?

A parking lot. For almost 20 years.

Finally, in 1980 it was replaced by a "relentlessly banal office building... a dose of the suburban blahs plopped onto the streets of downtown Minneapolis."


Ms Sparrow said...

The lobbyists outnumber the members of Congress by 30 to 1? No wonder we are stuck with a do-nothing pack of dunderheads. The poor things are paralyzed into inaction by so many contradictory outside influences!

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

Aargh. Seriously, 30 to 1? I think Ms. Sparrow nailed it.