Jane Jacobs—The OG Liberal Localist?

liberal localism; choice excerpts from Dark Age Ahead: theory vs. reality, on credentialism, real news is local, the Chicago Heat Wave, subsidiarity and financial accountability

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Hi Friends,

I had been recommended Jane Jacobs for years and now that I’ve completed Dark Age Ahead, I wish that I had pursued that recommendation earlier. Jacobs shares my deep acknowledgement and respect for complexity, liberal biases, and unrelenting pragmatism. The ideas presented her work might be the closest to what I’ve appeared to have coined, or at least popularized, as “liberal localist”.

I don’t want to try to define what I mean by liberal localism in this post. The term liberal is fraught, which is why I’ve decided to partially claim it. It is at least in juxtaposition to illiberalism, which seems to be on the rise in our culture on both the right and the left. We all know it when we see it in those we disagree with. Illiberalism might as well be defined as “a willingness to use coercion and deception[, despite your proclaimed values of tolerance, freedom of expression, and love of liberty,] because you believe the ends justify the means.”

A few choice excerpts from Dark Age Ahead and commentary:

Ultimately, the real world tests all hypotheses, and usually quickly. When answers from the real world seem to come slowly, it is seldom the evidence itself that is slow to appear; rather, observers are blind to evidence or emotionally can't bear to credit it. This is why the crashing of the Berlin Wall finally was required as an exclamation point, after unheeded evidence of many decades reported that Marxism was untruthful as an economic theory.

It is not until the system catastrophically fails that many theorists are forced to admit that they were mistaken. Recently, even Bill Kristol had to admit that he was mistaken about the Iraq War. You can only see past the poor results of your ideas for so long. [This quote isn’t to deny the reality of class—the socially constructed categories based on behaviors and other associated signals.]

The credentials may indeed be a good investment for them but are not a good investment for society.

Other cultures have fallen victim in the past to disconnection between credentials and education. American and European scholars who observed the disconnection in nineteenth century China gave it the name mandarinism and denigrated it as stultifying.

Jacobs spends a good part of Dark Age Ahead discussing the issues that she foresaw coming in higher education. We often discuss the benefits of higher education from the point of the individual, ie. you will have significantly larger lifetime earnings if you have a college degree. This is different than the question of, “should we structure our society such that people who do not have a college degree will have meaningfully worse economic prospects?” Our obsession with credentialism has and will continue to cause a lot of pain.

...a large part of the country is economically stagnant or declining, and to understand what is going on behind national statistics on jobs, one must know where the jobs are being added or lost. It never happens amorphously, in the country as a whole. Everything that happens in the world happens at some place.

I love this quote. It prompted the phrase in my mind “real news is local.” Who is doing what, where, how? Statistics are not news. Moral claims are not news. Even the best spreadsheet is still an abstraction. It may be useful for making certain kinds of decisions but it will leave you blind to potential second and third order effects. Your measurement may even create unintended effects—Goodhart’s Law.

The combination of the appearance of professional respect for scientific rigor coupled with professional contempt for scientifically rigorous behavior is toxic, a poison that infects more activities in North America than the few I have pointed out here. It cripples foreign aid programs, pedagogy, and illegal drug policies, and it promotes dubious and harmful medical treatment, fads, nutrition, and other lifestyle advice, and agricultural recommendations.

Jacobs tells the story of the Chicago Heat Wave of 1995. 739 Chicagoans died as a result of the extreme heat. A terrible tragedy. The CDC went to investigate why so many individuals, particularly the elderly, had died. Their reports were unhelpful and did nothing to elucidate the asymmetries that led some people to die while others lived.

The American sociologist, Eric Klinenberg, conducted his own research to try to figure out what had happened. He discovered that there were 10x the deaths in the less walkable places in Chicago. The residents were not friends with the local shopkeepers and did not ask if they could loiter in their air conditioned shops. They were afraid they would be burglarized if they left their apartment. When their neighbors came to check on them, they did not trust them. As a result, they stayed home and died. In his book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, he articulates how the absence of community kills.

Subsidiarity is the principle that government works best—most responsibly and responsively—when it is closest to the people it serves and the needs it addresses. Fiscal accountability is the principle that institutions collecting and disbursing taxes work most responsibly when they are transparent to those providing the money.

The total inflows generated by taxes and outflows spent on projects and services are an, often distracting, abstraction. If you hate the military industrial complex, you have no problem seeing how the Pentagon has been a poor steward of public funds. Likewise, few people know that in real, inflation-adjusted dollars we’re currently paying by far the most per-pupil for government education that we ever have.

Meanwhile, I know from many of my teacher friends that they have had to spend their own money to provide certain supplies for their classrooms. These are the results of a lack of subsidiarity and fiscal accountability. There’s plenty of money being allocated (and there should be!) but there is no real accountability in how it is spent. It would be preferable to have a localized system where the decision-makers have wide-autonomy and yet can be held accountable for poor decisions (fired or perhaps worse). I could’ve chosen any number of systems for my examples.

For $25,000 per student, a teacher could teach 5 students, provide them catered, nutritious meals, and make $90,000.

No longer was new assisted housing set apart from the normal city, nor its residents stigmatized as project dwellers. If their incomes rose, they tended to stay by choice, making it feasible to raise rents when tenant's incomes rose, which released money to augment further infilling.

The biggest issue with housing in many localities is that it’s essentially illegal to build more. Existing landowners do not want there to be more apartment buildings. Every new unit is competition that could decrease their current rents. It’s also true that the locals may want to deter people from moving there—but that hasn’t worked out well in San Francisco. Excessive burdens to building new housing might just lead to your community, particularly renters, being forced to move to a less expensive area.

Jacobs describes how under the leadership of David Crombie and Michael Dennis, Toronto cut provincial and federal red tape and gained greater autonomy over its housing projects. They sought out smaller sites throughout the city where they could build new units of affordable housing. These projects were successful because they were woven into the fabric of the city. The tenants were part of a less transitory community, they could plant roots and they often did. Unfortunately, at least at the time of publication (2002), these projects were again inhibited by Canada’s federal bureaucracy.

In many expensive, gentrifying cities, how many dead parking lots could be turned into, publicly or privately owned, housing projects?

Perhaps the greatest folly possible for a culture is to try to pass itself on by using principles of efficiency. When a culture is rich enough and inherently complex enough to afford redundancy of nurturers, but eliminates them as an extravagance or loses their cultural services, through heedlessness of what is being lost, the consequence is self-inflicted cultural genocide.

Central planning, whether by leftists or conservatives, draws too little on local knowledge and creativity, stifles innovations, and is inefficient and costly because it is circuitous. It bypasses intimate and varied knowledge directly fed back into the system.

Much of this book is critiquing the neoconservative regime that was in power in Canada in 2002. However, people of all ideologies could learn a lot from the analysis of Jacobs. There were points in the book which were a bit slow, and would likely be redundant for someone who had read Jacobs’ other works, but it was overall enjoyable to read.

I loved how the book ends with a “Notes and Comments” section. She expands the discussion of certain topics that she had mentioned in the book and includes references to other works that she recommends. That section was over 40 pages and I read it in its entirety.

This book made me think a lot about the potential for a Dark Age, the damage that our present decisions are inflicting on the long-run health of our communities, and my own role in helping others to build and preserve community in their localities.

I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in public policy, urbanism, and community.

There’s quite a bit on my to-read right now but I intend to read several of the books mentioned in the bibliography: The Clock of the Long Now, Medieval Cities, Astounding, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, The Economy of Cities, Globalization and Its Discontents.

Please let me know if you liked this style of post. I’ve enjoyed writing a bit about this book as I worked through it, it certainly feels like it will help me to retain more of the ideas and anecdotes. As always, all constructive feedback is encouraged. This is still the early days of Seeking Tribe!

Your Friend,

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