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Bangkok's Street Vendors Are Not the Enemies of Public Space

For a moment, it seemed like Bangkok was going to lose the very street food culture that’s defined the city for decades. Local newspaper The Nation reported last Tuesday that the city was planning to ban food stalls in all 50 of its districts as part of an effort to “clean up” the streets and “return the pavements to the pedestrians.” All would disappear by end of this year—the sweet and sticky aroma of coconut (a staple Thai ingredient), the sizzle of noodles hitting the wok as vendors fire up an order of pad thai, and the chaotic charm that draws some 20 to 30 million international tourists to the city each year.

After a public outcry, garnering media attention across the globe, Thailand’s chief of tourism was quick to clarify. Vendors wouldn’t be totally barred from the streets, Uthasak Supasorn, the head of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, told Agence France-Presse. “Bangkok has some of the best street food in the world, [and] you cannot take it away from the people of the world,” he said. Instead, Bangkok Metropolitan Authority will set more regulations to improve food safety and waste management while enforcing measures to unclog sidewalks from “obstructions” like food carts, chairs, and umbrellas. Already, according to AFP, almost two-thirds of the city’s 30,000 street vendors have been removed or relocated to open up space.

“These are real planning problems for cities,” says Krishnendu Ray, a food studies professor at New York University who’s currently researching the legal and cultural aspects of the global street food scene. “They often emerge from dealing with overcrowding in cities [as a result of] population growth and a boom in car ownership—which is putting a squeeze on the street.”

Yet food hawkers aren’t the enemies of public space, at least not according to a 2015 survey on the walkability of Bangkok. Most of the 1,000-plus respondents said bulky advertisements, construction materials, and broken sidewalks were the major obstacles to walking.

Regardless, critics say the crackdown on Bangkok’s street vendors is an attempt to turn the city’s sidewalks into ones resembling Singapore’s pristine stretches (starting in the 1970s, the island nation relocatedhawkers to more than 100 food centers).

These decisions are the result of a strategy called traditional developmentalism. “That’s the idea that street vending is backwards and disorganized, and a phase that should be transcended by grocery stores and indoor markets and restaurants,” Ray says. “In Bangkok, vendors tend to be rural-to-urban migrants, who are seen as poor and not knowing city etiquette. So they need to be disciplined about trash disposal and how to use city spaces.” The belief is further mixed with the notion that sidewalks are “for things to flow through, not stop at,” he adds.

In fact, Thailand’s efforts go as far back as the 1970s—even as its tourism department advertised its foodie culture to the world. And it’s mirrored in many major U.S. cities, too. Food hawkers in Los Angeles, for example, have long been embroiled in a battle with the city government over their legality, and in New York, the long process to obtain a permit means vendors risk hefty fines and even arrest.

And city planners in Thailand aren’t the only ones who have looked to the Singaporean model. (Hong Kong, for example, has followed it as well, moving dai pai dongs, or open-air food stalls, indoors into food centers.)The hawker center strategy may be harder to pull off in Bangkok, Ray says. For one thing, the public’s affinity for the culture is what Ray calls a cross-class dynamic—lower-class street vendors are also feeding the middle class, who will almost certainly put pressure on the government when that cheap convenience is taken away.

Plus, according to Ray, an estimated 2 percent the population in a city like Bangkok is involved in hawking. With some 8 million people in Bangkok, that means there could be as many as 160,000 street vendors. “It's very difficult to completely marginalize such a large urban population,” he says. “Can you provide an alternative to them, or are you going to drive poor people deeper into the shadows? What is the intermediate step in moving from, say, 500,000 street vendors to none at all?”

Then there’s the question of Bangkok’s frenzied charm, which grew organically out of the need to give lower-income families a source of livelihood and to get people fed. That charm disappears, though, if the government takes too much control of the space, dictating which stalls should open where and what kind of stalls should populate an area. "If so much attention is paid to curation and not enough to the livelihood and lives or poor people, it becomes kind of a sanitized space that I find mostly uninteresting,” Ray says. “And then we will develop a kind of nostalgia about street life.”

The Donald Trump Cabinet Tracker

Updated on April 24, 2017 at 6:18 p.m. ET

It may have taken nearly 100 days, but President Trump is poised to have his full Cabinet in place by the end of the week.

The Senate on Monday evening approved former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue to be agriculture secretary, culminating a lengthy search by the Trump administration and a confirmation process that lasted just as long. The vote was 87-11, as the veteran Republican generated little controversy despite the delays in his appointment.

Perdue was the last Cabinet nominee that Trump announced, coming just a day before he took office in January. As Molly Ball reported, the delay unsettled the agriculture industry as the president-elect cast about for either a woman or a Hispanic to diversify his Cabinet. The nomination of Perdue, whose cousin is GOP Senator David Perdue, pleased most conservatives with the possible exception of Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, who had been pushing Trump to pick someone from a Midwest farm state rather than the South. Perdue encountered even more delays after Trump’s announcement; the president did not formally send his nomination to the Senate for several weeks, forcing him to wait until after the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and a subsequent two-week recess to receive a final vote.

Later this week, the Senate is expected to fill out Trump’s Cabinet by confirming Alexander Acosta to serve a labor secretary. Acosta has faced only modest opposition from Democrats after the president’s first choice for the post, Andrew Puzder, withdrew amid opposition from lawmakers in both parties.

While Trump is far behind his recent predecessors in filling senior posts in the government overall, he will have his full Cabinet in place at about the same time former President Barack Obama did in 2009. While the bulk of Obama’s choices won confirmation on or shortly after his inauguration, his first secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebellius, did not start her job until his 99th day in office because of the withdrawal of former Senator Tom Daschle over tax issues.

The Senate hasn’t formally rejected a Cabinet pick since it voted down President George H.W. Bush’s nomination of John Tower for defense secretary in 1989. But no new president has gotten all of their nominees confirmed in the last 30 years; those that become enmeshed in controversy or partisan brinkmanship (it’s often both) usually withdraw before a vote. Trump has lost one so far.

Bipartisan Support of Public Goods Made America Great

All Americans are lucky to live in a country brimming with public resources that everyone can share. (image)

Many are provided by government and funded with our tax dollars, such as the highways that crisscross the country, the 84 million acres of national parks and the roughly 100,000 public schools that give all children access to education.

Others come from nature, like mountains, lakes and rivers, which also depend on a reliable government and meaningful regulations to preserve and protect them.

While the collective value of these “public goods” is probably incalculable, the economic impact of schools, clean air, and vast highways has been significant. In fact, I would argue that public goods are what have made America great.

Unfortunately, our stock of public goods has been declining for half a century, particularly those that require the government’s purse strings. President Trump’s proposed budget would make things even worse by cutting, among many other things, funding for national parks, the cleanup of the Great Lakes and efforts to minimize climate change.

So if Trump is serious about making America as great as it can be, investing in our public goods—as well as those equally vital ones we share with other nations—would be a good place to start.

The formal definition of a public good is that it’s something that is nonexcludable and nonrivalrous. That’s a fancy way of saying that everyone can take advantage of it and that one person’s use doesn’t reduce its availability to others.

Setting aside natural public goods for a moment, the ones provided by the government have been on the decline. U.S. public capital investment, net of depreciation, fell to just 0.4 percent of GDP in 2014 from 1.7 percent in 2007 and about 3 percent in the 1960s.

A particularly critical subset of this, research and development spending, has been the bedrock of innovation and growth in our economy. It has dropped from a high of 2.1 percent of GDP in 1964 (during the Cold War and space race) to less than 0.8 percent in recent years.

(image)Railroad officials and employees celebrate the completion of the first railroad transcontinental link in Prementory, Utah, in 1869. (Andrew Russell/AP)

A history of public goods investment

This erosion has persisted through both Republican and Democratic administrations. But it was not always this way, as the bipartisan history of our biggest undertakings attests.

The transcontinental railroads, though privately built in the mid-1800s, were heavily subsidized by generous grants of federal land under several presidents and was vital to 19th-century economic growth. As one illustration, before the railroads, it took almost six months and $1,000 to travel from New York to California. Afterward, it cost just a week and $150.

Similar gains came after 20th-century presidents invested heavily in public works. Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, established the National Park Service in 1916, a few years after Republican Theodore Roosevelt greatly expanded their number. U.S. parks are now responsible for more than $200 billion a year in economic activity.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the quintessential Democrat, built schools, post offices, libraries and many other public buildings in the 1930s. And Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower created the interstate highway system that bears his name in what was the biggest public works project in history. In 1996, an estimate put its total economic benefit at well over $2 trillion, or about six times the original cost.

(image)President Eisenhower, right, receives recommendations for his federal-state highway program in 1955. (Byron Rollins/AP)

Why we stopped investing

But since the 1960s, the bipartisan consensus in support of public goods has broken down, as the right’s pressure to cut taxes and the left’s efforts to expand entitlements squeezed the discretionary part of the budget—from which support for public goods comes.

Both parties have moved further from the center, where bipartisanship resides and makes large public works projects easier to build and fund. Meanwhile, a focus on reducing spending has meant that many once public goods have been fully or partially privatized.

Finally, research has shown that ethnic and racial heterogeneity reduces support for public goods such as trash collection and public education because the dominant groups don’t like the idea of sharing these resources with the newcomers. In other words, racism seems to play a role.

(image)A man walks through the lobby of the U.N. Headquarters building during the United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S. The U.N. has been an important steward of international public goods. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Sharing internationally

A bright spot for public goods has been those shared across borders, which have proliferated since World War II.

The U.S. took the lead in establishing some of the key international institutions—such as the United Nations and the World Bank—that provide public goods to the world. Healthy oceans, a stable climate and cross-border money transfers require international coordination for their protection.

Perhaps the most critical global public good is peace. While there have been many regional wars, a third world conflict has been avoided, in no small measure because, in the aftermath of World War II, the United States undertook to stabilize key regions of the world through military expenditures, strategic alliances like NATO, and economic assistance. Although increasingly frayed and fragile, these arrangements, dubbed the Pax Americana, have so far held.

The broadest, if not the sturdiest, steward of public goods has been the United Nations and its associated agencies. Freedom of navigation, for example, is protected by the U.N.‘s Law of the Sea. The United States also led in the creation of the World Trade Organization, which sets the rules for international trade and the settlement of disputes.

(image)Imagine a country without public parks, like Millennium Park in Chicago, where this man poses for a picture standing on his head against the Cloud Gate public sculpture. Some countries aren’t so lucky. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Turning our backs?

Now, not only does the Trump administration wish to significantly slash spending on already deteriorating U.S. public goods, it wants to cut funding for global institutions such as the U.N. as well. One exception is his plan to invest in infrastructure, but little of the $1 trillion total would actually come from the federal government.

This is a supreme irony given the benefits our country derives from public goods, from the parks and highways to the global institutions that support trade and other international public goods.

Imagine for a second what life would be like if you didn’t have the public park down the street where you can play freely with your children. Or if the rivers and lakes you swim in returned to the more polluted levels common in the past. Or if our public schools were public no longer.

Put simply, investing in public goods has served America well through the years. It would be a huge mistake to turn our backs on it.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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