Longform On The Issues: Big Government

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WNYC asked Longform to pick great stories as background reading for our 30 Issues in 30 Days series. These are stories that help illuminate and humanize the important issues this election year. Part Four of 30 Issues looks at the role of government in housing, energy, health, and military funding and policy. See all the guides here.

For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks.


The Last Tower

Ben Austen | Harper's | May 2012

The rise and fall of Cabrini-Green and the US public housing program.

Today, what seems harder to fathom than the erasure of entire high-rise neighborhoods is that they were ever erected in the first place. For years the projects had stood as monuments to a bygone effort to provide affordable housing for the poor and working-class, the reflection of a belief in a deeper social contract. And although that effort had by most accounts failed, the problems represented by the likes of Cabrini-Green persist, and nothing remotely adequate has been built to replace what has been demolished.



The Land That Time and Money Forgot

Mark Jacobson | New York | Sept 2012

New York City's landmark housing projects fight for survival.

Still,the projects persist. People get up and go to work. Some run gray-market “plate lunch” and beauty parlors out of their apartments. Disability and public-assistance checks keep coming. Why that is—why the projects were built here in such numbers and continue to house as many people as they do, how the developments moved from a source of municipal pride to an invisible society people would rather forget exists, is a key story of the city, as unique to New York as the Statue of Liberty and why people cross against traffic.



Kuwait on the Prairie

Eric Konigsberg | New Yorker | April 2011

A North Dakota town thinks it's figured out how to solve the energy problem.

Much of the basin is under contract, but people who still hold parcels can lease out their mineral rights for annual payments of as much as three thousand dollars per acre, in addition to a twenty-per-cent stake in the oil that’s produced. A moderately productive plot of two square miles could bring the owners—typically, groups of relatives and speculators—a million dollars up front, and five hundred thousand dollars a year for two decades. Ron Gerwien, who owns a sandblasting operation, said that “a changing of the weather” occurred when a major oil field began producing near Stanley, an hour’s drive from Williston. “Up until now, the two families that had all the money were always the banker and the telephone-company operator."



As The World Burns

Ryan Lizza | New Yorker | October 2010

How climate change legislation fell apart.

Negotiations stalled as the bill moved forward. In Arizona, a right-wing radio host and former congressman, J. D. Hayworth, announced that he was considering challenging McCain in the primary. McCain had never faced a serious primary opponent for his Senate seat, and now he was going to have to defend his position on global warming to hard-core conservative voters. The Republican Party had grown increasingly hostile to the science of global warming and to cap-and-trade, associating the latter with a tax on energy and more government regulation. Sponsoring the bill wasn’t going to help McCain defeat an opponent to his right. By the end of February, McCain was starting to back away from his commitment to Lieberman. At first, he insisted that he and Lieberman announce a set of climate-change “principles” instead of a bill. Then, three days before a scheduled press conference to announce those principles, the two senators had a heated conversation on the Senate floor. Lieberman turned and walked away. “That’s it,” he told an aide. “He can’t do it this year.”



A Day Job Waiting for a Kill Shot a World Away

Elisabeth Bumiller | New York Times | July 2012

Drone pilots and the double lives they lead.

"They watch this guy do bad things and then his regular old life things,” said Col. Hernando Ortega, the chief of aerospace medicine for the Air Education Training Command, who helped conduct a study last year on the stresses on drone pilots. “At some point, some of the stuff might remind you of stuff you did yourself. You might gain a level of familiarity that makes it a little difficult to pull the trigger.” Of a dozen pilots, sensor operators and supporting intelligence analysts recently interviewed from three American military bases, none acknowledged the kind of personal feelings for Afghans that would keep them awake at night after seeing the bloodshed left by missiles and bombs. But all spoke of a certain intimacy with Afghan family life that traditional pilots never see from 20,000 feet, and that even ground troops seldom experience.



We're Getting Wildly Different Assessments

Tom Goldstein | SCOTUS Blog | July 2012

A detailed breakdown of the wild minutes leading up to and after the Supreme Courts decision on "Obamacare."

The announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision largely upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on Thursday, June 28 precipitated a genuine media drama. Millions tuned in to get the result in real time, and were rewarded with the spectacle of two major news networks reporting the story incorrectly. Indeed, the President himself was in limbo while his staff raced to find out whether the Court had struck down his signature policy initiative.



Big Med

Atul Gawande | New Yorker | Aug 2012

What the medical industry can learn from the Cheesecake Factory.

In medicine, too, we are trying to deliver a range of services to millions of people at a reasonable cost and with a consistent level of quality. Unlike the Cheesecake Factory, we haven’t figured out how. Our costs are soaring, the service is typically mediocre, and the quality is unreliable. Every clinician has his or her own way of doing things, and the rates of failure and complication (not to mention the costs) for a given service routinely vary by a factor of two or three, even within the same hospital.


Brian Lehrer Show producer Jody Avirgan is also a contributing editor to Longform.org. Is there a story that we missed? Comment below or .

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