Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Debunking Kotkin

Via Snarkmarket >: Joel Kotkin's article "Urban Legends." Kotkin takes on Richard Florida and co. to debunk what he thinks are myths about the rebirth of the American city.

I'm sympathetic to Kotkin's effort to bring in good data to test inventive/appealing theories of urban growth, especially when these theories have become a new orthodoxy. Here, though, I'm going to do my best to push Kotkin's argument, or at least say what he doesn't say.

"Myth #1: Cities are again gaining people." Even by Kotkin's own data, this is less a myth than an incomplete statement of fact. Cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston did gain people throughout the nineties. These gains were offset in part by a dip in overall population following the dot com bubble and the overall economic downturn.

Another explanation, straight from Economics 101, would be that the sudden migration to these cities in the nineties triggered a burst in demand for real estate, turning whole neighborhoods from undervalued to overvalued. As price shoots up, demand goes down, as fewer people can afford houses and apartments at the new prices (exacerbated further by the economic soft patch). It's not true that people no longer want to live San Francisco -- just that fewer people at any economic bracket can now afford to.

In general, overall population isn't a very good measure for the success or failure of cities. It doesn't tell you how many people want to live in a city. Most people I know would love to live in Center City Philadelphia and would rather live anywhere than the horrible (but still fairly populous) neighborhoods of North Philly. Yet lots of people are priced out of Center City who wouldn't have been five years ago, while others are still stuck in North Philly who would love to leave. This makes Philadelphia something of a mixed success, at best -- but overall population doesn't tell you the story. Fuller demographic data can tell you that many cities are losing their working-class and middle-class families and replacing them with wealthier young singles and childless couples, which is more to Kotkin's point -- so why dwell on overall population?

"Myth #2: Cities are where the successful people are." Kotkin's argument here is frankly quite bad. He takes one admittedly nebulous variable ("successful people") and replaces it with another ("educated people") and covers over the fact that he's doing this with some old chestnuts about information economies and decentralized communication and bad Brooksian observations (lattes in Fargo, $20,000 kindergartens). Would anyone say "Cities are where the educated people are" and expect to be taken seriously? You can measure success by lots of other variables: income, influence, etc., but education and success can't be taken to be identical. The fact that educated people are spread throughout the country (especially as it's both more common and significantly easier for anyone, anywhere to get an advanced degree) is no surprise at all.

"Myth #3: Cool cities attract the best jobs, uncool cities don't." Again, Kotkin pulls off a rhetorical trick with statistical implications. He substitutes "cities" with "cool cites" -- especially strange since he's just gone to some lengths to establish just how cool Fargo is these days. Just what is a "cool city" or an "uncool city"? How do we measure coolness? Politically liberal/conservative? Low/high rates of churchgoing?

And then he haphazardly expands (then shrinks) the temporal window: In 1969, only 11 percent of America's largest companies were headquartered in the suburbs; a quarter century later roughly half were in the periphery... Since 1981, (New York City's) share of the nation's securities industry jobs has dropped from 37 to 23 percent." Nobody believes that American cities in the nineties eclipsed their peak status of the fifties and sixties, or denies that over the past thirty-five years the there's been a shift in jobs and populations to the west and southwest. For Kotkin to try to use this data (or the fact that Wal-Mart is headquartered in Arkansas -- and we've seen what wonders that's done for Arkansas's economy) against the much more limited and local claim of urban renewal over the past ten to fifteen years is disingenuous at best and deliberately misleading at worst.

In general, I think it's unfortunate that Kotkin begins with these headline-grabbing but dubious claims and tries to pose his argument and the various "creative class" arguments as an either/or. Despite these misteps, most of his criticisms of public policy initiatives and identification of underlying problems are quite good. (Especially his disdain for stadium-mania.) I think he does understand the real problem: city services (especially schools, mass transit, and roads) haven't caught up with the price of real estate. This does threaten to turn cities into (as he says) "a way station for the wealthy young and part-time destination for the nomadic rich."

But his adoption of the class warrior pose strikes the wrong note. "Cities must return to a progressive focus on fixing their real problems--that is, the problems of the majority of the people who live there--not serving the interests of artists, hipsters, and their wealthy patrons." This misses the point -- everyone rides the subway. Everyone wants safe places where they can raise and educate their kids as well as possible. Everyone loses from crime or graft. There's no reason to assume that these are just middle-class problems. As I've written before, improving city services doesn't just help you retain middle-class and immigrant populations: it also can help you attract them from the suburbs.

Also, Kotkin's proposed solutions suggest that this disdain for the rich is really about advancing a conservative-populist agenda:

School reform is often hostage to the power of teachers' unions. City budgets, which could be applied to improving economic infrastructure, are frequently bloated by, among other things, excessive public sector employment and overgenerous pensions. In the contest for the remaining public funds, the knitted interests of downtown property holders, arts foundations, sports promoters, and nightclub owners often overwhelm those of more conventional small businesses and family-oriented neighborhoods that could serve as havens for the middle class.

Really? Teacher's unions and arts foundations may have their problems, but I doubt that they're the principal malevolent forces holding the city back. Say what you will, but "new urban progressivism" this ain't.

One broader point: I think we can all agree that the early "creative class" arguments, especially in their most reduced formulations, are incomplete. Cities need to do more and have more to attract and keep the kind of citizens, neighbors, and employees that cities and new companies and industries want. But cities didn't use to (and often still don't) think this way. Under the old status quo, you find a big industry (steel, cars, the military, etc.) and offer them a sweetheart deal to build or stay in your town, then hope the people come after (or stay). Now -- and this is really what's been changed by the communications and cultural revolutions of the nineties -- cities need to attract and retain their people, and the jobs will come after them. Whether you're talking about renovating theater houses or subway lines, it's a matter of pursuing principally civic projects in a new, indirect synergy with private forces (employers and their employees). Hopefully, that change of sensibility will catch on, and turn into something more than new boondoggles with the same old well-connected folks benefitting on the bottom line.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

This Food Is Just So... Comfortable

Oh, Philadelphia, I'm smitten by you. And the Northwest -- I love you most of all. Not least because of the Trolley Car Diner in Mount Airy.

Before, O Trolley Car, I had praised only your breakfasts: the fluffiest of omelettes, the most delicious of pancakes, the plethora of choices on your weekend breakfast bar. I looked down on your lunch specials, because, forsooth, the burgers, fries, wings, and beer at McMenamin's appeared undefeatable. But yesterday, yea, when I feasted on your meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and the roast turkey dinner my bride-to-be could not finish herself, I astonished even myself at the depth of my feelings for you. When I followed my meal with a soft-served vanilla-and-chocolate-twist cone from your trolley car ice cream shoppe, I knew again what it meant to love a restaurant. And oh, what sweet bliss it was.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Just Mopping Up

I'm going back through some old posts, cleaning up the language and updating links and whatnot. First on the plate: my review of Andrew Bird's The Mysterious Production of Eggs, once sloppy but now spruced up and spanking fresh. (If when Robin Sloan said I should get a job at The New Yorker, he meant that I needed one of their editors, he's exactly right.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Everyone's favorite Neo-Trotskyist

Christopher Hitchens has been tickling me lately -- well, by way of his good prose, anyways. Two essays in particular -- "Trangressing the Boundaries" in the Sunday Times, a review/critique of the new edition of the Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, and "Unmitigated Galloway" in The Weekly Standard, a much more incisive (and funnier) take on MP George Galloway's testimony before the Senate last week -- are both worth reading.

Hitchens often praises Orwell's argument in "Politics and the English Language" that bad and/or dangerous thinking often finds refuge (and unconscious support) in arcane or mystifying language, euphemisms, and mixed metaphors. Clear, direct, and univocal prose pulls thought out by the roots and shows poor thinking and malicious political rhetoric for what it is.

Even if you grant this premise, however, it doesn't suffice to simply write well or to show that your opponent writes badly to prove that your ideas or politics are superior to his. You have to show that the ideas masked by his bad language are wrong and/or poorly thought out, or that his political allegiances are untenable.

Hitchens does this in his essay on Galloway, lauding the MP's rhetorical skill and laying bare his suspect politics. In the essay on theory, though, he just revives the old chestnut: literary theorists write poorly -- therefore what they say can't be of much importance.

I would certainly be the first to agree that literary critics could and should write better, more accessible, and more exciting prose. (Excitement and accessibility don't always go together -- Derrida's writings show a virtuoso stylist at work, but they're worlds away from being entirely transparent or accessible.) Everyone -- and especially Judith Butler and Homi Bhabha -- needs an editor. We need to distinguish, though, between willfully difficult writing on the one hand (of different varieties and merits) and sloppy writing -- and also between genuinely obfuscating shallowness and complicated ideas that deserve further thought and clearer expression.

What annoys me is the mutual arrogance that assumes either (with Hitchens) mal dit, mal pensée or (with Butler et. al.) one's thoughts are so irreducibly complex that they can't possiblty be phrased any better. I think we can all do better than that.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

How Green is My Metropolis, Pt. 3: On Behalf of Neighborhoods

If you want to understand the genesis of this post, you should probably read "The Places I Have Come to Fear the Most," a post on suburbs, cities, and education over at Snarkmarket. You should also read David Owen's New Yorker essay "Green Manhattan" (courtesy of Greenbelt Alliance). Then read my two commentary essays on Owen, parts one and two. Then read all of the articles linked to by those posts, especially this one and this one. Then, for kicks, read my ode in praise of gardening. Yeah, that should probably do it.

To very briefly summarize Matt Thompson's Snarkmarket post: Matt, like a lot of suburban kids of our generation who grew up and moved to the city, thinks the suburbs are a bad deal: bad for the environment (Owen), bad for society (Pollan) , bad for the soul (Thompson). Ironic, since suburbs (and not cities) were supposed to be better for all of these things. Suburbs are like Adorno and Horkheimer's dialectic of enlightenment in little grass and pavement capsules. But, you know, with box stores.

Yet (Matt writes) for not-so-affluent or not-yet-so-affluent families with kids, cities aren't so great either. The public schools are usually terrible (if you're in Philadelphia, Chicago, or Detroit -- the three cities I've called home -- they're especially terrible) and the private schools are too expensive -- at least, too expensive for you. And while you and your friends might be able to live off cigarettes and cereal in a tiny, infested apartment whose biggest virtue is adjacency to gentrifying bars and a third-floor patio you can grill on, your five- and seven-year old can't. Chances are that if it's big enough and safe enough and nice enough, you can't afford it. You couldn't afford it before you had kids. You just didn't notice.

A surprising number of my friends have essentially chosen the city over children and are opting to remain childless: if not permanently, at least for a lot longer than our parents did. (Heck, my parents married at 19 and had four kids in seven years, all before they turned 30.) But let's suppose that, like most people, you'd like to at least leave the option of raising kids open at some point, whether your own or someone else's. And regardless at what age you decide to do it, you'd rather not do it in mind-numbing, natural-resource-depleting Nowheresville.

We could wait until petroleum and coal stocks deplete: then everyone just might be a little more motivated to find some good solutions. In the interest of laying the groundwork, though, I've come up with some thoughts and a few modest proposals for how to reconcile the twin charms of city and suburban life. As it turns out, a surprising number of problems can be solved by something so simple, it was there the entire time and we never even thought to see it. It's an old idea, and an old urban reality: neighborhoods.

To be more specific: old neighborhoods. In Philly, I've moved into one of the oldest: Germantown, in the Northwest. My house is a three-story twin, meaning it shares a wall with the house next door. It's almost 3000 square feet, and over 100 years old, built of stone, brick, and stucco, and traps heat like Satan's own tightly puckered asshole. (Too much? Okay, a little too much.) My neighbors and I have a little European-style enclosed gardens in the front (like most older communities on the east coast -- take that, Pollan!) with longer yards in the back. And we have our own downtown, on Germantown Avenue, with shops, banks, schools, churches, and restaurants in the oldest buildings in the neighborhood. It's also just twenty minutes away from Philly's Center City by commuter rail, car, or bus.

In case you can't tell, I like my new house.

But what does this have to do with schools, you ask? Aha! Here's the problem. The neighborhoods of Northwest Philadelphia, including Germantown, Manayunk, East Falls, Roxborough, Mount Airy, and Chestnut Hill are all wonderful, with their own identities. Chestnut Hill is the affluent, wasp-y small town at the very edge of the city; Manayunk is full of crunchy yuppies, with coffee shops, restaurants, gyms, and furniture stores; Mount Airy is almost a classic upper-middle-class suburb, only 300 years old and populated mostly by African-Americans and Jews; Germantown is a slightly older and shabbier version of the same, and so on.

The schools, though, like most of Philly's schools, are terrible. Let me rephrase: the elementary and junior high schools, which are local, are just fine. There are only two public high schools for the entire area: Germantown High School and Roxborough High School. GHS is filled mostly with black kids who beat each other up, fail aptitude tests and drop out; RHS is filled mostly with white kids who do the same thing. In Chestnut Hill and Manayunk, where the money is, there's no good reason to send your kids miles across town to go to those kinds of schools, so they don't. In particular, Manayunk's hot downtown and tiny houses attract the well-heeled childless looking for a taste of San Francisco, so it's not a problem; the millionaires in Chestnut Hill's mansions send their kids to private school.

The private schools in the Northwest, on the other hand, are stunningly good, and some of the oldest in the country: Germantown Friends (god bless the Quakers), William Penn Charter School (Quakers again), and Chestnut Hill Academy (Catholics, this time). They all have beautiful campuses, and they're all feeder schools for the Ivies. Expensive? You bet. More than $10,000/year in tuition for each of 'em.

But wait -- let's break that figure down. First -- and most people still don't know this -- all three of those schools, like many private schools, offer scholarships and tuition assistance based on both merit and financial need. William Penn, at least, like the Ivy League, tries to cover the full distance between tuition and a family's ability to pay. That's why tuition is so high; the wealthy students (and alumni) subsidize the poorer ones.

Also, let's compare the costs of a top urban private school with those of a highly ranked suburban public. Montgomery County, just outside of Philadelphia, touts their public schools as a selling point for living there rather than in Philly. Now, I like Montgomery County, especially its small, older towns which have knit themselves together to form suburban patches like the Main Line (where The Philadelphia Story was set). But the reason why schools (and services) are so much better there than in Philadelphia is in large part because their tax base is different. On average, you would pay twice as much in property tax in Montgomery County than you would in Philadelphia for a house at the same market value: say, $4000/year instead of $2000 for a $200,000 home. The wage tax offsets this a little bit, but not by much, and most people who live in the Philly suburbs work in the city and pay the wage tax anyway.

Furthermore, a $200,000 home in Philadelphia would be a $400,000 home in a comparable neighborhood in Montgomery County or suburban New Jersey. Why? Mostly because the schools in the suburbs are so good. Of course they are: through millages, assessments and real estate inflation, you've paid the tuition for them, and then some. In Philadelphia at least, for what you've saved on your mortgage payment and property taxes, even with two kids, you're easily halfway to breaking even on private school tuition. Add school vouchers and you're home.

Wait a minute -- vouchers? That's right, I said it. Vouchers.

Like most of us, I'm a public school kid from a public school family: I have a brother and an aunt who both teach in public high schools in Michigan. Like most good liberals, I thought (and to a certain extent still think) that vouchers were just a way for conservatives to hit teachers' unions and sponsor religious education while ignoring the real problems plaguing public schools. But at age 25, I have to confess that when it comes to professing my faith in supporting against vouchers, I've become a complete agnostic. If you're really serious about 1) helping children stuck right now in failing schools and 2) keeping cities a viable place for middle-class people to raise a family, you have to give programs like vouchers and school-of-choice a fighting chance.

You can argue that these programs will just make the families most needed to support struggling schools opt out for more successful ones. Or that it will drain revenue away exactly where it's needed. But this would ignore the fact that both of these things are already happening. Families are pulling out of cities, and fleeing otherwise healthy neighborhoods with bad schools. This is like a cancer; in turn, it makes the neighborhood sick. Which erodes the tax base of the neighborhood. Which makes the schools worse. Etc.

So here's my supply-side model for why vouchers will work:
Revenue lost to private schools
will be less than or equal to
Revenue gained in property taxes.

In other words, people will be willing to 1) live in the city and 2) pay higher tax rates if they can send their kids to the schools they like. And in neighborhoods like mine, that means Germantown Friends and William Penn, both of which are an established, positive part of the community in a way that Germantown High School is not. Even if they don't wind up sending their kids en masse to the top-flight schools, or even to private schools, the fact that choice is possible reduces that factor in their choice to move to, stay or leave the city.

Or look at it this way: the debate over vouchers and public education is usually framed solely as a problem of education. But as Matt rightly points out, the failure of public education in the cities is a political and economic problem for the city as a whole as much as it as an educational problem for city children.

Let's propose this: rather than messing with public education statewide, let's limit the voucher program to the City of Philadelphia (or the city of Chicago, the city of Washington, etc.). And let's further limit the choice of schools to accredited private schools within city limits. I think this incentive could actually draw people to the city. If you're paying $5,000/year to send your kids to Catholic school in an inner-ring suburb in Montgomery or Delaware county, and Philadelphia offered a program where you could send your kids to any Philadelphia Catholic school for free, you just might consider moving back to the old neighborhood.

Now, I'm not writing off city public schools altogether. Actually, I have a pretty radical idea for reform there, too. But like most of my radical ideas, it's really just repurposed common sense: local, neighborhood-based control over public education.

Split the city into four school districts: the northwest, the northeast, West Philly, and Center City. All of these areas are roughly equal size, and have an equal mix of poor, middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods. They're just streamlined to compete with the area private schools. Big city school districts gain nothing by their consolidation. The school boards just dabble in local politics, bargaining power on concessions and building projects turns into padded graft for well-connected vendors, and families, teachers, administrators, and students feel like they have no control over what happens to them. Smaller schools and local control is what the charter school movement promises, even if it (usually) fails to deliver. Why can't public education in the cities try to co-opt this idea? Is it just that it might cost a few administrators their jobs?

Again, it's about keeping neighborhoods alive and vital. That's what makes cities special: the smaller communities and subcommunities that are carved out of the massive society of the city as a whole. Isn't that at least in part the failure of the postwar suburbs -- that giving names to subdivisions and arbitrarily drawing square boundary lines don't create any sense of self-containment or difference?

Whenever I think of the city, I think of Woody Allen's joke from Annie Hall: "Don't you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here." Communism, Jewishness, homosexuality, pornography -- if you add crime, it's everything that's dangerous and frightening about modernity, metonymically displaced on to the cities associated with them. The suburbs are the twentieth century's bulwark against itself. The twenty-first century is going to make us tear down some of those walls. I think our generation will be ready.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

More Recommended Reading

Just so you don't think The Onion is all I read, I've also been working my way through my newly-arrived copies of Blink and Freakonomics, along with two borrowed books: Civil War Soldiers (I've been on a Civil War kick) and Johnny Cash's autobiography.

Also recommended reading: the almost-always-perfect Edge.org's Pinker vs. Spelke debate on science and gender difference. It's a transcription (they also have audio and some video clips) of a debate at Harvard between hot-shit psychologists Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke in the wake of the Larry Summers fiasco.

Some important highlights:

1) Pundits and third-rate commentry aside, the whole blowup about what Summers said at Harvard has very little to do with any kind of gigantomachia between die-hard natural-determinist scientists and ball-breaking blank-slate gender constructivists. It's all about Harvard's hiring practices, and Summers's BS apologies for them. Harvard hasn't been giving what appear to be remarkably qualified women its tenure-track jobs in natural sciences. And Summers suggested that one explanation for this might be that at the very high end of mathematical and scientific ability, there might be more men than women. And almost everyone else at Harvard cried "Horseshit!" I think it's fair to say that Summers's answer is a horseshit response to the question being posed -- it sidesteps the whole question of whether or not the female candidates have been qualified, or rather, assumes that they weren't, and tries to explain why -- without taking a stance one way or the other as to whether it's just plain old horseshit, period.

2) Pinker's argument for the existence of sexual differences between men and women at any age, and the relevance of those differences for both cognitive activity and career choice is very good. But Spelke's argument that those differences do not necessarily translate into a competitive advantage for men over women in the practice of science is even better.

In other words, yes, the most crucial aspects of human psychology are biological and "innate" (in whatever sense we're using that word this century), and yes, a fair number of those aspects are tied to sexual difference. But none of those will in themselves make you a better or worse physics professor -- you know, unless all Harvard physics professors do is play with toy trucks instead of dolls. Is that where all our money for cyclotrons and particle accelerators is going?

Oh Onion, You Brought the Funny

It may be silly to link to an article from The Onion, but both "Scientology Losing Ground to New Fictionology" and "'Not Quite Perfect' McDonald's Opens in Illinois Outlet Mall" are keepers.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Social Security and Benefit Cuts in the Times

Three remarkable articles appeared in the NYT in the past two days. They're worth triangulating.

The first, by David Brooks, argues that Democrats are hypocritical not to support the Bush administration's proposed benefit cuts to Social Security. President Bush proposes to progressively index Social Security benefits, with the largest cuts going to people at the top of the wage scale. According to Brooks, this has been a Democrat idea for some time, and the Dems' opposition to it shows that they're less interested in promoting policy than in foiling the administration. This isn't necessarily bad news for the GOP, since it's a sign that Democrats are on the way to becoming an irrelevant opposition party, like the Tories in Britain.

The second, by Paul Krugman, appeared in today's Times. I loved this one. Krugman puts the smack down on Brooks and other conservatives' championing of the President's newfound populism by juxtaposing the proposed benefit cuts with the Republicans' earlier tax cuts. Not only do middle-class workers (say, those making $60,000 a year) face far steeper cuts in their Social Security benefits than they've received in tax cuts, but (surprise, surprise) millionaires' gains from tax cuts far outstrips their losses in Social Security.

This was the best moment of Krugman's article: "Suppose, finally, that you're making $1 million a year. You received a tax cut worth about $50,000 per year. By 2045 the Bush plan would reduce benefits for people like you by about $9,400 per year. We have a winner!" Another gem: "(T)o avert the danger of future cuts in benefits, Mr. Bush wants us to commit now to, um, future cuts in benefits. This accomplishes nothing, except, possibly, to ensure that benefit cuts take place even if they aren't necessary."

The third article isn't about Social Security, but Medicaid, which looks to get cut by about $10 billion over the next five years. This isn't coming directly from the Bush administration, but from the cash-strapped states. I always thought this was one of Howard Dean's better arguments during the 2004 campaign: that due to lack of federal funding for state-administered programs, lower- and middle-class Americans actually faced tax increases under the Bush administration, and that when benefits were cut, they invariably hit lower- and middle-class families hardest.

But here, too, there's a funny version of Republican "progressive cuts":

Under current law, Medicaid officials cannot charge co-payments to pregnant women and cannot charge for specific services like family planning and emergency care. For other services, the maximum co-payment is generally $3.

"These rules, which have not been updated since 1982, prevent Medicaid from utilizing market forces and personal responsibility to improve health care delivery," the governors say in the latest version of their policy statement.

Governors seek "broad discretion" to set premiums, co-payments and deductibles, subject to certain limits. Congress, they say, could establish "financial protections to ensure that beneficiaries would not be required to pay more than 5 percent of total family income."

A more modest proposal, the governors say, is to charge higher co-payments to families with incomes above certain levels, say $22,000 a year for a family of three. Or, they say, states could charge co-payments to deter the overuse of specific services, including inappropriate use of hospital emergency rooms.

Talk about "market forces." I guess Brooks would argue that the Democrats should cheer any proposal that would make pregnant mothers making more than $22,000 pay their fair share. After all, the repeal of the estate tax led analysts to start distinguishing between the rich and the super-rich; maybe Medicaid cutbacks will force us to distinguish between the poor and the super-poor. If you're just poor, then it's high time to learn personal responsibility. There's no better way to learn that than to be told to fork over 5 percent of your income when you take your kid to the emergency room and they turn out not to be as sick as you thought.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Mysterious Production of Eggs

For each of the past five years, I've happened to have not one, but two favorite albums. Last year, Brian Wilson's Smile and The Arcade Fire's Funeral paced the field; before that, it was White Blood Cells and Love and Theft (2001), Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002), and Chutes Too Narrow and Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State (2003). In each year, both albums shared certain preoccupations and musical ancestry, but took slightly (or widely) different approaches or attitudes towards them. They somehow both encapsulated the zeitgeist and escaped it.

If there's going to be a number 2 in 2005, it has its work cut out for it. I am compelled to declare that Andrew Bird's The Mysterious Production of Eggs is the best new album I've heard -- well, at least since Smile, which had the benefit of already being one of the greatest albums of all time almost forty years before its release. Mysterious Production can certainly go blow for blow with any of the earlier albums I've named and more besides. I've been listening to it virtually non-stop since early March and my delight has been renewed with each listen.

Bird, a virtuoso violinist and whistler, recorded the album with the help of his outstanding percussionist and his own generously layered but fresh-sounding strings, guitars, and vocals. I first saw Bird last year opening for The Magnetic Fields here in Philly. I was stunned: he performed his entire set accompanied only by his own violin, with arrangements built part-by-part in multiple loops controlled by an array of foot pedals. With that foundation, he added violin solos, acoustic and electric guitar, bells, and his stunning whistling. It's difficult to describe the power of Bird's whistling, other than it sounds simultaneously wholly organic and incapable of being produced by a human being. It's best heard live, or on his 2003 album Weather Systems.

The Mysterious Production of Eggs sounds like the Beatles album that may have been recorded if the Fab Four had found a way not only to balance their egos but morph into a single George Martin-guided, experimental-symphonic-pop troubadour. USA Today calls it "Beck meets Itzhak Perelman," but the album's most oddly recognizable musical signatures conjure the more adventursome moments from Revolver and Abbey Road, via the detour of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, Nick Drake's Bryter Layter, and Paul Simon of Graceland and elsewhere. If you're looking for more recent touchstones, it might suggest Jeff Buckley's Grace, Rufus Wainwright's Poses, Sondre Lerche's Two Way Monologue, and Bird's own beautiful but more subdued earlier albums.

I don't know much about what pop radio plays these days; if Bird's beautiful music hasn't fully taken it over by now, radio has officially reached its pinnacle of perversity. "Fake Palindromes" is the millenium's first genuinely brilliant three-minute single; its S&M-meets-fairy-tale message appears to be "Monsters will talk, monsters will walk the earth." This message is driven home by rapid-fire, then aching delivery, soaring guitars, and triumphant strings.

For the most of the album, though, the songs have a free-form or multiple-movement structure. Bird often introduces melodies, lyric refrains, or chord changes only to abandon them a few moments later. This all feels smooth and organic, however -- none of the glitch-happy rock-opera pretensions of last year's Blueberry Boat (which I liked). Again, it's much closer to the sort of thing you'd expect from The Beatles, Simon or Morrison. It still retains a potent dynamism: songs go from loud to soft, gentle to brutal and back again.

More often, one kind of change helps to mask another. Bird's Simonesque croon and musical optimism generally mask his lyrical violence: just as Simon buried his bitter divorce in the feel-good world music of Graceland, Bird manages to ruminate on nuclear holocaust, S&M, and the machinations of evil men in the context of a propulsive, folky pop album. If it were Thom Yorke singing "We'll give you a complex and we'll give you a name," or "I'm gonna drill a tiny hole into your head," Mysterious Production would sound a lot darker; with Bird's Simon-meets-Buckley-meets-Wainwright singing and songwriting in the spotlight, the apocalyptic meditations feel warm and even personal without lapsing into preciousness.

The other lyrical comparisons one could make would be to The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, or late-70s David Byrne. In particular, Bird's managed to resurrect a narrative staple of Byrne's: the false apocalypse. If Bird shares Yorke's dystopic preoccupations, he also shares Byrne's (and Simon's) ability to put a smiling and quotidian, if ironic, face on it. If one were to read Mysterious Production of Eggs as a concept album, it would tell a story of the aftermath of nuclear war, conceived with repurposed imagery of the Christian endtimes

Consider "Sovay"'s dulcet depiction of bubble-headed warmongering:

All those Don Quixotes and their B-17's /... /
they're acting on vagaries /
With their violent proclivities /
And they're playing 'Ride of the Valkyries.'
The martial theme returns on the aptly titled "MX Missile Proof," with its "legionnaires marching 2 by 4 / And they're marching off to war." "A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left" follows, beginning:
We had survived /
To turn on the History channel /
And ask our esteemed panel /
Why we are alive /
And here's what they replied /
You're what happens when two substances collide /
And by all accounts you really should have died.
Similarly, "Masterfade" is addressed to a character who looks "up at the sky, and all you see are zeroes and ones," and asks, "What's the matter / If we're all matter / What's the matter if we're matter when we die?"

"Opposite Day" is probably the song that most clearly references some kind of apocalyptic moment:
I got up this morning /
With the sunlight in my eyes /
And there was no warning /
As it took me by surprise /
And it hit me like an act of God /
And caused my alarm /
That I had not become a cephalopod /
I still had legs and arms... /
Today was supposed to be the day /
That molecules decide to change their form /
Laws of physics lose their sway...
But "Opposite Day" also introduces a new wrinkle: the possibility of a genuinely apocalyptic, i.e., a holy day of judgment. The second verse begins:
Those that can't quite function/
In society at large /
They're going to wake up on this morning /
And find that they're in charge /
While those who are set up for /
Who are really doing quite well /
They're going to wake up in institutions /
Prisons or in hell.
Another way of saying the last shall be first, and the first shall be last; the original opposite day. Bird hints at this interpretation at the end of the song, when the song structure changes into an old jazz number, and he jokes:
Well if you think there's something else /
Well, you're right, there is/
There's something else /
But if you think I'm going to tell you /
Think again /
Why should I even bother telling you what there is/ ... /
I'm under explicit orders to dare not speak its name.
While "Opposite Day"is menacing stuff, I draw great comfort from "Tables and Chairs," the album's penultimate track. "Tables and Chairs" fits beautifully into the anticlimactic apocalypse tradition established by "Graceland" and Talking Heads' "Nothing but Flowers." Bird admonishes us (with an allusion to Byrne's "Air"),
Don't you worry /
About the atmosphere /
Or any /
Sudden pressure change /
Because I know /
That it's starting /
To get warm in here /
And things are /
Starting to get strange.
Bad news again. But it's all resolved and lovingly accepted in the wonderful bridge, when the rhythm rebuilds, and Bird beautifully intones:
I know we're going to meet someday /
In the crumbling financial institutions of this land /
There'll be tables and chairs, /
There'll be pony rides and dancing bears /
There'll even be a band /
'Cause listen, after the fall /
There'll be no more countries /
No currencies at all /
We're going to live off our wits /
Gonna throw away survival kits... /
And there will be snacks, there will /
There will be snacks, there will... be /
There will be snacks.
Like Radiohead, like The Beatles, Bird has given us a glimpse at the future of music -- simultaneously traditional and adventurous -- which is at the same time a glimpse at the future itself. The Mysterious Production of Eggs transcends both the paranoia and the easy solutions of our own present through a complete yet intimate and stunningly imaginative vision of the world. I don't know if Bird is a closet Christian, a war hawk or dove, or just churning out smart-sounding nonsense. None of this generation's political, futurist, or religious songwriters -- not Thom Yorke, nor Wayne Coyne, Win Butler, Ben Gibbard, Conor Oberst, Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, or Issak Brock -- are writing music with the skill, assurance, energy, and ambition that Bird displays on this album. It makes me deliriously happy to see it.