Thursday, June 28, 2018

Cities And The Evolution Of Nations

     If you haven’t read Jane Jacobs’s visionary book Cities And The Wealth Of Nations, you should grab a copy before they’re all gone. Miss Jacobs, in her time one of the most astute of all analysts of social organization and development, laid out a brilliant case for the city as the critical element in human economic progress. When it was published in 1984, there was nothing else like it, certainly nothing in macroeconomic analysis that shared its daring premise.

     But as with books on any other sociological or economic topic, a book on macroeconomics will be conceived and written within a conceptual framework whose bounds are set by existing conditions, especially existing political and technological conditions. Miss Jacobs’s vision did not allow for several important changes in our informational and technological milieu that followed her treatise. Indeed, it could be argued that those changes were driven in part by the centrality of cities in the structure of production of the post-World War II decades.

     Consider: the world’s major cities are almost all on high-traffic waterways. The world’s major cities almost all possess extensive rail links and are near major airports. The world’s major cities almost all emphasize the production of some physical good. Those cities that have become important information hubs, such as New York City, started out as manufacturing centers and more recently transitioned to emphasize other enterprises. Those newer enterprises require a lot less in the way of transportation capacity for physical cargo.

     Consider also: until recently, virtually any joint economic undertaking required those engaged in it to gather in some agreed-upon location. Today, even manufacturing has deemphasized such aggregation of persons. More of just about every physical production task is performed by automated systems – colloquially, robots – than by men. There are exceptions, of course; we don’t yet have robots that build skyscrapers, for example. But the trend is away from the prior requirement for human hands concentrated in a single location.

     So today cities, previously critical to economic advancement, are transitioning away from that role. Some are becoming cultural and entertainment centers. Others are beginning to emphasize the provision of special living arrangements. Others (e.g., capital cities) are sustained solely by politics. And others are gradually fading away.

     The city, like all human institutions, arose under specific social and technological conditions to serve needs and desires that could not be easily met in other ways. Changes in the underlying milieu have altered the incentives and dynamics that propelled the growth of cities. They won’t wither away in the near or intermediate term, but their importance to economic advancement has peaked and is likely to decline for the foreseeable future.

     Which brings us to this article by Mark “Mad Dog” Sherman. Mark’s focus is on the cities’ slow bleed of population to the suburbs and exurbs. Please read it all, including the article it cites. The core of Mark’s piece:

     The real problem cities face is that the politicians believe that the city is so attractive to business that the city can do as it pleases. This is last century thinking. We have yet to see the implementation of the new socio-economic model. It will come, for the same reasons that the industrial model replaced the agricultural model, and the model to come will follow the industrial model. The city cannot structure itself for the present and survive the coming change, just as the agricultural city of 1750 could not have doubled down on its model and survived the change to the industrial revolution.

     Change is certainly afoot. However, the rise of the automobile, cited by the NewGeography article, isn’t as important to the new dynamics as it might seem. Remember that for at least the first twenty-five years after World War II, the preponderance of auto travel was for commutation into and out of the cities where their owners worked. For a while, it appeared to be a stable pattern that could be expected to continue indefinitely.

     Throughout the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries there were powerful incentives to live in cities. But there were also costs to such decisions: reduced living space per person, the endurance of congestion, noise, and mandatorily centralized municipal services, and perhaps most important of all, the acceptance that one has chosen to be part of a target for politicians and other sorts of predators.

     Predators of all sorts gather where the prey is fattest and least well defended. I theorized about this in a fictional setting:

     “Now, we know from historical data that predators of all sorts will concentrate where the prey is fattest. The State, which is merely an organized band of predators with a veneer of legitimacy derived either from tradition or from a manufactured appearance of the consent of its subjects, took a huge fraction of its subjects' annual production from them in taxes. A typical State would increase its exactions on its subjects faster than those subjects could increase their own fortunes. That compelled wage earners to strive ever harder just to run in place, with obvious consequences for production and marketing.”

     In the postwar years, no group of victims-to-be was nearly as fat or as poorly defended as the denizens of a major city. Thus, ambitious politicians, their hangers-on, and other species of scum arrowed directly toward the big cities and battened on them.

     As I wrote that last, I found myself thinking that city dwellers’ awareness of their vulnerability to political predation might have been part of what drove the development of technologies that would support the decentralization of human enterprise. Whatever the case, as the requirements for joint enterprise ceased to emphasize the collection of human workers in central locales, the other disincentives and costs to city life began to loom large. Population growth in the suburbs, exurbs, and countryside was fueled by emigrants from the cities.

     City emigrants are no longer as important to the growth of those alternatives as they once were. Economic opportunities and social supports are plentiful in the more dispersed regions. Additionally, the “information economy” has made it possible for many kinds of work to be done out of the home. In consequence, new adults and newly formed families don’t face the balance of economic and social incentives their progenitors faced in choosing where to live.

     Still, I must disagree with Mark’s assertion that “The city was a mistake.” It was not; it was a transitional socioeconomic institution whose time of glory is now behind us. Jane Jacobs was right in her time and the years that preceded her landmark work. What’s coming will be different. Isn’t it always? And it, too, will have its time in the sun, to be delimited by changes at which one can only guess.

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