Tuesday, December 4, 2012

We Were There All Along

The chattering classes seem to have reached yet another consensus.  This one has to do with what happened to the Obama army after the 2008 election.  Briefly the narrative arc is that we felt our job was done, and we pulled up stakes and went home.

That's not quite the way it was.  We were sent home.  We were undeniably weary, but we were ready to continue.

My wife and I labored for Obama in 2008, as well as this year.  After the inauguration in 2009, we even held a healthcare house party,  filling out forms and mailing them in, as requested.  We received a polite thank-you, and then basically nothing.

The President at that time was in his post-partisan phase, cuddling up to the conservatives.  His focus seemed to shift inside the Beltway.  We saw the need for a permanent campaign that dealt with issues as well as elections, but the idea didn't seem to have any resonance inside the White House.

I asked my friend Wendell Potter,  the healthcare reformer and author of Deadly Spin, what I should do, and he suggested I contact Health Care for America Now.  I did, and in February 2010 wound up walking, as part of a group of eight, from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., in support of healthcare reform -- 135 miles, as I recall.

In Washington, we had a rally attended by a number of senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid.  The White House was conspicuously absent.

I'm very glad the President now seems to have accepted the concept of a permanent campaign.  We were there all along, and so were the Republicans.

I think this was the greatest mistake of President Obama's first term.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Pennsylvania 2014. How do we avoid the debacle of 2010?

1.  We need an inspirational leader.  Obama won't be on the ballot.  We have a problem.  I don't have a solution.

2.  We need support from D. C.  When Joe Sestak beat Joe Biden's friend, Arlen Specter, in the primary, D.C. seemed to lose interest in us. 

3.  We need unity in Pennsylvania.  My impression was that there was a lot of factional bickering in 2010.

4.  We need to rebuild or replace the Philadelphia Democratic Party.  The local party seems content to win local races with low turnout and no competition.  That actually seems to be their business model.  OFA -- Obama's army -- produced the turnout in 2008 and 2012.

Houston, we have a problem.  Or four.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Uncorking the Bottleneck

Earlier this year, back in the spring, I was finishing up a loop on my bike.  For those of you who are not from Philadelphia, the loop is a lovely path and roadway in Fairmount Park that extends upstream on the west side of the Schuylkill River (this side is called Martin Luther King Drive) and down the east side of the river (Kelly Drive, after an ancestor of Grace Kelly).  There's an upstream bridge connecting the two sides, called the Falls Bridge (there are no falls, but that's another story).  The downstream link is anchored by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a truly amazing array of asphalt spaghetti, which goes by the collective name of Eakins Oval.

The loop itself is often characterized as 8.2 miles, although, this being Philadelphia, you can get an argument on that.  You can get an argument on anything in Philadelphia.  The round-trip from my house, which occasionally involves cordial exchanges of invective with taxi drivers, is about 12 miles.

Anyway, as I said, it was spring, the time of new things; a lovely day, the trees were freshly green, and I wasn't overly tired - and I was coming downstream on Kelly Drive through an area just short of the Art Museum called Boathouse Row.

The Denizens
I think at this point I should talk about the extraordinary mix of traffic that coexists on the loop, and generally gets along pretty well, even cheerfully.  There are bicyclists, runners, in-line skaters (I think fewer of these in recent years), a smattering of skateboarders (they're generally looking for hills), people on scooters, pedestrians, and pedestrians with dogs.  The pedestrians with dogs on extendable leashes deserve a category of their own.  I remember standing, my cleats firmly planted on the earth, and saying to a dog owner, "I'm trying, ma'am.  Really I am."  At any rate I managed not to kill her dog or myself.

Boathouse Row is the home, not surprisingly, of the boaters.  They're quite beautiful out on the river, rowing their boats up and down.  These are the long, skinny boats that take as many as eight rowers and someone called a coxswain, who steers and screams at the rowers. 

Occasionally the rowers need to load their boats onto trailers parked on Kelly Drive.  This involves carrying them out of the boathouse and across the path, which is about fourteen feet wide at this point.  The rowers are quite certain that they have the right of way, and because there are a lot of them, and they're young and strong, I always agree.

Boathouse Row is a bottleneck.  You never know quite what's going to cork it, but you should always be prepared to stop on short notice.  I had processed all this, and was at peace with it.

A New Arrival
Then, there it was.  I think we may have been by the Vesper boathouse (many of the boathouses have wonderful names).  My first thought was of the surrey with the fringe on top, from the Broadway show Oklahoma.  But there were no horses.  It was a large, four-wheeled vehicle that seemed to be propelled by the people in the front seat.  Pedaling.  Just like me.  Only it was forty inches wide (I later measured one), and with children on board.  I uncleated from my pedals, braked, and put my feet on the ground.

There was no way to pass.  The oncoming traffic was a solid, and I thought rather grim, mass.  The surrey in front of me - they actually are called surreys - was having a conversation and had rolled to a stop.  I stood patiently.

Actually, I was panicking.  I've been running and riding the loop for more years than I care to remember, and I was seeing it come to an end.

Eventually, the surrey moved ahead, and I cleated in and floated along behind it.  As we got to Lloyd Hall, at the end of Boathouse Row, I saw that the bicycle rental shed had been moved and transformed.  These folks had dozens of surreys for rent.  My heart sank.

Then I took a breath.   The people riding these things were very happy.  Their kids were thrilled.  It was a whole new way to enjoy the loop, which in the past has frankly not been terribly child friendly.

The loop is for everyone, I told myself.  It should be for everyone.  So how do we do this so everyone enjoys it and nobody dies?

Where Do All These People Come From?
I went home and thought.  (First I took a shower.)  The traffic on the loop has increased dramatically since the opening of a trail, called the Schuylkill Banks, that runs downriver to Locust Street, at the end of Center City.  Think of the Schuylkill Banks as a firehose belching the people of Center City out onto Kelly Drive.

And the demographics of Center City have changed pretty dramatically.  There are a lot more young people, and many of them seem actually to enjoy breaking a sweat.  Stylishly, of course.

There are those who suggest that the increase in park traffic is a result of the recession:  Money's tight, the beach is out, so are the mountains - hey, let's check out the park.  Surely there's something to this, but I don't buy the implication that park visits will decline if the economy ever improves. 

Go and have a look at the people who are actually using the loop.  If you have been thinking that Kelly Drive is largely populated by what Emma Lazarus called the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, you will find yourself thinking again.  I'm inclined to believe that people riding $3,000 bikes can get to the beach if they want to.  Maybe in the south of France. 

(The Lazarus quote is on the base of the Statue of Liberty - odd how we used to welcome the "wretched refuse" of other countries and no longer seem inclined to do so.  Personally I think the loop would benefit from greater economic and ethnic diversity, but just now I'm trying to describe things as they are.)

Let's face it.  We Philadelphians have a huge success on our hands.  Now all we need to do is follow through.  That means, among other things, lightening the burden on Boathouse Row.

The Long Term
The obvious long-term solution is already on the drawing board, and parts of it have actually been built.

Let's go back to the Schuylkill Banks.  In fact, let's go to the base of Locust Street.  This is where all those Center City people enter the park.  They cross the CSX railroad tracks, and then they all turn right onto the path, which goes not just to Kelly Drive but all the way out to Valley Forge.  If you're feeling energetic.

Nobody turns left.  There's no place to go.  You can go upstream on the Schuylkill Banks from Locust Street, but you can't go downstream.

Actually, some people do turn left.  You can go a few feet before you run into a chain link fence.  And then you can gaze downriver, towards the South Street Bridge.  And you can dream.

You will not be alone.  The dream is for a path that will run downriver, past the South Street Bridge, jump to the other bank of the Schuylkill (using an existing bridge), head to Bartram's Garden (one of the city's most undervisited treasures because it's currently so hard to get to), and eventually end near the airport at Fort Mifflin, a historic site that dates back to the Revolution. 

One part, south of the South Street Bridge, was recently completed.  It's called the DuPont Crescent, and it's currently a nice neighborhood park waiting to be connected to the larger trail.  Another piece, a boardwalk over the river connecting the current trailhead at Locust Street with the South Street Bridge, is scheduled to start construction soon. 

I very much look forward to the day when I can ride a bicycle from Locust Street to Fort Mifflin.  But let's face it.  That day is years from now.  It'll be fabulous when it comes, but the Left-Hand Trail won't be uncorking Boathouse Row anytime soon.

Hunting for a Corkscrew
Let's go back to the loop, and see if there's a quick fix.  A cheap, quick fix.  Quick because the crowding is there now, and cheap because the city is currently broke.  Elegant solutions that cost a lot of money will not be built.

On the east bank of the Schuylkill, on Kelly Drive, there's no space.  The pathway is already doubled from the Connecting Railway Bridge upstream to just short of the Strawberry Mansion Bridge.  (For you art lovers, the Connecting Railway Bridge dominates the background of Thomas Eakins' famous 1871 painting Max Schmitt in a Single Scull.)

Upstream of Strawberry Mansion, the path wedges tightly between Kelly Drive and a retaining wall that keeps me from falling into the river.  And, of course, there is no more room on Boathouse Row.  None at all.

Okay, guess what?  There's space over on the west bank. Martin Luther King Drive is four miles of roadway that is, frankly, underutilized by automobiles.

The city has recognized this.  Quite a few years ago, the city closed MLK Drive to automotive traffic on the weekends - just during the day, and only from April to October. 

It's a wonderful thing.  I can hop on my bike in the morning, cruise up the Schuylkill Banks, and then enter a green park space filled with old trees and running next to a river.  For bikers and runners, I submit this is close to nirvana.  If you're not interested in nirvana, I can talk about elbow room.

There's a spirit to it - possibly what Emma Lazarus meant by breathing free.  And it's not just the usual suspects.  The Philadelphia Rowing Club for the Disabled launches squadrons of hand-cyclists from its boathouse near Black Road.  And whole families show up on their bikes - moms, dads, peewee tots in profusion.

Originally the Drive was closed to virtually all automotive traffic all day on Saturday and Sunday.  (My impression is that there were always exceptions, such as people going to the disabled rowers' club.)  Local residents objected, however, and now the full length is closed only until noon.  At that point the downstream portion opens from Sweetbriar down to the bridge over the Schuylkill (I'll be calling this the MLK bridge).

On weekend afternoons, the automotive traffic on the lower portion is extremely light, to the point of evanescence.  That's because the only upstream access point is Sweetbriar.  People who drive on MLK Drive generally go the whole length.  They want to get on at Falls Bridge and barrel down to Eakins Oval, or vice versa.

I suppose I could suggest making the lower portion of MLK Drive once again "closed for recreation" on weekend afternoons.  "Closed for recreation" is how the radio puts it.  The automobile traffic doesn't justify keeping it open for cars, and there's significant demand from "recreationists." 

But I'm not going to do it.  The fight the last time was too vitriolic.  I don't want to revisit that ugliness.

In eighteenth century England, there was a famous landscape architect called Capability Brown.  Actually his first name was Lancelot; he got his nickname because he liked to tell his potential clients that their estates had "capability."  I think Brown would have liked Martin Luther King Drive.

Let's take a closer look at this asphalt phenomenon.  Both the upstream and downstream sides of MLK Drive vary between one and two lanes.  (At its very end, the southbound part blimps out to three lanes for a few feet.)

The upstream part starts by the Art Museum as one lane and stays that way almost to Sweetbriar, by the zoo, where it sprouts a turning lane just before the light.  This second lane continues after the light.  I have no idea why, since one lane has been perfectly sufficient to this point.  Near the upstream end, the engineers finally admit that the second lane is unnecessary.  Three very large bridges cross MLK Drive and the Schuylkill River at that point, and the large piers for these bridges only allow space for one lane in each direction.  After these bridges, as the upstream roadway approaches the Falls Bridge, the second lane reappears, again as a turning lane.  The upstream side of MLK Drive is one lane for nearly a third of its length.

The downstream roadway is more capacious, but again there is only one lane going under the three bridges.  Again begging the question of whether the second lane is necessary.  Two lanes it is, though, all the way down to and across the MLK bridge.  As I mentioned, the final bit, leading into Eakins Oval in from of the Art Museum, actually expands to three lanes.  Why have grass when you can have asphalt?

There are intermediate access points on MLK Drive, most notably Montgomery and Sweetbriar, which actually have traffic lights.  And cars do get on and off.  But not a lot.  As I mentioned, most of the traffic shoots from one end to the other. 

MLK Drive is best analyzed as a straw.  What goes in one end comes out the other end.

Americans are raised on the concept of limitless possibilities, so let me throw a few bromides in the way.  A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  The capacity of a straw is determined by its narrowest point.

And the narrowest point of MLK Drive is the section that passes under the three bridges at its upstream end.  One lane in each direction.  I can tell you right now that nobody is going to move those bridge piers.  So the capacity of this road, unless we have a nuclear war, is one lane in each direction.

A second lane is useful for turning - I get that - and also for passing , which of course leads to abrupt lane changes and speeding.  The speed limit on MLK Drive is 35 miles an hour. Let us examine our consciences here.  If we're serious about 35 mph, and the actual volume of cars has already been determined by the choke point, what do we need passing lanes for?

I suppose at this point I should argue for taking the excess paved space on MLK Drive and turning it into a bike lane.  But I'm not going to.  It's a perfectly good idea, easy to implement from a technical point of view, and perhaps one day it will happen.  I just don't feel like dealing with the Society of People Who Like to Drive Really Fast on MLK Drive.  Life is too short.

My Bright Idea
So here's my bright idea.  Kelly Drive, on the east side of the river, is crowded.  MLK Drive, on the west side of the river, is usually not crowded.  Why?

You can get an idea by standing on lower MLK Drive at noon on a Saturday or Sunday.  The Schuylkill Banks winds its way up a hill and presents recreationists with a choice.   Continue on to Boathouse Row and Kelly Drive, and never have to share the road with motorists.  Or go to MLK Drive, where the situation depends on the time.

At 11:59 a.m., you, your spouse, and your children can roll off the Schuylkill Banks and onto the three lanes of MLK Drive, with nary a car in sight.  And you can then ride for four miles, surrounded only by other recreationists.

That's 11:59 a.m.  Fast forward to 12 noon.  Here come the cars - not so many, as I mentioned, but enough to put fear in the heart of a mom.  I could mention an accident in May of 2009, but I won't.

So how do you get up to what's left of nirvana, the part of the drive upstream of Sweetbriar that's still devoted to recreation?

Here's how you do it.  You get on the single sidewalk that crosses MLK bridge.  It's on the upriver side, and it's 58 inches wide.  I know.  I measured it.  Two inches shy of five feet, and it's two-way.

Virtually all the recreational traffic in both directions gets pushed onto this sidewalk.  A few hardy bikers will go in the roadway, but the cars are going very rapidly and there's only one lane on the upstream side, next to the sidewalk, so it's not for the faint of heart.

Basically, this stretch over the bridge doesn't pass the cat's whiskers test.  Cats stick their whiskers into a mousehole to see whether their head can get through.  I think bicycle handlebars can do the same thing.  Only they don't bend.  The handlebars on my old bike are 24 inches wide.  Throw in an oncoming bike with 24-inch handlebars, and you've got 48 inches in a 58-inch space.  Plus runners and walkers.  There are no dogs on extendable leashes here, and I think you can see why.

Okay.  On the bridge there are three lanes of automotive traffic, one upstream and two downstream.  I've already suggested that the second downstream lane is unnecessary.  If it were necessary, you'd expect to see two lanes in the other direction as well.  People go to town to work, and then they actually do go home.  So, two in means two out.  Only here we have two in and one out.  I don't get it.

So let's get some white paint and make a bicycle lane.  It can be for runners and walkers and all the other recreational users as well - even the surreys and the dogs on extendable leashes. 

At the upstream end of the bridge, a good-hearted construction crew years ago left the curb quite low.  Bikes have no trouble crossing it as it is, and then you're on a decent path that takes you to the Falls Bridge.

All this requires is a few gallons of paint.  There's no construction involved.  And then there would be plenty of room for everyone - and not just on weekends.  This repainting would make MLK Drive highly accessible seven days a week. 

And guess what?  You just - pop! - uncorked Boathouse Row and Kelly Drive.  The people are flowing like champagne at a Main Line wedding.

And Finally
I've run ten marathons on two continents, and I've trained for all of them out on the loop.  I cannot tell you what a jewel this strip of parkland is.  I don't know of any city in the country that has anything better.  I've run the loop on the Charles River in Boston, and it's a lot of fun, but I prefer Philly.  In New York I've run Central Park, Prospect Park, and the Hudson River park.  They're all great, but they're not better than Philly.  We have a gem.  We should keep it sparkling.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

I fell in a hole and it hurt

There I was, at the pickup counter in my local pharmacy. The pharmacist, a handsome young man about my daughter's age, raised an eyebrow as he looked at the label he had just printed, and allowed as how I had a pretty big copay this time around.

$230.30, to be exact. That's ten cases of St. Pauli Girl beer at Philly prices, if you'd like some context. For one Advair Diskus.

The Advair Diskus is a neat device. I will grant you that. But the one I'd gotten a month before had cost me $0 - that's zero dollars - and I was unprepared.

What happened? I fell into a donut hole. The most famous donut hole is the one in the Medicare prescription plan, but these days there are donut holes everywhere in health insurance, and not just in prescription plans.

The idea behind this plan design is that people tend to use too much healthcare. So the plan erects a roadblock, aka the donut hole. If you're healthy during the year and don't go to the doctor too much - maybe the internist for a checkup, the dermatologist, the eye doctor - it's all free. But if you go beyond that, as I did, all of a sudden you're paying for everything - 100 percent instead of zero percent. Then, if you're really sick, the plan relents and you only have to pay, say, 40 percent of the bills.

The donut hole is supposed to alter your behavior. It's supposed to make you stop and think about whether you really need this particular medical treatment. The plan wants you to say no.

So what happened in my case? I left the Advair at the counter and went home and contacted my doctor, using the fancy new secure email system that his practice has. It turns out that there's nothing less expensive that's as effective for what I have.

What I have is a little perplexing, but we've agreed to call it exercise-induced asthma. It turns out there may be a downside to running long distances in all weather.

In the end I went back to the pharmacy and bought the Advair. They had it waiting for me. They knew.

The donut hole got me to stop, and to search for alternatives, but it didn't alter my actual behavior one iota. Just my mood.

Why didn't the donut hole work? Because the premise of the donut hole is false. People simply don't buy healthcare the way they buy a car. Price sensitivity in medicine is very low. If you've ever had a child with asthma, and watched him say, "Mommy, I can't breathe," you'll know why.

People pay until they can't. When it comes to medical care, using price to motivate is a failed experiment.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Opening Old Wounds

"Women want to have sex." Not pulling our punches today, I thought as I watched the old lady standing at the podium. I had the feeling she'd waited half a lifetime to say that.

It was December 2, 2009. I'd ridden down to D.C. from Philly on a packed bus that had three men on it, including the driver. It was Stop Stupak! Day, and people came from all over the country to protest against yet another attack on abortion rights. Bart Stupak, a Democratic congressman, had proposed the Stupak Amendment to President Obama's health-care reform bill, and here we were in a large caucus room in a Senate office building, articulating the many ways in which we thought the good congressman was misguided.

Will the young women fight? It's a question that gets asked at regular intervals. The underlying thought is that women fought and won the big battles a generation and two generations ago, and young women today, not having any experience of the way things were, tend to a certain complacency.

Well, there were a lot of young women in Washington that day, and they were hardly complacent. In fact, although respectful of their elders, they were quite noisy.

So here we are more than two years later, and now it's contraception. The Affordable Care Act says contraceptives get covered. The Catholic bishops say, Wait a minute. What about our freedom of religion?

There are days when I actually feel sorry for the president. He deserves a better opposition. It rapidly became clear that the argument wasn't about religious freedom. It was about sexual freedom. And religious authority.

Will the young women fight? You bet. And the old ones too.

I confess the bishops baffle me. Why have they chosen this ground to fight on? I think it's a colossal mistake.

On the other hand, maybe they're just acting in character. I guess if you're infallible, the concept of overreaching does not compute.

Take the face-off with Henry VIII, for instance. I can understand how the pope might have been annoyed by Henry's serial polygamy. I myself have reservations about his treatment of women. But when the pope refused to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry's riposte was to move his whole country from the C column to the P column. As Henry's marital difficulties were occurring in the middle of the Protestant Reformation, and losing countries to the Ps was an ongoing concern, you would think the pope - the Big C, if you will - might have found a way to keep Henry on board.

By the way, Henry didn't just make himself the head of the Church of England. He also dissolved the monasteries - an act which has been called the largest transfer of wealth in England after the Norman Conquest. Guess who got the money. I'll give you a hint. His name begins with an H.

Then there was the little dust-up with Galileo. Galileo thought the earth moved around the sun. The church thought the sun moved around the earth. Bertold Brecht wrote a play about it, called Galileo, which was recently revived in New York. Talk about buying yourself 380 years of bad press.

I suspect the Inquisition could have found a way out with Galileo. After all, it was okay to think that the earth was round. Mariners knew you always saw a ship's sails before you saw its hull, as it came over the horizon. So why not cut Galileo some slack? The effect on popular belief would likely have been minimal. After all, we still watch the sun rise in the morning, and I'm told that quite a few people still think the earth is flat.

It seems the church has a chronic propensity for shooting itself in the foot. (I'm not even going to talk about the pederasty scandal.) I also think there's a deeper dynamic at work. As societies mature, they become more complex. A process of differentiation, or specialization, takes place. Years ago, the family doctor took care of everything. Today, an orthopedic surgeon may specialize in the elbow. Similarly, Galileo just knew more about astronomy than his inquisitors did.

I think the church would be well advised to recognize this dynamic and accept that its authority will not be recognized on as wide a range of issues as it was in, say, the year 1000. And then I'd suggest that they regroup on a core concept where they're not outgunned - love, maybe. Maybe even turn love into a core competency.

It would be nice to move on from the stale arguments of the past. But instead we seem intent on reopening every old wound we can find. Just a few weeks ago Rick Santorum, who's running for president, was trying to scare people with the French Revolution. My jaw dropped. I had thought everybody agreed the French were better off without Marie Antoinette.

I can see why Rick would line up with the French aristocrats, who paid even less in the way of taxes than hedge fund managers do today. But then I had another thought. I think there's something comfortable about refighting the old battles, even if you know you're going to lose.

Every year in Philadelphia, Revolutionary War reenactors get together to refight the Battle of Germantown, which originally took place in October 1777. I remember, one year in the nineties, maybe 1993, I was commiserating with a Continental soldier about losing the battle yet again, and he smiled and said something like, "216 to zero, and still we come back." And he took a swig of his beer.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Rugged Individualism: From Daniel Boone to Barack Obama

This story takes place on South Street in Philadelphia. It was late afternoon on a warm, pleasant day, and I was just finishing the drive home from my job in Delaware. On South Street I would start to relax. The Interstates - I-95 and Schuylkill - were behind me. And so was the last bear trap - a large steel plate on the old South Street bridge that either covered or partially covered a huge hole in the pavement, depending on the day.

Some days the sense of relief was almost euphoric, but on this day, as on many days, my mood was more contemplative, even elegiac.

Near the bridge there are two lanes of traffic on South Street, with parking in a third lane to the left. I was following a pickup truck in the right-hand lane.

Just ahead of the pickup, in the left-hand traffic lane, was a car. Ahead of the car, in the parking lane, was a simply enormous box truck. It took up all the parking space and a good chunk of the lane the car was trying to drive in.

For those of you who don't drive in Philly, this is a very common situation. If it's not an oversize truck, it's a badly placed pothole. The solution is to cheat into the other traffic lane. People do it all the time. Big vehicles do it more than small ones, but basically everybody does it.

If you don't do it, life can get expensive. Once I was driving on the Schuylkill in traffic and, because of the car in front of me, I didn't see a hole until it was too late. Some construction people had cut a hole about 3' x 3', maybe 2' deep. The man in my dealer's service department actually chuckled when he gave me the news. My tire was fine but my rim was so badly dented that it had to be replaced. (It turns out that a rim is the round metal part that I would ordinarily call a wheel.)

But that's another story. Back to South Street. The guy in the car, who is staring at the big box truck that's about to remove the left side of his car (I did see a bus get the entire left side peeled off once, but that's also another story), anyway the driver starts to cheat to the right.

But then he sees he can't, so he slams on the brakes. Fortunately there's nobody following him.

I'm pretty sure the driver of the pickup truck in front of me actually tapped his accelerator, instead of his brake, just to make sure the other guy couldn't borrow a couple of feet of his lane.

Anyway the fellow in the car fell behind us, and I think he must have turned off, because I don't remember seeing him again. At the next light, to my surprise, I found myself next to the guy in the pickup. As I said, it was a warm day, and I noticed that he had his driver's-side window down. I lowered my passenger-side window and said hello, in a friendly way.

The fellow seemed surprised that someone was talking to him, but he said hello back. I asked him if he'd seen the other driver getting jammed by the parked truck. He said he had. I asked him why he hadn't slowed down to let the car go by.

And that's when it happened. He told me what he actually thought. I don't know if it was the oddity of someone actually speaking to him, car to car, in the middle of South Street, in the big city, but he proceeded to give me, in stream of consciousness, well larded with profanity, what I later took to be his philosophy of life.

He owned the lane he was driving in, he said, and as long as he was in it he could do anything he wanted. And nobody else should try to get in his way.

When you're channeling someone else's psyche, possibly his id, I'm not sure it's possible to hold up your side of the conversation. I'm sure I said something, possibly about the brake pedal being a useful tool. And we parted amicably enough.

Walking home from the garage, I was still in a state of shock at my discovery. I had thought that all the discourtesy and mayhem on the highway was a result of negligence and testosterone. But I had been wrong. There was a higher principle involved. Our streets and highways are the last refuge of America's tradition of rugged individualism.

President Obama actually used the words rugged individualism in his speech to the joint session of Congress last September. "Yes, we are rugged individualists," he said.

It's interesting how often these two words get used to describe a core part of our identity as Americans. But what do they really mean? Is it simply, "Your liberty ends where my fist begins," as a college chum was wont to say?

Daniel Boone

I like to think of Daniel Boone as the Godfather of Rugged Individualism. With his cry of "Elbow room!" (it appears he did actually say something like this) Boone epitomized the view that the best neighbors were no neighbors. Apparently if he could see his neighbor's chimney smoke from his front yard, it was time to move.

Boone was born in 1734 near Reading, Pennsylvania (there's a high school named after him). His peripatetic life made him a leader in America's westward push through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky and Tennessee, and out onto the Great Plains. His travels may have taken him as far as the lands that are now Yellowstone National Park. He died in 1820 in Missouri. And, yes, just like his younger contemporary Davy Crockett, he does seem to have been fond of coonskin caps.

So what was Daniel Boone after, really? Was it simply that, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, "Hell is other people"? That has to be a piece of it. But there has to be more. I think the pioneers looked into the woods and saw a new way of life.

The ideal is fairly clear: lots of hunting and fishing, some subsistence farming, and a good bit of spinning and weaving and sewing for clothes. Basically, if you do everything yourself, nobody else can put you under his thumb. Economists call this autarky.

We also need to talk about the conditions that the pioneers were leaving. The Emma Lazarus poem at the Statue of Liberty isn't a joke. People left the old country to get away from societies designed to provide a good living for the top 1 percent. Most of us know about this, but I'm wondering how many have heard of indentured servitude. This was a system where people paid for their boat ticket to America by agreeing to work as a servant for a master in the New World, for a number of years.

This situation was a lot better than slavery, if only because it had a time limit. Still, we need only look at the way Saudi Arabians today are accused of mistreating their Indonesian and Filipino servants to see the potential for abuse.

So it's not surprising that a lot of newly sprung servants were eager to move west, away from a society predicated on servitude.

The only problem with cutting yourself off from the old society was that it didn't work. Rugged individualism was an unworkable idea from the beginning. As he left for the west in his coonskin cap, the typical pioneer was carrying a Kentucky rifle in the crook of his arm. This rifle was cutting-edge technology in the eighteenth century, and no well-dressed frontiersman wanted to be seen without one. Think of it as the iPhone of its day. And don't be distracted by the coonskin caps.

So the pioneers took the modern world with them to the west. And very soon they found themselves headed back east, loaded with the fruits of the frontier, so they could trade them for more of the products of modern civilization.

The Whiskey Rebellion

One of these fruits of the frontier was whiskey. Farmers out west were growing corn and rye, but these were bulky crops, and the roads going back east were bad. So they took to distilling whiskey. It takes a lot of corn, or rye, or whatever to make a barrel of whiskey. So it was much easier to transport, and it fetched a fair price.

These forerunners of Jack Daniel and Jim Beam had a good thing going, so good that the new federal government decided to tax it. And hence we come to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

Militarily, the Whiskey Rebellion was a kerfuffle. Some farmers in western Pennsylvania intimidated a few tax collectors, and a few people were killed. President Washington sent in some troops, and peace quickly broke out. Psychologically, it's more interesting.

What were those farmers thinking? I'm thinking it's not so much that the whiskey tax threatened their business model. The real threat, I think, was to their identity as rugged individualists. If they couldn't be entirely separate, at least they could set the terms of their interaction with the outside world. Well, maybe not.

The Amish struggle with this issue today. Just about every week I walk over to the Reading Terminal Market and buy Lebanon bologna and other deli items from a nice Amish lady. She is in my world but not of it. The teenage Amish are not of my world either, but they wear really cool sneakers. I've heard some of the girls actually have cell phones, but I haven't seen that.

It's a tricky balance, and it shifts. I think the Amish will be okay, because they work together as a group. I suppose you could call them rugged conformists.

Come to think of it, I suppose you could call the Puritans in seventeenth century Massachusetts rugged conformists.

Anyway, the fact is that rugged individualism, despite its unworkability, has proved a remarkably popular and durable idea.

James Fenimore Cooper

Part of the reason for this has to be a writer named James Fenimore Cooper. In his five Leatherstocking Tales, published between 1823 and 1841, he gave the world the literary archetype of the rugged frontiersman - Daniel Boone's fictional avatar.

Cooper's father, William, had founded a pioneering village at the headwaters of the Susquehanna River, in New York state in 1786. He called it Cooperstown, and, yes, that's where the Baseball Hall of Fame is. Only it didn't come until later - baseball had to be invented first.

Cooper grew up here, and it was very woodsy at the time. And it is in a fictionalized version of Cooperstown that we first meet Natty Bumppo, aka Deerslayer, aka Hawkeye. Through his hero, Cooper gave us the frontier, that liminal area between the primeval wilderness and modern civilization. And he gave us the frontiersman - noble, resourceful, always somewhat out of place when he came to town. Cooper wrote it down, and America read it and wanted to be it.

There's a direct line between Hawkeye and Gary Cooper in High Noon. But then there are a lot of direct lines. Here's one of my favorites.

Towards the end of his life, in The Prairie, Hawkeye finds himself out of the woods and on the Great Plains, again mimicking Daniel Boone, who died a mere seven years before The Prairie was published. Unlike Boone, Hawkeye never married and had a family. So he had a problem. There was no Social Security or Medicare at the time, and society looked to each family to care for its own. And Hawkeye didn't have a family.

So he got himself adopted by the local Indian tribe. He did have other offers, but they would have involved him leaving the world where he was comfortable, and going back to town, where he had always felt out of place. I must say, the last few pages of this book (which has its tiresome moments earlier on) are pretty amazing. Natty Bumppo dies, saying of himself and his forebears, "We have never been chiefs; but honest and useful in our way, I hope it cannot be denied, we have always proved ourselves."

I don't think Cooper was aiming at the death of a Viking king, but that's what it felt like to me.

Fast forward to 1948, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Based on a novel by B. Traven, starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston, the movie follows a group of gold prospectors in Mexico in 1925, and manages a critique of capitalism along the way. Things go reasonably well when the miners trust one another and cooperate, and less well when they don't. Gold is found, gold is lost, people are killed, and at the end the Old Guy (played by Walter Huston, the director's father) decides he's had enough of the modern world and retires to the local Indian village. After two hours of capitalism red in fang and claw, we finally see a safety net in action.

Pardon the digression, but I do think Cooper's influence is underrated, both in the arts and in our culture generally. I don't think rugged individualism would be where it is today without him.

What We're Really Good At

Even in Cooper's time, there were those who saw that what Americans were really good at was cooperation. "To act collectively is according to the spirit of our institutions," wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden (1854). This from a guy who was living by himself in the woods.

Even earlier, in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at how "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations." He added, "I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it."

Why are we so good at cooperation? "Each American knows when to sacrifice some of his private interests to save the rest," writes de Tocqueville, calling it the "principle of self-interest rightly understood."

Professor Francis Fukuyama, who's a lot younger than de Tocqueville, says that we're just good at trusting one another. In his 1995 book Trust (which manages to be an even slower read than de Tocqueville), he has a chapter on us entitled "Rugged Conformists" (and yes, that's where I got the term). It turns out that we are better at this trust thing than just about anyone else - or at least we were back in the Clinton administration. In many societies, trust does not extend much beyond the family - as the Arabs used to say, "My brother against my cousin, and my cousin against the world."

Here things are different. Thoreau saw it; de Tocqueville saw it. Here's Fukuyama: "From the moment of its founding up through its rise at the time of World War I as the world's premier industrial power, the United States was anything but an individualistic society. It was, in fact, a society with a high propensity for spontaneous sociability, which enjoyed a widespread degree of generalized social trust and could therefore create large economic organizations in which nonkin could cooperate easily for common economic ends."

I can't resist. Here's some more: "It remains true that Americans tend to be antistatist, despite the substantial growth of big government in the United States in the twentieth century. But those same antistatist Americans voluntarily submit to the authority of a variety of intermediate social groups, including families, churches, local communities, workplaces, unions, and professional organizations. Conservatives, who are opposed to the state's delivering certain kinds of welfare services, usually describe themselves as believers in individualism. But such people are often simultaneously in favor of the strengthening of the authority of certain social institutions like the family or the church. In this respect they are not being individualistic at all; rather, they are proponents of a nonstatist form of communitarianism." (You have no idea what I had to plow through to get that.)

Where does this willingness to trust, this propensity for voluntary association, come from? Fukuyama wants to attribute it to religion. I'm inclined to think that's part of it, but I think we also need to look to the development of commercial law in this country, and the rise of the American business corporation, which allowed people to limit the risk that comes with cooperation. I'm guessing it's a bunch of things, but I would like to avoid "American exceptionalism" or "the genius of the American people" - although I will readily agree that these sound bites encourage more confidence than "we have no idea."

A Durable Fantasy

So it turns out that we're not rugged individualists after all. Still, it's been a remarkably durable fantasy.

Why is that? Beyond its roots in our early history, and the brilliant public relations work of James Fenimore Cooper, why has this idea found such traction?

Because it's useful. Who among us really wants to be a good bureaucrat? It may be what we do all day, but somewhere there has to be a place for personality.

Ralph Waldo Emerson saw this early on: "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its adversion."

This is from Emerson's essay on Self-Reliance, which appeared in 1841, the same year James Fenimore Cooper published the last of his Leatherstocking Tales, The Deerslayer. Wouldn't you much rather be the Deerslayer?

Different Strands

When I first started thinking about this article I knew I needed to talk about Emerson - we studied him in school, and he was one of my heroes. I assumed he would fit neatly into the story. I was wrong.

Rugged individualism is mainly about economics, and it is intimately connected to the frontier. (In this, at least, I think that the historian Frederick Jackson Turner and his famous Turner thesis of 1893 show an insight of enduring value.)

Emerson was a minister, and he was more interested in philosophy than economics. He was trying to figure out how you can function in society without losing your soul: "...you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."

This is also from the essay on Self-Reliance, and it is a different train of thought from rugged individualism.

Manhood at Harvard

Here's another line of development that I initially confused with rugged individualism. In 1996 Professor Kim Townsend came out with a book called Manhood at Harvard. In it he explores the development of an ideal of manliness that was new in American higher education.

In the years after the Civil War, people looked back to the energy and the discipline the war brought forth in so many of the soldiers, and wondered if there wasn't some way to foster that in civil life.

William James plays a central role in Townsend's book. Near the end of his life, James set forth the issue succinctly in an essay called The Moral Equivalent of War (1906). He ends by calling for a form of civilian national service, an idea that still hasn't gained much traction. But in the late nineteenth century, America was industrializing, and it's hard not to see the attraction of this approach to the emerging corporate giants of the day. After all, Ralph Waldo Emerson would not have done well at a large American company. He spent too much time thinking, and, worse, he thought for himself.

So, military vigor it was, transferred to the civilian arena. As Townsend notes, Harvard "could not provide a war, but it could provide the next best thing - combat on playing rather than battle fields."

Enter football. Also rowing, wrestling, you name it. But mainly football. America's colleges haven't been the same since.

Nobody epitomizes this new manliness better than Theodore Roosevelt, who also plays a major role in Townsend's book. Because he's so quirky, we may be tempted to call him not only manly, but a rugged individualist. However, his career, from New York City police commissioner to the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill to the White House, shows that he was something different. He acted in and through organizations, often very large organizations. Teddy Roosevelt, and all the football players, and the soldiers of the Civil War, are rugged conformists.

The Closing of the Frontier

The superintendent of the 1890 Census declared the American frontier closed. We miss it. So much, in fact, that John Kennedy, one of whose favorite words was "vigor," found us all a New Frontier as we raced the Russians to the moon. Not a lot of rugged individualists at NASA, but several of the astronauts turned out to have personalities.

And rugged individualism continues to be a part of our mental makeup. It helps that it now has a name. This is an oddity, but for a very long time the term rugged individualism seems not to have existed. Frederick Jackson Turner should have coined it in his 1893 essay on the frontier, but he didn't. He called it "that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil." Too subtle by half.

Turner did provide a nice psychological profile of the individualist: "That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy" - he goes on, but you get the idea.

Back to the christening of rugged individualism. This apparently did not occur until October 1928, when Herbert Hoover, running for president, referred to "the American system of rugged individualism" in a speech in New York City. (He also said, "We are nearer today to the ideal of the abolition of poverty and fear from the lives of men and women than ever before in any land." We elected him and promptly took a detour called the Great Depression, but still it's nice to see a Republican talking about eliminating fear and want as if it were a good thing.)

The appeal of rugged individualism has continued to have practical effects in our daily lives. The move to the suburbs, back in the 1950's, looks suspiciously like the migration through the Cumberland Gap, with the road west being played in the remake by the Long Island Expressway. "Elbow room!" cried Daniel Boone. Or at least Levittown. And even today, what about those SUVs? If you own a vehicle that can go off-road at any time, how can you not be a rugged individualist, even if you never, ever go off-road?

And of course, we see it in our politics. In his speech to Congress last September, the one where he referred to rugged individualism, President Obama tweaked his opposition by describing their "notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle the government, refund everybody's money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they're on their own."

It's a good thing that, when push comes to shove, we're really not rugged individualists. I'm thinking that it's almost time for us to accept who we are. If you don't like the moniker rugged conformist, here's a line from Thoreau for you: "Instead of noblemen, let us have noble villages of men." I've been thinking about that sentence since I first read it as a teenager. It's incredibly archaic. We don't have noblemen, and we do have women. And we don't live in villages. But if you can get past all that, I think there's a nice insight there.