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Monday
Aug022010

Debate Postmortem

One of the most chilling chapters in Jared Diamond's must-read, brilliant book Collapse is about Easter Island. In this chapter he describes how the Polynesians landed on Easter Island, this magnificent place with humongous trees, an amazing quarry, good fishing and wonderful topsoil. They then proceeded to establish a thriving society that was essentially built around cutting down these huge trees, using the cleared land to farm and using the timber for fuel, constructing boats and erecting huge stone idols. 

One of the major miscalculations of the Easter Islanders was in not understanding that the trees had grown to their enormous size over thousands of years. Same with the fertility of the topsoil, which was sweetened by volcanic ash drifting thousands of miles from volcanoes in Southeast Asia, a very slow process. When cutting down these trees and watching the topsoil erode into the ocean, they apparently didn't realize that using their resources more quickly than they replenished themselves was a recipe for long-term disaster. 

Of course, to make a long (and enthralling) story far too short, they built their population up to the tens of thousands and then hit a tipping point where the island could no longer sustain them. In the span of a few short years they descended into cannibalism and nearly everyone died. They didn't even have enough timber left of sufficient size to build a boat to get off the island!

I've been haunted by this image of the Easter Islander (and you know there was at least one) that spoke up somewhere near the tail end of this saga. He/she probably said something like this:

"Hey, my fellow companions here in paradise. I've noticed we are chopping down the trees faster than they are regrowing. I've also noticed that the soil gets bad here fairly quickly and, when it washes into the ocean, it does't come back. I love all of you and want what is best for you, but we need to really think about what we are doing. I think we should put our efforts into finding a different way to achieve prosperity."

Before they chopped that guy's head off or threw him over the cliff and into the sea, I'm sure they had a bunch of (in their eyes) logical replies.

How am I going to feed my family, or keep us warm, without that wood?

I need more land for farming. Our population is growing and we need to feed them. What am I supposed to do? Let them starve?

Those idols we purchased for the quarry have brought us a lot of prestige. That credibility is going to help us attract more investment from other parts of the island.

While these were logical replies in the system the Easter Islanders had established, they overlooked the critical truth that the "crazy" guy who "just didn't get it" was trying to say. The system was broken. The very way in which their society created and measured value did not work. Doing more or doing less of the same thing in the near term did not matter for the long term. Unless they changed systems, the island was doomed.

Last Friday I agreed to participate in a debate on whether or not Minnesota should end local government aid now. I argued that it should (a transcript is available in Friday's blog entry). Shortly after the debate started, I had this surreal feeling that I was speaking Greek while everyone else was still in English. The feeling grew in intensity as the public joined in. Let me sum it up by highlighting one exchange with my fellow debater, Don Reeder. As part of a longer explanation, he said:

Don Reeder: Discussions need to happen immediately, since recent research shows that all cities in the state will be at breaking point within five years.

I'll shorten my response to the following:

Charles Marohn: Why are nearly all cities going to be insolvent within five years? We need to ask that question, because the answer is revealing.

The "research" Don is citing is a maddening report put out by the League of Minnesota Cities that shows how cities will be "broke by 2015 if no policy changes are made." I call this report "maddening" because it truly represents the Easter Islanders arguing amongst themselves about how to allocate the last of the wood.

For senior citizens across the state, those service cuts could mean no access to a library or a senior center. For children and families, there could be no baseball fields, hockey rinks or swimming pools for after-school and summer recreation. For homeowners, property values could decline as sidewalks and streets crumble into a maze of cracks and potholes.

The key to understanding the report, and its tragic flaw, is presented in the sidebar on the assumptions made in the report (my emphasis added):

Based on those historical trends and assuming current policies continue unchanged, [researchers] projected that total city revenues will increase at an annual rate of 3.7 percent between 2010 and 2025 and that total city expenditures will grow at an annual rate of 5.5 percent in that time period.

Let me simplify that quote: The expenses cities incur grow at a faster rate than their revenue.

For the sake of discussion, let's pretend that an actual increase in Minnesota's local government aid (LGA) is approved in the 2011 legislative session. Whether it is new taxes, money from Washington or money we found buried in a chest behind the Capitol building, take your pick of revenue source. What does sustaining LGA do to change the underlying reality that expenditures are growing faster than revenue? Nothing. The only thing more money will do is postpone the crisis date.

Local government aid is not the problem, whether it is cut or whether it stays. The way we have chosen to grow our cities is the problem. Let me quote some Greek again from the debate.

Charles Marohn: We've developed in a very inefficient way - very costly. For the most part, our approach to development nationwide asks cities to swap near-term revenue gains for long-term liabilities. Well, we're now two generations into this pattern and it is now the "long term." It is not working.

It is not working. We can continue to hope that, magically, the trees on Easter Island will somehow grow back - that money will appear to pave the roads, fix the sewers, plow the streets and mow the parks - but unless we find a new way inhabit the landscape, one that actually generates more revenue than it demands in expense, it won't matter what we do in the short-term.

We need a Strong Towns approach.

 

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Reader Comments (2)

Reading the transcript, I had the same disconnected feeling. Don, Michael, and a lot of the public were talking about the lower-case "p" problem of shortfalls in LGA, while you were tacking the "P" problem of fundamental shortcomings in our methods of urban development. Focusing on the former at the expense of the latter will only squander what remaining wealth we as a society have left.

August 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJake Krohn

Rising costs, declining revenues. That is the basic message we hear from cities, and its true.

On the revenue side, revenues are unstable at best and often declining with more precipitous declines on the horizon depending on what happens with LGA, but also with the declining property values, lack of new development/growth and declining personal incomes due to unemployment, etc...

On the expenditure side, many of the costs are cited as being out of the control of cities - i.e. they just have to pay the increased costs whether they like it or not. Vehicle fuel. Asphalt and concrete for roads and sidewalk maintenance. There are other costs cited as well - such as health care for employees, electricity and heating fuel..

Consider vehicle fuel and the cost of asphalt and concrete. Why are cities so vulnerable to increases in these costs? Simple math - the more roads you need to serve your population, the more gas and asphalt and concrete you will need to maintain these. Snowplowing costs increase. Policing costs increase. Road maintenance costs increase.

Think this is bad now? Consider if cities had to shoulder the costs of major repairs to their roads and infrastructure much more on their own - rather than leaning so heavily on state and federal grants and loans like many do now. Again, simple math - the wider and longer the streets, the higher the costs. Will the state and federal government "step up" to continue shouldering these costs? Even if you don't believe they will abandon cities completely, its hard to see how they can continue to provide MORE money (which they would need to given all of the increasing costs).

The debate should not be about whether cities mow their parks too often, or whether they should turn off some street lights, or whether or not to build a community center. Likewise, the revenue side of the debate should not be about who is going to pay for the "needs" of a city.

The debate needs to shift entirely to the underlying issue of how we make our cities better prepared to handle the "unknown" and the "unexpected" and the "out of our control" without finding itself on the verge of a complete meltdown .

Yes, many costs cities face are out of their control. But we've built many of our cities in a way that makes them extremely vulnerable to these rising costs. And the solution won't come by simply finding more money. We need to find ways to manage long-term costs - not cover short-term costs. We need to find ways to more closely tie local expenditures with local revenues - at least in terms of long-term investments like roads and buildings. We need to find ways to build enough infrastructure to meet our needs, but not so much that we become enslaved to its maintenance.

We need an approach that strengthens towns - not weakens them by making them less able to adapt to costs that are "out of their control".

August 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBen Oleson
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