Congressional deadlock of self-segregated American communities

Americans have been deeply divided along political lines in the past: the film Lincoln is all about the brutal factionalism preceding the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Why is the current Congress so divided and ineffective? I suggest that a major factor is the pattern of urbanization and voluntary self-segregation of households over the past generation.

Many analysts are focusing on ideological disagreements. However, compared to decades past, the range of policy options being proposed by leaders is quite small. Consider that income tax was first passed under Teddy Roosevelt in 1913; his nephew Franklin raised the top rate to 70% only 20 years later. And twenty years after that, Dwight Eisenhower raised the top rate to 91% to pay down the war debt! Compared to those massive new federal programs implemented by both Republican and Democratic administrations, Barack Obama’s proposals are extremely modest; he wants to perpetuate George W. Bush’s low tax rates for 98% of Americans. Even the ‘public option’ briefly supported in healthcare reform was fiscally modest. It was “socialist” if we think of Singapore and Britain as Socialist. It bore no resemblance to Soviet policies.

Denigration of the opposing party’s policies is an inevitable feature of open democracy; but the vilification of anything associated with Obama is remarkably intense today. I was most impressed when House Republicans were so intractable over the standard deficit-ceiling bill in 2012 that they actually damaged the credit-rating of the U.S. Treasury. What normally tempers extremist behavior is the need to remain electable. In this system, politicians were considered courageous when they stuck to principles that might cost them re-election. But today, rigidly ideological conservative Republicans stick to principle without apparent fear of electoral repercussions, even if they do damage to the country as a whole. Why not?

A big factor seems to be voluntary self-sorting of Americans into “like-minded communities.” Bill Bishop (2008) observed increasing voluntary self-segregation affecting elections in 2000 and 2004. Though both presidential elections were very close at the national level, there were very few local jurisdictions where the votes were close. Most jurisdictions—counties or cities—had majority/minority splits of 20% or more. What this means for Representatives in the House is that most are in “safe seats.” What it also means is that their constituents rarely know people who hold differing political views.

A recent indication of this pronounced mutual segregation was the apparent cognitive disconnect of Republicans at the loss of Mitt Romney/Ron Paul in the fall of 2012. Romney did not even write a concession speech. I suspect many of his supporters could not imagine that any one would vote for Obama/Biden, because no one they knew would vote for Obama/Biden. Likewise, such constituents might know that their representative is refusing to compromise on legislation, but the legislation might be seen as so ‘wrong’ that it is appropriate to stand on principle, even if it harms the economy and opposes the majority-opinion of the country as a whole. ‘Prevailing national sentiment’ is an abstract concept when is differs from the opinion of everyone you know and respect.

Media segregation parallels spatial segregation. In a world of subscription channels and internet ‘thincasting,’ there is no longer any unified national media. Thus, a person of any particular political stripe can ‘adjust their media channels’ to tune in those whom they agree with, and tune out those with whom they disagree.

This trend has serious implications for the American political future. At the moment, the issues of disagreement are minor (consider the 1865 question of the legality of slavery compared to current questions of revenue/expenditures and gay marriage). Will it be possible to accommodate substantially different policies for different jurisdictions, and remain a single country? If California passes single-payer health care, should Arizonans be denied medical care until they pay a hefty tax? The likely sticking point is the Fourth Article of the Constitution, by which states must recognize property and contracts from other states. But should we consider a national agenda that compels Americans to experience political plurality in order to promote a sense of citizenship?

Watt, innovation, and the Industrial Revolution

In my courses I try to tell the story of urban modernity through a series of sub-stories. One of these is about how the Industrial Revolution happened. In 2012 I explained the Industrial Revolution thus: the key technology of the Industrial Revolution was the steam-engine; the key innovator of the steam-engine was Watt; and the key instrument for funding Watt’s innovations was the patent. So: the creation of patents—the creation of intellectual property as a new form of property-right—was the vital ingredient that triggered the Industrial Revolution.

I based this story on James Vance’s arguments in This Scene of Man (1977). Vance taught me Urban Geography in 1986. But I knew I needed to take a closer look at the emergence of intellectual property in the 1700s; it was the one part of the story I had not seen verified by other sources. What had changed? Did it become easier to get patents? Did the laws change so that commoners (like Watt) could get patents? Or did non-aristocrats gain increased access to the courts to defend their patents?

It turns out that Eric Robinson, an historian of Watt, had the same concerns. In 1972, Robinson wrote “James Watt and the Law of Patents” where he describes an unexpected finding: there was no substantial change in patent laws nor practices in the late 1700s. Lord Mansfield, who adjudicated the patent-fights of Watt and his contemporaries, makes no remarks about changes in the law of patents. Robinson had to go through Watt’s own letters to find comments about patent law and practice. Though Watt proposed some improvements to patent law, these were never implemented.

In fact, the critical change to patent law happened 150 years before Watt started improving the steam-engine. The Statute of Monopolies, passed in 1623, banned all monopolies with the exception of temporary monopolies defined by ‘letters patent’ (meaning open, public documentation of the right-to-ownership). The next major intervention in patent law began with Parliament’s Select Committee on Patents in 1829—a full two centuries after the Statute of Monopolies, and fifty years after Watt’s major patents were filed.

So patents were a key ingredient in the development of steam-engines, but not a ‘proximate trigger’ of the Industrial Revolution.

Before proceeding with the story of Watt and steam-engines in the late 1700s, I want to note an important political-economy lesson from the struggle that led to the Statute of Monopolies. English aristocracy became concerned about monopolies in the late 1500s. The Statute of Monopolies in 1623 was the result of a long-running fight between Parliament and the monarchs from Mary (1553-1558) through Elizabeth I (1558-1603), and James I (1567-1625). At the time it was only monarchs who granted monopolies, so the 1623 Statute was both a political restriction on the monarch and an economic restriction on the monarch’s favored friends.

Here in the 21st century, in an era of monopolistic corporate power, deregulation, and economic decline, it is worth noting that the fight against unfair economic advantage has been waged for more than 400 years. When neoliberals recite their blind faith in ‘free markets’ and claim Adam Smith as patron saint, it is worth reminding our present world that Adam Smith spoke out against monopoly-power. Smith wanted competitive markets, and argued that freedom-of-contract needed to be tempered by courts and regulations that maintained the competitiveness of markets. What Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen make clear—building explicitly on Smith’s work—is that there is no such thing as a ‘free market.’ There are competitive markets and monopolistic markets. Strong regulatory governments—US, Europe, East Asia—can push back against dominating firms to keep markets competitive. Weaker governments—Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo—cannot regulate (or cannot enforce the regulations they have), so their ‘unfettered’ economies become monopolistic. Unregulated, monopolistic economies may be extremely lucrative for the top tenth of 1% in a country. But for overall national output and wealth, monopolistic markets tend to be both unproductive and violent. I have argued this before; but it is worth noting that the breakup of monopolies (and resulting economic growth) of the U.S. from 1901-1980 was not the only time when governments intervened to bust monopolies for the benefit of broad-based economic growth. The anti-monopoly struggle has a multi-century history.

Okay, back to Watt and steam-engines: the only short story I can identify through this weeks’ research is a story of institutional learning. In this narration, equal credit goes to Matthew Boulton, Watt’s business-partner for many years. Watt was technically and theoretically brilliant, but he was a poor businessman, he was depressive, and he had few influential contacts. Boulton was a successful businessman with numerous and diverse contacts, and many resources. Boulton was also wise enough to recognize the value of Watt’s innovations and insight. Here is Thurston’s 1901 summary of their relationship:

In the new firm, Boulton took charge of the general business, and Watt superintended the design, construction, and erection of their engines. Boulton’s business capacity, with Watt’s wonderful mechanical ability—Boulton’s physical health, and his vigor and courage, offsetting Watt’s feeble health and depression of spirits—and, more than all, Boulton’s pecuniary resources, both in his own purse and in those of his friends, enabled the firm to conquer all difficulties, whether in finance, in litigation, or in engineering (Thurston 1901:103).

So: a combination of elements had to come into place to make the steam-engine possible. First, the technology itself. Worcester, Huygens, Savery, Papin, and Newcomen had all invented crucial components of the steam-engine between 1628 and 1712 (Thurston, 1901, ch.1, sec.2). In fact Boulton and Watt first made a profit based only on an improved Newcomen engine; they charged license-fees based on the increased efficiency of their steam-pump over the Newcomen pump.

Second, the existence of the Statute of Monopolies did matter. It meant that commoners (and aristocrats) could claim property-rights to their ideas. But it took a long time for this new regime of intellectual property to yield results. Watt & Boulton had essentially the same rights as all their predecessors back to 1623.

Third, there was the experience of business-practice. Boulton was a successful industrialist even before he met Watt. As a commoner under Common Law, Boulton was able to manufacture and market small metal products and become wealthy. When he partnered with Watt, he was also able to lobby Parliament to extend Watt’s 1769 “Fire-Engine” patent in 1775. He was able to fund patent-litigation against William Bull. Boulton was even able to subcontract out the fabrication of the first steam-engines, before Boulon & Watt could build all the parts in-house. This segmentation of a production process was complex. It required Boulton’s prior experience with the business of industrial production. This is a form of institutional learning.

Fourth, freedom of contract meant that commoners could negotiate tens or hundreds of contracts for products and services without the slow and fraught process of gaining royal approval. I need to research this further. Adam Smith argued for this right to private contracts in 1776, but I don’t know the state of those rights in the late 1700s, nor when and how they changed. I do know that James Watt personally knew Adam Smith. Maybe Smith’s arguments were directly influenced by acquaintance with the struggles and frequent failures of inventors and entrepreneurs. And I know that the license-negotiations for intellectual property are a crucial component of private contracting.

Fifth, the promotion of scientific research—known then as inquiries into natural philosophy—was critical. The historical marker-point was the foundation of the Royal Society in 1660. Apparently Charles II not only signed off in the creation of the Royal Society, but he was actually personally enthusiastic about the advancement of science. This formal, public affirmation of scientific discovery made a huge difference over the next century. While patents made technological R&D profitable, the Society promoted a more general theoretical comprehension of nature.

Another way to stitch this story together is to emphasize how different modes of thinking were necessary to produce and implement technical innovation. Building on Flyvbjerg’s research (1993, 1998, and 2001) I argue that humans think rationally in multiple modes. One of these modes is episteme—logical reasoning based on abstract, unchanging principles. Scientific understandings of steam and thermodynamics are examples of episteme, and Watt was famous for his theoretical brilliance. Second is techne—the ability to understand how to get things done, how things go together. Watt was also famous for this ability; he was a fine builder of working prototypes. Third is phronesis—the ability to make effective judgement-calls. Here was Boulton’s strength, as both a businessman and as a political lobbyist. Fourth is sophia—wisdom based on reflexive experience. Again this was Boulton’s strength, and the reason why institutional learning is a concise way of understanding this story. It took business-experience, from logistics through management to social contacts, to make this all work. Boulton could think in a way that Watt could not; Boulton could pull off the elaborate productive choreography of building a new device with subcontractor-manufacturers, while fending off patent-infringers, and negotiating profitable contracts with mine-owners who wanted a more efficient pump than the Newcomen engine.

It may help to illustrate this story with a 21st-century parallel. Steve Jobs did not invent the mobile-phone, nor the smart-phone. In fact, Palm was a brilliant innovator with the ‘Palm Pilot.’ The smart-phone of 2012 is a fusion of the 1990s technologies of Palm Pilots and mobile-phones. So Apple entered a market that was already quite fully developed before the iPhone was even introduced. Likewise, Watt did not invent the steam-engine. In fact his first profitable model was only a more-efficient pump that entered into the existing, 60-year-old market of Newcomen pumping-engines. Boulton and Watt actually made their first profits off of fuel-efficiency, a lesson worth noting for the 21st century. Once Boulton & Watt got going, they also provoked competition and increased the market by making steam-pumps more cost-effective. Furthermore, by subcontracting component-fabrication, they improved the competence of English machinists–especially in the ability to bore large piston-cylinders. But as Selgin & Turner (2009) argue, even the Boulton & Watt double-action steam-engine was a low-power, low-efficiency condensing engine. It was one of their competitors—Richard Trevithick—who developed the high-pressure steam engine in 1803 that would power the mills, locomotives, and steam-boats of the 19th century.

Elementary School Teachers and the Apocalypse

My favorite scene in the Harry Potter series of films happens towards the end of the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, when the very-unlikable Professor Snape finds the three protagonists at the base of the Whomping Willow tree. He is about to bust them for rule-breaking when Ron Weasley points out that another teacher (Lupin) has just turned into a werewolf and is about to attack them. Alan Rickman does a remarkable performance as Snape: in a heartbeat, he turns around to face the advancing horror and shield the children from harm. He even takes a full-on blow from the werewolf before Sirius Black draws off the werewolf.

Snape protects Hermione, Ron, and Harry from Lupin the werewolf

Snape faces imminent death…

The teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School did not hesitate. They took action immediately, locking doors, sequestering the children, getting them quiet. Apparently the teachers died shielding the children, in the two classrooms where children were killed. Rickman’s portrayal (shown above) has a quality of truth that may be a useful way of explaining the Newtown massacre to children.

Once I could bring myself to read the descriptions of this incident, what surprised me was that Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy, was a survivalist. The weapons were legally registered to her, including the Bushmaster rifle (a non-military precursor to the M-16) that Adam used in the massacre. Gender matters little here; what matters is that Nancy Lanza was a ‘Doomsday Prepper,’ fortifying her house against a coming Apocalypse.

However, Apocalypse does not mean ‘doomsday.’ A good translation from the original Greek is ‘revelation,’ or ‘the revealing.’ Since the mid-nineteenth century, many Americans have interpreted this to mean the coming of the end of the world. This sentiment is expressed in the extreme popularity of post-catastrophe films, from Omega Man through the Terminator and Road Warrior franchises to The Postman and I am Legend. Zombies are the most recent addition to this End Times genre. They might be campy, but they still show the prevalence of this American fascination with a sudden and violent collapse of civilization. Survivalists may extremists, but they are only the extreme extension of a very mainstream American sentiment.

This American fascination with the Apocalypse involves dread and anxiety, but also desire. There is almost a hope for a sudden ‘sweeping away’ of modern life’s distractions, complications, and irritations. There is an anticipation for a refreshing, violent renewal. This line of thinking today correlates with a deep suspicion of government, of ‘The State’ as the creeping threat against liberty. It fits with Nancy Lanza’s decision to home-school Adam. For some people, home-schooling is a sound choice. One of the finest students I ever taught had been home-schooled, but then she came to the very public UC Berkeley for her college education. In the case of the Lanzas, and many survivalists, home-schooling is part of a process of secession from society, and a withdrawal from public institutions.

And when Adam went on a rampage, a public institution was the target. What is ‘The Government’ that survivalists hate/fear? In actual practice, it is not a monolithic, conspiratorial syndicate. A very real expression of government is the public schoolteachers at Sandy Hook Elementary. Yes, public employees, paid with tax dollars, indoctrinating children with ideas like the 3 Bs: “Be Safe, Be Respectful, Be Responsible” (I just quoted my nine-year-old son). In reality, in daily practice, ‘The State’ turns out to be a mosaic of very human public servants. This is a very different Revelation. It is a Revelation of the everyday, the mundane, the human. And what do these everyday schoolteachers do in the face of lethal danger? They behave with supreme courage, without hesitation.

Adam was mentally ill; his actions were extreme. But his actions are an extreme expression of a popular American myth. Scepticism about government can be healthy; that is one of the core themes running through the Bill of Rights. However, a desire for the collapse of civilian order is not the same as scepticism about government power. It is a kind of romantic shadow-hope for liberation from the constraints of modern society. A person experiencing a psychotic break often expresses popular sentiment in a disturbing variant; maybe to push for that Apocalypse, try to get it to arrive a little sooner.

I don’t think this Apocalypse-myth is an inevitable psychological counterpoint to the prevailing reality of mundane, civilian order. The fascination with end-times prophecies surged in the first century AD, and before 1000 AD as well. This most recent surge, starting in the 19th century, seems to be unusually persistent and intense. What may be different now is that we can market this story to ourselves through books, film, video-games, and military-grade weapons. We literally sell this myth to ourselves.

In our daily storytelling we need to clarify the distinction between a hoped-for Apocalypse and a healthy scepticism about government power. The Bill of Rights constrains government, but it also is government. Under these guidelines, how do we govern ourselves? It involves the patient work of paying bills, educating children, enduring rush-hour traffic. Even disaster-preparation means building systems where cooperation persists when normal infrastructure suddenly fails. Governments do involve coercive power; but most of the work that modern governments do–meaning most of what we do–is care for each other. Elementary schoolteachers are a quintessential example of such mutual care. We need to recognize that mutual care as our Revelation.

Intellectual Property as key factor in modernity

[This is another political-economy posting, but it does not follow the previous postings as a series. After all, this is a blog; just thinking out loud here]

This morning I had an epiphany about the changing structure of global production, trade, and prestige-politics in the 21st century. The argument: a shift in governing made intellectual property possible about 250 years ago. This new form of property-rights remains the key ingredient of modern political-economies into the 21st century. Industrial production and military technologies are merely effects, not causes in this transformation. And intellectual property is now revealed most explicitly as the underlying framework of 21st-century trade and competition, often described in shorthand as ‘globalization.’ Thus, to make sense out of ‘globalization’ in the 21st century, we need to make a careful enquiry into ‘the nature and causes’ of intellectual property formation.

In my Global Cities course, I spend a fair bit of time explaining the Industrial Revolution. It is an old-school topic that I approach in a revisionist way. Yes, Watt’s refinements to the steam engine made it useable and transformed England: powered mills, then powered boats, then railroad. For an urbanist, this helps explain the monocentric 19th-century city, and sets the context for the classic Engels reading on living conditions in Manchester in 1844.
Then I talk about the psychological experience: the shock-of-the-new that is a distinctive condition of consciousness among moderns. In modern literature this is often mistaken as a singular shock; for many decades, WWII was treated as the disturbing break from the past. But these breaks, these identitarian disruptions, have been a recurrent process; people in 1850 felt that the world of 1800 was difficult to imagine; people in 1900 had a hard time imagining 1850, and so forth. My students have a hard time imagining daily life without mobile-phones and the internet. How did people get anything done before 1994?
It is crucially important that we understand modernity as an experience (thank you Marshall Berman, and Ananya Roy for showing me is writings). But there is also a political-economy dimension to modernity that bears consideration. Here I return to the Industrial Revolution, and explain it as an effect of a modern transformation, not as a cause. What triggered this effect? The emergence of intellectual property (IP) as an enforceable right-of-property. Stated a different way: by about 1760, English commoners could make (and enforce) claims of value for ideas and innovations.

This inverted the guild-system, where technologies remained trade-secrets. Thus there was a lot of opposition to Diderot’s documentation of manufacturing techniques in his Encyclopedie (1750), the first encyclopedia. Diderot’s Encyclopedie was full of explanations of Arts and Crafts like glassblowing and coach design. I keep wondering if Watt’s pressure-regulator valve was invented based on borrowing the negative-feedback principle from other types of mechanisms revealed through the Encyclopedie. Don’t know; future research. But I do know that one aspect of the guild system gets incorporated into this new regime. If you can commodify ideas, you can also commodify reputation in the same way. So “trade-marks” (and later “brands”) were incorporated into this new regime of property-rights enforcement.

So what was the effect? I use two bits of data.
First: Watt used patent-royalties to fund research, development, and refinement of his steam-engine from 1760 to 1789. Watt did not invent the steam-engine (I think Newcomen did in 1715), nor were Watt’s refinements the last and best thing done to steam-engines. No; but Watt made steam engines /practically useable/: lighter, better fuel-to-power ratio, and less prone to lethal explosions. Watt had a benefactor (Richard Arkwright), who was also a waiting customer for these refined engines. Arkwright was a Yorkshire landlord and manufacturer, who had sheep and the spinning-jenny; but lack of machine-power was his bottleneck. Arkwright did not have a labor shortage, because landlords like him had just evicted hundreds of thousands of peasants off of their land, and razed their old villages to make room for profitable sheep. That also meant that hundreds of thousands of landless English (and Irish) commoners made for a massive “reserve” labor-pool in the English Midlands.

But Watt was not merely a private, exclusive employee of Arkwright. He could patent his improvement and sell “Patented Watt steam-engines” to anyone. Arkwright and other Midlanders used the steam-engines immediately to power textile-mills; hence the ‘satanic mills’ of Blake, and the Industrial Revolution as we know and love it. See Danny Boyle’s portrayal of it at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London!

What made it possible for Watt to fund his costly research and design of improvements, beyond Arkwright the angel-investor? Patent royalties. This also meant that others could freely adapt these new steam-engines to mills, boats, and locomotives. The patent-system is an opensystem by definition (the original meaning of patent is still used in the expression ‘patently obvious’). You can only claim your right to royalties (license-fees) in a court of law if you publicly proclaim and explain your invention. Thus, others can learn about the innovations immediately; but the property-holder can enjoy a temporary monopoly position on revenue until the patent expires. Governments like having other inventors examine a new patented technology, because that may provoke yet another idea, a new patent, new economic growth, and thus new tax revenue. It is worth noting here that only strong, regulatory governments with pervasive regimes-of-enforcement can create the conditions in which intellectual property exists at all. A smart software designer in Uzbekistan cannot make any proprietary claims for royalties from her idea within Uzbekistan, because the local regime cannot enforce intellectual property rights. The rise of IP-enforcement in China and southeast Asia may be the most important long-run shift in the global economy right now.

I still don’t understand the fine details of how this new property-regime coalesced around 1760 in England. One component is a change in laws; Timothy Yip pointed me to the Statute of Anne, 1710, that specified enforcement of copyright by the courts. I will look into this in future research. The take-away point, at the moment, is that the emergence of enforceable property-claims to ideas,innovations, and reputation made new technology much more valuable.

Here is my second data-bit: the U.S. formed officially by the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. Much of the Constitution was about rights. Americans tend to focus on the personal-liberty rights such as the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 8th Amendments. What we often gloss over are the economic rights such as the Full Faith and Credit clause in Article 4, and the commoner’s right to civil litigation in Amendment 7. But here is one way to highlight the importance of economic rights to the new Republic: its first three creations in 1790 were the U.S. Census, the Post Office, and the Trademarks and Patents Office (USTPO). The Post Office facilitated rapid flows of information across this new, huge, free-trade zone. And the USTPO established the regime of intellectual property. Virtually 100% of the value of Google, Microsoft, and Disney is intellectual property. So, what was that whining I heard about ‘government getting in the way of business’? Business relies on government directly for much of its value across the United States. Even for industries that involved a lot of equipment in the 19th century, the IP property-rights make these enterprises worthwhile: Colt, Morse, Bessemer, Winchester, Edison, Bell, Tesla.

Now let us travel in our minds to 1949, a year that shaped so much of the geopolitics of the next five decades. Westerners were suddenly doubting a hundred-year association of the idea of ‘modernity’ with the idea of ‘progress.’ The massive double-shock of the worldwide Great Depression and WWII revealed and invalidated many assumptions of the modernist worldview, including the optimistic ideal of an ‘upward march of progress.’ Writers start using terms like ‘civilized’ with a wince, rather than as a chest-thump of white people over brown people. When Gandhi retorts that Western Civilization ‘would be a good idea,’ the quip is remembered because it stings. Modernity has just produced extreme material hardship (the Depression) followed by massive brutality including the attempted extermination of whole peoples and the actual incineration of whole cities (Nanjing, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

But white people remained more powerful (and the Japanese, early guests into a certain degree of whiteness because of their modernizing imperialism, 1870-1945). So: how to interpret this brave new post-war world?

Harry Truman used the word “develop” in his inaugural speech in 1949. In the cold-war competition that was shaping up between the Communist Eastern Bloc and the Capitalist Western Bloc, Americans sought to win over newly-independent former colonies in Africa and Asia by promoting development. But “development” was a vague term. What really stuck in the 1950s and 1960s was the term “industrialization.” Writers at the time treated the Industrial Revolution itself as modernity, and thus the words modernization and industrialization were used interchangeably in the immediate postwar years. The hierarchy of national status was signified by being either “industrialized” (superior, modern, complete) or “industrializing” (inferior, backward, incomplete). As manufacturing moved out of the U.S. and Europe, and eventually into what had been called “industrializing” countries, that terminology became obsolete and we went back to using “developed” and “developing”, which turned out to be useful because of their vagueness. What does “developed” mean? Whatever the more powerful country decides it will mean, defined by indicators the powerful countries specify in UN and World Bank reports. As James Ferguson points out in Global Shadows, one of the main political functions of the discourse on development is to reinforce national status-hierarchies.

What gets missed in this schoolyard-bully rhetorical discourse is that white, formerly-imperial countries remain relatively wealthy, even though most manufacturing now occurs in low-status, poorer countries. So is Malaysia more ‘developed’ than the U.S. if a higher proportion of their population is working in factories? Commodity-chain analysts like Gary Gereffi and Robert Reich explain that most of the value-adding in commodity-chains does not occur in the act of actually manufacturing the product. Most of the value is in the brand, in the commodified form of reputation. So a pair of Nikes might cost $10 in parts and labor to produce in Viet Nam, but it sells in U.S. malls for $100. Most of that value-difference is captured by Nike through its claims to the Nike Trade-Mark as property.

Ah: so now we get back to the shift in property-rights that produced the Industrial Revolution in the first place. ‘Globalization’ in the form of transnational production and trade involves the extension of intellectual property regimes to a global scale. In fact the degree of lack of globalization of a country roughly parallels its inability/unwillingness to enforce a regime of intellectual property. So the regime is spans the world like an archipelago, not like a comprehensive blanket. You probably need to pay Microsoft and Adobe for licensed software in South Africa; you probably cannot buy a legal copy of Windows or Photoshop in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The “net” metaphor still works, but it is worth noting that nets have holes in them; gaps where whole populations drop through to extreme poverty. But even as a geographically partial system, this transnational regime of IP-enforcement makes the New International Division of Labor possible.

Furthermore, this valuation of reputation is explicitly cultural in how it maintains a hierarchy of international prestige. Raw technical inventions might be ‘culturally neutral’ (though I welcome challenges to this claim), but ‘reputation’ in the form of legally-enforceable trade-mark is explicitly cultural (ooh! Pokemon! Manga! Who gets the profit from these?). And brand-property seems to be far more valued than technology-property in global trade. So in the cultural politics of global trade, the fact that Apple iPhones are judged (by the judge himself!) as “cooler” than Samsung Galaxy phones, that is an act of privileging California product-reputation over South-Korean product-reputation. In terms of technologies, both Samsung and Apple have infringed each other’s patents repeatedly. Mutual patent-infringement is normally a healthy process that promotes rapid technical innovations. In contrast, the ugly spat between Samsung and Apple is a conflict over reputation. Both corporations understand this to be the most significant basis-of-value in world trade.

Technological innovation continues to matter very much in the grim and shadowy realm of military supremacy. Industrial-era imperialism from the Dakotas to the Transvaal to the Ganges plain relied on mass-production of rapid-fire guns (from the Colt revolver through the repeating rifle to the machine gun). Firearms were the key instrument of ‘civilized’ domination over ‘savages.’ Now it is software security and stability in the control of robotic weapons and sensors. Aircraft-carriers are visually impressive, but big ships can be destroyed by little missiles or torpedoes that are the cybernetic ‘arms’ of increasingly cybernetic militaries. So long as the controlling-signal cannot be disrupted nor commandeered, the warrior can extend their “digital ki” over tens of thousands of kilometers to strike at the enemy, or perceive subtle shifts in that enemy’s intentions.

That military supremacy also matters in the creation and enforcement of terms of trade. A truly intimidating country has negotiating leverage even in multilateral negotiations, such as at the WTO. But military asymmetry really shows up in bilateral negotiations. Uncle Sam says: “Hey Haiti! How about lowering import-export duties? Yeah, we know you need the money, but it’s all about the principle of free trade. You feel free, don’t you? Our Marines occupied your country a decade ago (and six decades ago) to make sure you would be free. How’bout those trade-terms?”

To recap: the competition for reputation among corporations, as a fundamental basis-of-value and as a key aspect of global trade, is widely understood; it is playing out in ad campaigns for smart-phones as I write. Development-studies theorists reveal how this ostensibly private competition is linked to the idea of ‘development’ and national prestige. What I want to emphasize is how the commodification of three intangibles–ideas, innovations, and reputation–laid the foundation for most of the political economy and material culture that we experience today. Industrialization is an effect that can be exported or appropriated like technology itself; but intellectual property remains the key basis of value-production and domination. This is not a new emergence of intellectual property in the 21st century; it has been the crucial  ingredient since at least 1760.

How did the ‘political’ get removed from political economy?

In this post I continue to use historical research to challenge present political rhetoric. Matt Groening paints a vivid picture of a businessman from the 1980s in Futurama. It is satirical, but satire is only so funny because of that disturbing ring of truth in the description of homo economicus and his contemptuous disregard for the past:

“You’re a shark. Sharks are winners.
And they don’t look back, because they don’t have necks.
Necks are for sheep.”
–1980s business guy in “Future stock” episode of Futurama

Argument #2: Economies are inherently political

One of the core assumptions of “free”-market advocates is that economics can be separated from politics, both in practice and in theory. This is an idea that dates only to the late 19th century, the era of robber-barons and laissez-faire economic instability.

On the theory side, John Locke, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx all worked with the assumption that the governing of a nation and its economic welfare were integrally linked. Smith did flesh out many of the concepts of a national economy, but even when he was publishing (1759-1789), no-one had yet put a name to a ‘national economy.’ In the 1700s, the term ‘economy’ only meant efficiency; we still use it that way when we say that some objective was achieved with ‘an economy of means,’ but this usage has almost been forgotten. The root term ‘oeconomy’ was still used in the 1700s to mean the management of the material resources of the household (oikos). Heilbroner (1992: 265) identifies a quote of Smith in which he uses household-management as a metaphor for national resource-management:

“What is prudence in the conduct of every private family, can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom.” (Book IV, Ch.ii, p. 293 of the 1993 Oxford press edition).

I once interviewed Robert Reich about the genealogy of these terms. He argued that Smith would have called himself a moral philosopher. The theorists in the early and mid-19th century, from Ricardo to Marx, called their field of inquiry political-economy. So when did economy become conceptually divorced from politics? Towards the end of the 19th century. Reich suggested I look at the writings of Alfred Marshall.

So here is an interesting thing: “free”-market advocates almost universally revere Adam Smith, and almost never mention Alfred Marshall. That is weird. Jacques Derrida suggests that hegemonic ideologies often erase or suppress the moment of their origin in order to maintain an illusion of ‘inevitability’ or ‘naturalness.’ How Marshall became forgotten I cannot understand, because he wrote the textbook that frames economics as we understand it in the 21st century. Principles of economics was first published in 1890. By the eighth edition (1920), it was the established textbook that explains things like the supply and demand curves. Paul Samuelson’s Economics (1948) continues the tradition of describing economics without politics, and remained in publication through the 16th edition of 1998. But to underscore the specific influence of Marshall’s Principles, note that the premier textbooks on economics today use exactly the same title as Marshall. Case & Fair’s (1990) Principles of economics is now in its 10th (2012) edition; N. Gregory Mankiw’s Principles of economics (1998) is now in its 6th edition (2010); Robert Frank and Ben Bernanke version of Principles of economics is now on its 5th edition (2011).

So what did Reich mean when he argued that Marshall tried to de-politicize economics? Let Marshall himself answer the question, on p. 36 of the 8th edition of Principles:

But though thus largely directed by practical needs, economics avoids as far as possible the discussion of those exigencies of party organization, and those diplomacies of home and foreign politics of which the statesman is bound to take account in deciding what measures that he can propose will bring him nearest to the end that he desires to secure for his country. It aims indeed at helping him to determine not only what hat end should be, but also what are the best methods of a broad policy devoted to that end. But it shuns many political issues, which the practical man cannot ignore: and it is therefore a science, pure and applied, rather than a science and an art. And it is better described by the broad term ‘Economics’ than by the narrower term ‘Political Economy.’

Let’s pick this nugget apart. First, it is worth noting Marshall’s gendered assumptions that both economists and political decisionmakers must be male. We can dismiss (apologize) for this gender-bias as a ‘product of its time,’ but at some point we need to take responsibility for how that past continues to directly shape our present.

Second: Marshall is trying to promote legitimacy for the discipline of economics as a “science,” which fits with prevailing assumptions about positivism and objectivism. 21st-century scholars (and universities) categorize economics as a social science, which is a halfway-measure to reject the idea that it is a natural (and thus most-prestigious) science like chemistry. Outside of the academy, economics is an unmistakably political Art. By this I mean that the implementation of economic policies relies on practical judgment (phronesis) to make decisions based on indeterminately complex uncertainties. Natural sciences rely on unchanging principles such as number theory and physical laws (at least we used to think they were unchanging, back in the 1890s when Marshall was writing). Thus, scientists generally use the epistemic mode of reasoning. But economic policy, like city planning, cannot be boiled down to exact and absolutely certain principles. If it could, I don’t think the financial panic of 2008 would have occurred.

Third: Marshall makes an intriguing rhetorical maneuver at the end of the paragraph: he calls “economics” a broad term, and “political economy” a narrow term. So, if we exclude politics and only focus on mathematical formulas for supply, demand, and inflation rates, that is supposed to be more broad? Even considering the difference in ideas and assumptions of the 1880s and 1890s, it is hard to fathom how Marshall can conclude a paragraph in which he describes the removal of policy and politics from consideration as a broadening of the discipline.

The politics in economics

In the 21st century, it might seem like a straw-man argument to pick on Marshall, if I could dismiss the fact that so many standard textbooks still imply that economics is an exact (read: scientific) discipline; if I could dismiss the fact that they not only emulate the framework of Marshall’s textbook, they use its exact name. The polite workaround for this weird distortion was to introduce a new subdiscipline of ‘Macro-economics.’ The scope of macroeconomics is national and international economics—in other words, the same scope as political economy from Smith (1776) to Marx (1859). Economics, as Marshall framed it, is now ‘microeconomics’ in contrast to ‘macro.’ But if the modifiers are omitted, ‘economics’ is assumed to be the narrow, quantitative discipline that Marshall described—and at the same time, it is assumed to be comprehensive. Who was it that politely sidestepped this contradiction and framed the concept of macroeconomics in the 20th century? Alfred Marshall’s student: John Maynard Keynes.

A little economic history: Adam Smith advocated competitive markets, not “free” markets

This is the second post in a series about political economy.

I begin with an intriguing historical observation that pertains to present electoral politics: the guy who convinced Franklin D. Roosevelt to engage in public spending was a wealthy Mormon businessman. His name was Marriner Eccles, and he chaired the Federal Reserve Board from 1934 to 1948.

Why does this matter? In today’s American politics, advocates of deregulated capitalism are arguing that the only ‘alternative’ is socialism. Such a flawed and false dichotomy is only possible in a world of public debate where almost all history and most economic theory is ignored or forgotten.

So a little history. I have been reading the 1992 edition of Robert Heilbroner’s The worldly philosophers (first edition was 1953, but he kept revising). On page 275, Heilbroner interrupts his biography of John Maynard Keynes to point out that the Roosevelt administration was already implementing the policies Keynes advocates in General theory of employment, interest, and money (1936). Heilbroner’s does not clearly explain how and why the Roosevelt administration adopted an interventionist policy. But since the financial panic of 2007, a number of leading economists have taken a closer look at the past, including Robert Reich.  In Aftershock (2010), Reich begins with a description of how and why Eccles pushes Roosevelt to “prime the economic pump” through public borrowing and spending. In 2010, Reich’s observation that a wealthy Mormon businessman pushed Roosevelt towards economic interventionism was an interesting historical observation. Today, it lends some sharp perspective to present politics.

History matters. Especially the history of political-economic thought and rhetoric. In the last post, I pointed out that government intervention seems to correlate with long-run economic growth, and with sustained national wealth. But that is an empirical, generic set of observations. The following posts provide some key concepts for understanding how government intervention can promote and sustain national economic growth. However it is not a one-size-fits-all formula; so far as I can tell there is no single solution for economic recovery from the 2007-2008 debt and finance crisis. “Government intervention” is not one solution. That term covers every public intervention into economic activity, ranging from local NIMBY activists opposing a housing development, all the way up to Federal Reserve management of interest rates and the money supply. Which public-policy interventions into the economy can promote growth? The simplistic conservative answer is ‘none,’ and contemporary political rhetoric obscures many of the nuances of political-economic theory.

To clear away some of this fog it is worth looking back at the history of economic policies, but also the ideas that frame both policies and current rhetoric. In this post I am only going to explore the distinction between “free” markets and competitive markets.

Argument #1: Competitive markets, not “free” markets.

Adam Smith is often cited as the patron saint of “free” markets (and everything else must be socialism!!). First clarification: what conservatives mean by “free” markets today is deregulation. We have done a pretty good job of dismantling regulations back to the era of the robber-barons of the 1890s, all under the supposed blessing of Saint Smith. But Adam Smith argued for competitive markets, not deregulated markets. Smith did argue for freedom: the freedom of commoners to engage in private, peer-to-peer contracts. He argued that the aristocracy and royalty should liberate the commoners to use their common sense to ‘truck and barter’ as they saw fit. That liberation was why John Stuart Mill called himself a Liberal in the 1840s and 1850s; for Mill, that meant promoting private enterprise, lowering taxes and customs-duties. But for both Smith and Mill, such a system would not work unless the government did two things:

a) protect private property and private contracts with a public system of police and courts.
b) make sure that markets remained competitive, not monopolistic.

In fact Smith’s metaphor of the “Invisible Hand” was an argument for competitive markets, and against monopolistic domination. Smith argued that production and trade did not need Royal/Aristocratic direct control because two forces in the market tend to counterbalance each other:
a) the greed of the producer, who will try to get the maximum profit from production, and
b) the willingness of the buyer to go to other producers offering a lower price.
So the “Invisible Hand” is not at all mystical. Nor is it a justification for letting an unregulated market run. Rather, it is an argument that two factors—greed and competition—work as feedback mechanisms against each other to yield the best production at the optimal price. In such a competitive market, prices tend to be driven down to virtually zero profits; producers will sell to buyers at the break-even point. At such low prices, buyers are willing to buy more; so a lot is produced (Heilbroner 1992:57).

Example of competitive market: basic clothing. Cloth used to be super-expensive, before mechanical spinning, weaving, and knitting. Compared to the 1700s and before, modern households spend a teeny fraction of their wealth on clothing today. Why? Because the the production and trade in clothing (aside from fancy brands) is super-competitive, and production is massive.

Example of less-competitive market: smart-phones. These are incredibly useful items, so demand is extremely high. But there are very few producers in this market. RIM (Blackberry) and Palm seem to be dropping out. In terms of operating systems, it is mostly Apple and Android (Google); even Microsoft is dropping off (though they might come back in this market; Lord knows they are trying). In terms of hardware, there is Apple, Samsung, and then HTC. At the second-tier of less-known smartphone-makers it may be highly competitive, but at the top, there are only two and they charge excessive prices for their hardware.

Even less-competitive? Oil companies and banks. The U.S. has allowed gross consolidation of firms in these two sectors, so that very, very few are left. Let’s set aside details for the moment about multiple gas stations and prices at the pump, etc., and look at a simple relationship: very few oil companies left in the market. Massive profits to those oil companies. That is monopolism. It is not rocket science. And it might be a “free” market in conservative terms, but it is definitely not Smith’s idea of a competitive market.

Examples of least-competitive markets? Narcotics and human trafficking are often cited as prime examples of unregulated markets (i.e. Alex Marshall, 2000). However as a planner, I am interested in whole urban, regional, and even national economies. And the best example I can think of at the moment is Somalia. You want a place where ‘the government is so small it could be drowned in a bathtub?’ Try Mogadishu. It was the capital, but Somalia has not had an effective national government since the early 1990s. As perhaps the supreme example to the U.S. Republican ideal of ‘small government,’ what is the resulting aggregate wealth of the nation of Somalia? Well, neither the World Bank nor the IMF will list Somalia in their rankings, because the numbers are so uncertain. However the CIA lists Somalia as 191st out of 194 countries. Yeah! Deregulate! The University of Pennsylvania lists Somalia at 181 out of 185 countries, with an estimated GDP/capita of $547 per year. Interestingly, a country with quite valuable exports lists at the very bottom of all four estimates: the Democratic Republic of Congo, with its oil and rare-earth minerals, is a place where the U.S.-supported dictator Mobutu Sese Seko became a billionaire. Estimated per GDP/capita is somewhere between $300 and $400 per year (in purchasing power parity terms) for the Congolese. Minimal government in the DRC? Absolutely. Valuable resources? Some of the best in the world. If we ask Smith’s question about the nature and causes of the wealth (or lack thereof) of this nation, compared to nations with far poorer natural resources like Denmark, Singapore, Finland, and South Korea, you have to work pretty hard to deny the possibility that strong regulatory regimes might have something to do with aggregate wealth-generation.

Economic intervention vs. deregulation: empirical comparisons

This is the first in a series of postings about political economy.

Over the past year I have been teaching about globalization. So I have had to clarify my own understanding of where we got ideas about macroeconomics and the debate between those who want to continue regulating national economies and those who want to deregulate.

I advocate maintaining the regulations that prevent monopolies, and regulations that prevent fraud and other unethical activities. So I advocate more regulation than we had under George W. Bush. I don’t think Exxon and Mobil should have been allowed to merge. I don’t think the Glass-Steagall Act should have been repealed. I oppose the de-funding of regulatory enforcement under Reagan and Bush. I don’t think we should “get the government out of business.” Why?

A quick glance at the world over the past 100 years shows that countries with more government regulation and intervention have had greater economic growth, or maintained much higher wealth. I will start with two examples:

1. Sweden went from a feudal country with extreme poverty and starvation in the 1890s to one of the wealthiest per-capita societies in the world by the 1970s under the leadership of the Swedish Social Democratic Party. This began under the leadership of Hjalmar Branting, 1907-1925, and continued under Hansson, Erlander, Palme, Carlsson, and Persson.

2. Korea went from utter devastation in 1954 to joining the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 1996. OECD membership means you are one of the top “developed” countries in the world. Much of this development occurred under autocrats: Syngman Rhee (1948-1960) and General Park Chung-hee (1962-1979).

Why did I pick Sweden and Korea as examples? First of all, many people dismiss Scandinavian countries as some sort of weird paradises where ‘small population and high social cohesion’ supposedly explain why they can be highly-regulated and still be rich. There is also some sort of myth that they were always rich. Bullshit. My great-great grandparents fled Sweden because they were destitute and faced starvation. You are on the internet now: go look it up. Within our family, the story is that the Swedish parliamentary reforms of the early 20th century only happened because the King and his nobles were humiliated by the mass-emigration of Swedes to the United States.

As for ‘cultural homogeneity,’ Sweden (and Norway) have allowed so many Muslims to immigrate that conservative Americans now criticize them for their humanitarian ‘leniency.’ So now Sweden is a multicultural paradise that cannot be used as a model?

In contrast to Sweden’s very democratic path to development, South Korea’s path was a sort of ‘dictatorial interventionism.’ By choosing these two examples, I am arguing that there are multiple paths toward ‘development,’ but what they share is strong interventionism by the government in the economy. In general terms, Japan’s path resembled Sweden’s after WWII, with active democracy and strong land-reforms. Likewise with Taiwan. So the idea that ‘east Asians accept autocrat-led development’ is another piece of malarkey.

In fact among 21st century countries the United States is on the interventionist end of the spectrum. The notion that we have a “free” market economy is political vapor. The bailouts, buyouts, subsidies, and protections we have enacted on everything from farming to urban mass transit to banks to manufacturing is hard to overstate. Here is the least-known example: most mass-transit systems in American cities were developed by private companies in the early 20th century. Many went bankrupt in the 1940s and 1950s as Americans bought into an automobile-centered lifestyle. Yes, GM’s National City Lines did dismantle many of the streetcar systems, but cities also took over many networks to create public mass-transit systems–from the New York subways to San Francisco’s Muni. GM suppressed mass-transit in Detroit. So compare: how is Detroit doing compared to NYC and San Francisco?

Only two options? A false choice

The false dichotomy that is used in American political rhetoric today is that the only two options are “free” markets or “socialism.” And by socialism, de-regulation advocates seem to be referring only to the late-Soviet command-economies, not Scandinavia. In the real world, existing political economies in the 21st century range from low to high levels of intervention, but they are all some sort of market economy (one significant and disturbing exception: North Korea). The People’s Republic of China is the quintessential example: they “broke the iron rice bowl” in 1978 and dismantled the Maoist command-economy system. Provinces, districts, and cities now need to figure out their own ways to generate wealth. Is it interventionist? Oh yes, aggressively so. Has it yielded economic growth? Yes, about 9% per year on average since 1978. At the beginning, this was not so remarkable, because the growth began from a low starting point. But by the end of the 20th century, when the PRC was buying up a large portion of the U.S. debt and it still maintained an average 9% growth rate? How about since 2007, when Western economies shrank and China’s growth rate has not yet dropped below 7%?

Empirically, all these examples show that it would be absurd to argue that ‘the only path to economic growth is through deregulation.’ At the very least, Sweden, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, the US itself, and the PRC show that very active government intervention can lead to economic growth. If we compare these very interventionist economies to the laissez-faire economies of sub-Saharan Africa, or Russia in the decade after the fall of the USSR, there is a lot of empirical evidence that sustained high economic growth can only happen through interventionist policies.

Here is the only partial counter-example I can think of over the last 60 years: the United Kingdom in the 1980s and 1990s. Deregulation under Thatcher and Major did seem to restore London’s role as a global financial capital. But even that seems to have hit its limit: the deregulatory “austerity” program under the Cameron government now seems to be hurting economic growth. Don’t ask me; look at Paul Krugman’s research on this.

The limitations of generalization

The problem with this set of empirical comparisons is that we have to resort to gross generalizations when quickly comparing multiple countries over a span of 100 years. What gets lost in all this broad-brush gesticulation is a finer examination of how the government-economy relationship can foster or hinder economic growth. Some negative examples can be explained pretty quickly: unregulated markets in the U.S., 1870-1929, led from one disastrous crash to another. Weak governments can also be commandeered by brutal rent-seekers at the mid-level and at the top, leading to predatory regimes like in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The opposite argument is harder to explain: how do interventionist political-economies yield long-run growth and sustained high wealth? It is easy to explain why Qatar, Saudi, and Brunei are wealthy: oil. Oil also plays a major factor in the wealth of the U.A.E. and Norway, but both of those countries are also actively engaged in more diversified development. However Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are all countries with relatively poor natural resources, high interventionism, and very high wealth. It works, but how?

Making sustainability awesome

Ananda Lee Tan referred me to current critique of environmental discourse: Bill McKibben sounding the Rational-Protestant alarm of Doom & Gloom, and three rebuttals to his argument–not refutations of threat of climate change, but of the finger-wagging rhetoric of McKibben which is so unlikely to motivate the broad spectrum of Americans into adjusting our lives in ways that improve our overall sustainability.

Living awesomely

I will get to some critique of my own in a moment, but this blog post is only going to be worth reading if you get to the fun stuff first. What if “changing our lifestyles to improve sustainability” meant changing our lifestyles to AWESOME? You live in a dense city because there is so much cool stuff to do, and so many friends you may meet on the street. Dense–not 4 units to the acre like Northeastern suburbs, nor 15 units to the acre like California suburbs–no–90 units to the acre, like Florence or Barcelona. Or maybe 180 units to the acre, like Venice Italy. Do you travel thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars to see these cities? Why settle for that experience only during vacations? We’re Americans! We can have that, too! We can live that urban life all year long!

Too young to drive? Too old to drive? But you want to meet your friends or see your grandchildren? You don’t have to live as a prisoner in your isolated home! You can take walks in your dense urban home, meet longtime friends and occasional acquaintances. You might also meet the occasional scary stranger–but not alone, on an isolated suburban street. No, in your awesome city, there are lots of people around, lots of eyes on the street. Look at the per-capita rate of violent crimes in New York City compared to rural North Carolina if you want a reality-check. The awesomeness of this dense city IS reality.

Do you believe in supporting strong family life? Like taking walks with your spouse, checking in and not being distracted by driving; like walks and bike rides with your children, to school, to the (nearby) grocery store, to their sports or arts events. What happens when you use your own muscle-power to move around your city every day? Lower blood-pressure; retention of bone-density; general fitness built into an awesome way of life. We are Americans! We have re-created our lives many times, breaking from stifling pasts and haunting histories to create this New World, with our eyes open.

Do you believe in justice? Two weeks ago I saw the bruise-purple cloud of toxic smoke from a Chevron oil refinery fire drift over Richmond and San Pablo, California. I did not hear alarms. The next day one of my students who lives in Richmond confirmed that he first heard the “shelter-in-place” notification about 4 hours after the fire broke out. This area–West Contra-Costa County–is known among us planners as ‘The Cancer Belt.’ House prices and rents in this area are remarkably low; we all know the danger. But if you are a poorer family and you want to live within range of good jobs and future opportunities for your children, you live under the shadow of industrial threat. This same story repeats itself in cities across the world: in Kabul, the poor lived under the acrid black smoke of the brickworks, where tires are burned as the fuel. So: protecting our environment means protecting living things, protecting Creation; and that includes the poor and vulnerable among us. It means always pushing for justice, for fairness. As Americans, we have made astounding progress improving air and water quality, food purity, and product safety. We know we all have the right to breathe the free air, and breathe it freely. This is our quest, this is our vision as a people, as a Republic whose very existence is an unprecedented experiment.

The case for (scientifically-informed) public rhetoric

What I have written above is backed by the hard facts and hard thinking of thousands of people. You may notice that it is not directly about environmental sustainability; I will get to the details of that in the following section. But more important than the details (which you probably know) is that I have tried to write this as a politically persuasive vision–as rhetoric, as political talking points that you are welcome to use. And I have not addressed this vision to “the choir” of people who are already committed to sustainability and social justice. George Lakoff pointed out that rational argumentation falls flat as political rhetoric. Perhaps an unfortunate consequence of the Enlightenment Era was that rhetoric gained a bad reputation; perhaps we conflated ‘persuasive argumentation’ with disingenuous salesmanship, with distortion of the facts. Supposedly, the facts themselves make the most persuasive and authentic argument. No. Flat-out, no. In 1984 I took “Climatic Change” from Orman Granger in the Department of Geography at U.C. Berkeley. 28 years ago, and he had been teaching this course about both natural and human-induced climate change for years by the time I took it in 1984.

Are we objectively certain that human consumption-patterns are causing destructive climate change? No: we will never have that kind of certainty. But do we know that our consumptive lifestyles are causing damage? Yes. There is a world of difference between absolute certainty and actionable knowledge. The world, in this case, is the earth: ours to keep or lose.

WE KNEW–if you were ever curious–scientists have known for decades about the upcoming consequences of human-induced climate change. No, it wouldn’t get warmer everywhere–we knew this too–but more energy in the system would mean more energetic storms. Maybe like the massive gust that hit the East Coast this summer (2012)? Or the unprecedented tornadoes that hit Alabama last year? I don’t think that composite tornadoes of that scale and frequency have ever been recorded before. Or hurricanes in 2005? We couldn’t forecast the details with certainty; we still can’t. But in the larger sense, we knew this would happen. Most importantly, climate scientists could not make a convincing political case for deep changes to American patterns of consumption that might prevent or mitigate widespread suffering. Scientific data and analysis DOES NOT argue its own case; and politicians may have deeply-vested interests in discrediting scientific enquiry.

Politicians use a widespread mischaracterization of science to score rhetorical points. Supposedly “science” means ‘objective knowledge’ which is either absolutely certain or totally invalid. Scientists are lousy at countering this attack because competent researchers are thoroughly committed to the ethic of uncertainty. Einstein tried to explain this (1923,_Norway) by pointing out persistent problems with the Theory of Special Relativity. But maybe Heisenberg expressed it best in 1927 with his Uncertainty Principle. The few scientific discoveries that make a political impact are the ones that humans resist, because we want certainty. In the 16th and 17th centuries, European natural philosophers resisted the Heliocentric model of the solar system because the new model meant that the earth itself was in motion. Humans would have to abandon the idea of terra firma, the idea of the earth as a ‘natural’ constant and stable point of reference. Evolution continues to be resisted because it directly challenges our stable self-conception. Rather than ‘human nature’ as a constant that dates back to Eden and the creation of the world, we need to ask when core human behavioral traits emerged, and how. Even as recently as the mid-1960s, American geologists resisted the theory of continental drift because it “just didn’t make sense that continents could move.” We deeply desire certainty and continuity. Scientific arguments that upset certainties and constants cause serious political trouble. And if the data is messy, complex, and uncertain, humans (not just politicians) express our hidden lust for constancy by ridiculing and dismissing the data and the researchers.

The science of climate-modeling is the least certain, because it depends upon so many variables. Exact forecasting is infeasible because of the number of inputs to the model. So trying to use ‘rational argumentation’ is a crap strategy. Suppose your great-great-great grandchildren find your gravestone etched with “I was right! The science is correct! Humans are changing the climate in destructive ways!” Will they really appreciate your principled position as they cover their mouths against the dust and scavenge for food and water? Will they think that you cared about them and the future of the earth, or just that you wanted to point out that you are right and others are wrong? Objective certainty is not what we need now. Major change is what we need, and fast.

Changing American lifestyles towards awesomeness will take very aggressive and persistent rhetoric. But I don’t mean aggression directed at others, not condemnation. One of the most aggressive, confrontational, and effective rhetoricians I know of was Mahatma Gandhi. He was not mild nor sweet; but he was willing to be publicly beaten and mocked, when he knew that it would get political results. What I mean by aggressive is to find every truthful way to persuade, even if it means making fun of ourselves. We are NOT trying to save our pride, nor our dignity. We are trying to figure out how to live together with our planet.

The details: Why Awesome Sustainability needs to be Urban

Petermann, Smolker, and Brunner rightly point out that efforts to ‘maintain the status-quo American lifestyle’ would be disastrous. Yes, we use biofuels to power our grossmobiles (Sport Utility Vehicles); but already this has affected world grain prices (most have tripled since 2007, I believe) as American ethanol-users out-bid poor households trying to buy food.

In summary, the overall pattern of American consumption is destructive. And that pattern, quite literally, is the pattern of our cities. We have locked ourselves into a high-consumption pattern where we must use tremendous amounts of energy merely to get to school, to work, and to shop on a daily basis. And those single-family houses surrounded by lawns need a lot of (drinking-grade) water just to keep the crabgrass green. Many environmentalists see this as the Great Nemesis: that Americans will stoutly resist lifestyle-changes. That is a self-defeating conclusion. Americans want safety and wholesome environments for their children; but we make a lethal mistake if we equate that with suburbia. If a child is consigned to the back seat of a car for urban movement, they will become obese; THAT is certain t be unwholesome and harmful to their long-term health.

I would give up hope if I did not think that dense, walkable cities can be far better living environments. But cities ARE awesome! In future blog posts I will write about the mundane, straightforward way of living in cities and raising your family in cities. No extremism here: just practical, feasible, daily things that have other rewards and side-benefits. Do we all have to wear hair-shirts flog ourselves in self-mortification for our sins of over-consumption? No!! That is not living, and it is an utter dead-end as a politically persuasive vision. What is the modern vision? To make life better for yourself and your children. How do we do it now? Yes, I want my fast internet. But in a few years we will be able to power that whole system with photovoltaics. I want my kids to be close enough to their friends that they can walk to each others’ houses. That requires density. I want to be able to walk or bike to most things, and take the train to my job so that I can read and prepare for teaching rather than stress out in traffic. I don’t need to take food from any poor family to provide my own family with a rockin’ lifestyle. We can do this. We will be remembered for millennia either for success or failure in this effort; if there is to be a future for humanity, they are watching our political moment quite intensely.

Baker-Landis wedding

On Saturday, July 7, Amy and Gary had their fantastic barbecue picnic. On Sunday they got married at St. Gregory’s. Here I am posting pictures I took during the service, for all to enjoy but especially for Amy and Gary to download:

Foreclosures by race: Black Exodus

I got some interest in the map and analysis in the previous post, and upon request I have proceeded to overlay race data with foreclosure data. It should not surprise anyone that the news is grim. But better than a graph, a map shows disparities in space. So:

The above image is the same foreclosure data I showed in the previous blog posting, with the surrounding Alameda County cities removed…

This second image is exactly the same area, but it shows the percentage of African-Americans out of the total population of each Census Block in 2000. The data is provided by the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Why did I use 2000 data instead of 2010 data? I will get to that below. First, let’s overlay these two maps:

Yeah, what I suspected and dreaded. But wait: what about the Fruitvale area in the center of Oakland, where the density of foreclosures is high, but the concentration of African-Americans is not so high?

Mmm. Higher concentration of Hispanics.

Now: why did I use 2000 Census data in these maps? Because in the Planning Department at UC Berkeley we have been tracking the exodus of African-Americans from Oakland for more than a decade. We know that African-Americans are being displaced, moving to Antioch, Stockton, and new developments in smaller Central Valley towns like Patterson. The maps above show indirect evidence of this: the UC Census only releases block-level data to protect the privacy of individuals; so we can only impute that a high rate of foreclosures in a neighborhood with 60-80% African-Americans means that the African-Americans themselves are being displaced. But a comparison of the 2000 and 2010 Census data for Oakland confirms the actual exodus:

This is a screenshot of ABAG’s data with African-American data underlined. Alone among all the populations in Oakland, the proportion of African-Americans is declining. This is a reversal of the Great Migration of the 20th century, when African-Americans fled rural violence in the South and moved to cities where they became industrial workers. Now, they are being priced out of the job-center–the inner Bay Area–and commuting far longer distances from places where they thought they could live. I have been hearing (and now I am collecting) stories about this exodus: moving out to Pittsburg/Bay Point/Antioch, and Stockton, Modesto, and smaller Valley towns and then facing even more severe foreclosure and community collapse in the Central Valley.
So: if I had used the 2010 Census-block data, the presence of African-Americans would show up more faintly on the maps above, because the massive displacement of African-American families was already underway (as the table above shows). The older data shows the communities that would be targeted by deregulated banks and mortgage-sellers from 2002 to 2007.

One more map, to show what we may want to fight for and defend: diversity.

The East Bay stands out among cities across the world for its ethnic diversity. Technically, formally, we are citizens of the United States. But in practice, we are residents of the East Bay, and in its original form, citizen is a contraction of ‘city-denizen.’ Citizenship–the sense of being a member of a public society–still has this meaning because our habits and dispositions are formed from direct experience of the places we inhabit. The East Bay–and Oakland especially–is one of the great formative sites of what the Stoics dreamed of as Kosmo-politei: being an engaged member of the whole, a world citizen in practice, not just in ideals. That diversity means age (the foreclosures in the hills may be concentrated among elderly people who were also targeted for bad mortgages), as well as ethnicity and class. This foreclosure crisis is forcing yet another re-segregation, a mass-expulsion which amounts to a refugee crisis. I do not use the term ‘refugee’ lightly: my primary work over the past decade has been in Afghanistan. The American foreclosure crisis is not as visible, until you start looking a little closer and seek out stories of foreclosure.

This brutal mass-expulsion is all legal. We have written the laws and allowed the policies that make predatory lending practices legal. If we are an ethical people, we will pressure our legislatures, courts, and corporations to change those policies.

I close with a brief meditation on racism. In the 1960s we talked very abstractly about “the System” and “the State” when in fact discriminatory policies were very specific. Now I think we need to flip that pattern. In general, the structure and rules of social relations in the U.S. are racist. That should not be news to any American; but if it is, the data above is pretty good evidence of that bias.
The way racism works, though, is through neutral market rules applied in a non-neutral society. As one example, deregulation has meant that banks are free to behave as their staff prefers. When we get to the fine detail of loan decisions, bankers assess risk based on a lot of social factors. One of those factors is whom they know. So if bankers live in the hills, and send their kids to prep schools, and take vacations in Tahoe and Europe, then poorer African-Americans who are a lower default-risk are an unknown population. That sort of unfamiliarity promotes phobia (fear/hatred) in a very human way.
Very common, prosaic practices are perpetuating racism. The way we commute in cities, patterns of recreation, whom we encounter on a daily basis on sidewalks, in public-transit vehicles, in cafes and(or) fast-food joints. If we know this, what are the ethical things we can do to prevent this legal means of forced re-segregation and displacement?

If foreclosure refugees want to come back, then as citizens we should implement this right-of-return.

Foreclosure-evictees were mortgage-holders. One way to facilitate their return is to request reparations from banks in the form of new and rehabilitated housing for the victims of foreclosure, in the neighborhoods from which they were expelled. The legal rights-nexus is clear, and many of these neighborhoods are precisely the places that need investment in the people who live there. Building and refurbishing housing for foreclosure-refugees might do what gentrification fails to do: improve the condition of the urban environment by actually helping the people who have lived in that neighborhood for decades.