More on the Social Psychology of Public Parks

I recently posted on how public park builder, Robert Moses, used the psychology of sunk costs to get more money for his ambitious projects. Once those projects were complete, he also used social psychology to keep them clean. It had to do with the directions he gave to the people hired to clean up the Parks:

Patrolling the Boardwalk, conspicuous in snow-white sailor suits and caps, they hurried to pick up dropped papers and cigarette butts while the droppers were still in the vicinity. They never reprimanded the culprits, but simply bent down, picked up the litter, and put it in a trash basket. To make the resultant embarrassment of the litterers more acute, Moses refused to let the Courtesy Squatters use sharp-pointed sticks to pick up litter without stooping. He wanted the earnest, clean-cut college boys stooping, Moses explained to his aides. It would make the litterers more ashamed.

Once again, he displayed how a brilliant understanding of human nature comes in handy, when you are trying to influence people.

The First War the United States Didn't Have to Fight

The war of 1812 was sometimes called “Madison’s war” by those who opposed the President’s call for military action against Great Britain. A whole slew of grievances was building up between the two countries, especially with Britain’s bullying behavior in the seas. But it was also clear that Pres. Madison was itching for war, and that he led us into a war that could have been avoided. That was certainly the opinion of Henry Adams, when writing a history of the United States about a century later:

Many nations have gone to war in pure gaiety of heart, but perhaps the United States were first to force themselves into a war they dreaded, in the hope that the war itself might create the spirit they lacked.

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On the Underutilization of Single Sentence Paragraphs

I have long been a fan of single sentence paragraphs.
I really have.
When used properly, an occasional one-off sentence can really stand out, amidst the tumble of longer paragraphs made up of complicated sentences. Here’s a good example from The Power Broker. In this part of the book, Robert Moses has spent an intense year, one that followed upon some pretty intense years preceding it, fighting to build parks and parkways on Long Island and elsewhere. But he found himself blocked at every turn. Too many powerful interests were stacked up against him, and it really looked like his plan was doomed to fail. Robert Caro describes his situation in the following two paragraphs:

It had been more than a year since Robert Moses had announced his revised and broadened Park and parkway plan, a plan which had, after all, included parks and parkways not only on Long Island but throughout the rest of New York State, along the Niagara Frontier, in the Genesee Valley, in the farmland of the Taconic region, and among the peaks of the Alleghanies, Catskills and Adirondacks. Now, more than a year later, parks and parkways were still located nowhere but in the map of Moses’ imagination. After all the talking, all the planning, all the fighting, he simply didn’t exist. And at the end of 1925, there seemed little possibility that they would come into existence at any time in the foreseeable future. If one looked ahead a decade, even a generation, it seemed unlikely that any substantial part of the dream would be reality.
Within three years, almost all of it would be reality.

And then Caro continues on to the next chapter. That last sentence, to the point and standing alone, thereby magnifying its impact on the reader. Don’t you want to read on and find out what happens? Not a surprise that this guy has won multiple Pulitzers.
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Al Smith on Democracy

In 1925, a handful of extremely wealthy Long Island residents tried to thwart state plans to run highways from New York City through Long Island to beaches that the masses could enjoy. These wealthy people were understandably upset, that part of their property would be taken away to make room for highways and the like. But they resisted to the point of inflexibility, and the millions of lower and middle class New York City residents who hoped to find weekend refuge from summer heat looked like they would be shut down by a few dozen multimillionaires. But Gov. Al Smith was not happy with this arrangement. And in a speech arguing in favor of these parks and beaches, he also made some pretty profound statements about democracy:

The cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy. Let us battle it out right in the shadow of the capitol itself and let us have a decision, and let us not permit the impression to go abroad that wealth and the power that wealth can command can palsy the arm of the state.

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On Repetition and Good Writing

In high school, I was taught not to repeat words too often in the same paragraph, or even within a relatively short essay. I know I am not alone in having been taught that way, because many of the people I’ve mentored over the years present me drafts of their writing which show that they have been working hard to give a different name to the main topics of their writings, each time those topics occur. A person writing about congestive heart failure, for example, may call it congestive heart failure one time, CHF another time, systolic dysfunction yet another time, etc., leaving the reader to wonder whether these are different but related concepts or simply the same idea put forward in a variety of guises. But often, repetition is a mark of good writing, not only because it is easier to understand, but because repeating the same word over the course of a paragraph, or even a longer chunk of writing, can give the writing rhythm.
Consider this paragraph from The Power Broker, by Robert Caro. In the paragraph he is writing about the main character of the book, Robert Moses – a behind the scenes politician, to most eyes, who nevertheless had an enormous impact on New York State and New York City, from its highways and parks to many other aspects of urban design. Moses had a brilliant legal mind, and was famous for throwing language into obscure sections of bills that would sneakily enable him, in whatever government position he held at the time, to garner more power.
Quoted below, Caro writes about the way he slipped concepts of “entry and appropriation” into the law in a way that clearly circumvented what anyone else wanted the law to accomplish, thereby accomplishing exactly what Moses wanted to:

To realize a dream of unprecedented scope, Robert Moses, by use of the law, had armed himself with unprecedented powers – and then, finding that these powers were still inadequate, he had deliberately gone beyond them, beyond the law. “Entry and appropriation” was, even as defined in law, of questionable constitutionality in its negation of the individual’s rights when his property was coveted by the state. And Moses had gone beyond the definition to use the power of the state with even less restraint than the law allowed. But both courts and Legislature understood the situation; before both courts and Legislature, Moses stood stripped of all defenses and, it seemed in February 1925, both courts and Legislature would now step in and rectify the situation, the courts by affording redress to the individuals injured by his actions, the Legislature by ensuring that he never again have the opportunity similarly to injure any other individual.
But the ultimate court in which the fate of Moses and his dream was to be resolved would be the court of public opinion. And in this court, Robert Moses had close to hand three formidable weapons…

Like a drumbeat, the words courts and Legislature recur throughout the paragraphs. And the closely related concepts of law and court do too. But rather than make the writing boring and repetitive, they propel the writing along. Beautiful stuff. Expect to see more over the next few weeks.
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On the Importance of Getting Things Done in Politics

I’m currently in the middle of reading Robert Caro’s first book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. I’ll be blogging intermittently about this wonderful book over the next few weeks. Expect a few of those posts to be focused on drawing writing lessons from this wonderful author.
But a relatively early in the book, only 129 pages into it in other words, a paragraph jumped out at me that struck me as very relevant today: on the importance of finding the right balance between ideals in politics and accomplishing something in politics. The paragraph occurs in a chapter about Al Smith, the longtime governor of New York. He was not an intellectual, didn’t like to read it all, but was nevertheless very intelligent and shrewd. And what he understood most of all how to get things done. And that meant he sometimes lost patience with people who fought so hard for their ideals that they missed opportunities to implement policies that improve upon existing policies.

He has no patience for reformers who, unlike Belle Moskowitz, didn’t understand the importance of practical politics and getting things done, who refused to compromise, who insisted on having the bill as it is written, who raged loudly at injustice, who fought single-mindedly for an unattainable ideal. Their pigheadedness had the effect of dragging to political destruction politicians who listened to them, of ruining careers men had taken years to build. He had seen it happen. And more important, what was the inevitable result of their efforts? Since they refused to compromise and operate within the political framework – the only framework within which their proposals could become reality – the laws they proposed were never enacted, and therefore at the end of their efforts the people they had wanted to help, the people he knew so well needed help, hadn’t been helped at all. If anything, they had been hurt; the stirring up of hard feelings and bitterness delayed less dramatic but still useful reforms that might have been enacted. When the reformers were finished with all their hollering and were back in their comfortable homes, the widows of the Fourth Ward would still be forced to give up their children before they could get charity. What good was courage if it’s only effect was to hurt those you are trying to help?

I do love the writing of this paragraph – the back and forth between long and short sentences, for example. The rather than dwell on the writing per se, it’s the idea here worth noting right now: political courage doesn’t mean being unwilling to compromise. It means doing what you can, within the political realities you inherit, to make the world a better place.
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A Smattering of Quotes from: Last Call – the Rise and Fall of Prohibition

I have written a couple blog posts recently based on reflections inspired by Daniel Okrent’s wonderful book, Last Call. But there are so many wonderful tidbits from this book, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite quotes.
First there is William Jennings Bryan, a prominent force in the Democratic Party at the end of the 19th century, who colorfully described his opposition to the theory of evolution:

“It is better to trust in the Rock of Ages than to know the age of rocks.”

Of course he is completely wrong. But at least he is wrong eloquently.

Then there is the Kentucky Distillers and Distribution Company, which sought out a local alcohol treatment center and offered to sell them names of their frequent customers for $400. They bragged to the treatment center that:

“Our customers are your prospective patients.”

So much for business ethics!

I particularly enjoyed the song title by songwriter Albert Von Tilzer. He cleverly captured one of the unforeseen benefits of Prohibition, with his

“I Never Knew I Had a Wonderful Wife until the Time Went Dry.”

A newspaper reporter mocked the inability of Prohibition law to prevent people from drinking:

“It was absolutely impossible to get a drink in Detroit unless you walked at least 10 feet and told the busy bartender what you wanted in a voice loud enough for him to hear you above the uproar.”

Another person commented on the impossibility of stopping liquor smuggling across the US/Canadian border by saying:

“You cannot keep liquor from dripping through a dotted line.”

A man who made his business selling Scotch gave colorful advice:

“Of two evils, choose the more interesting.”

That is an aphorism that Oscar Wilde would be proud of.

And then, of course, there was Ernest Hemingway boldly claiming that

“a man does not exist until he is drunk.”

Ernest, Ernest, Ernest…

Teddy Roosevelt and the Psychology of Military Prepardness

“There are higher things in this life than the soft and easy enjoyment of material comfort.  It is through strife, or the readiness for strife, that a nation must win greatness. We ask for a great navy, partly because we feel that no national life is worth having if the nation is not willing, when the need shall arise, to stake everything on the supreme arbitrariment of war, and to pour out its blood, its treasure, and its tears like water, rather than submit to the loss of honor and reknown.”

Amazing quote, whatever you think about Roosevelt’s militaristic and nationalistic world view.  But President McKinley’s response to Roosevelt’s speech reveals an interesting aspect of decision psychology, one I write about in Critical Decisions:  the way that responsibility influences people’s willingness to make bold choices.  McKinley was on record as promoting a policy of non-aggression, but spoke favorably about Roosevelt’s speech:

“I suspect that Roosevelt is right, and the only difference between him and me is that mine is the greater responsibility.”

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On Why Thomas Jefferson Never Committed Suicide

Upon the death of his wife, Thomas Jefferson went into a deep depression.  In crushing words, he described his state of mind to his sister-in-law, in a sentence that could be placed in psychiatric manuals next to a definition of depression:

“All my plans of comfort and happiness reversed by a single event and nothing answering in prospect before me but a gloom unbrightened with one cheerful expectation.”

Nothing to look forward to.  No hope for the future.  And yet Jefferson would not consider ending his life.  He had things to do:

“This miserable kind of existence is really too burdensome to be borne, and were it not for the infidelity of deserting the sacred charge left me, I could not wish its continuance a moment.”

That sacred charge?  He had children to raise.  Thank God!

Thomas Jefferson, On Being Afraid of Girls

In his youth, Jefferson didn’t lack for confidence except, it seems, when smitten by an attractive girl.  One night at a dance, he worked up a bunch of things he could say to a girl named Rebecca who he was hoping to become acquainted with: “I was prepared to say a great deal: I had dressed up in my own mind such thoughts as occurred to me, in as moving language as I knew how, and expected to have performed in a tolerably creditable manner.”  Let’s face it: if anyone could impress a girl with eloquence, it would have been Jefferson.  But things didn’t go so well, and here’s how Jefferson described that in a letter he wrote the next day:

“But, good God! When I had an opportunity of venting them [the words he had prepared], a few broken sentences, uttered in great disorder, and interrupted with pauses of uncommon length, were the two visible signs of my strange confusion!”

I may have to pull this quote out next time either of my sons talks about what it feels like to be afraid of girls, to remind them that it can happen to even the best of us.
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