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Monday
Mar172014

Small Tremors

Back from vacation today and having withdrawal symptoms from the blue skies. We are overcast here in Minnesota and expecting six to twelve inches of snow. I can’t say how many times last week I thought, why don’t we live here (California)? Of course, I’d love to live in California, but they need to hurry up and get through the decline phase of the growth ponzi scheme before I could relocate there. I don’t see any other option for them, unfortunately, but I see nothing but potential once they go through a real reset.

And who would ever buy a house in California, Arizona or Florida today? I consider dot.com stocks a more reliable investment. At least with a dot.com, there is a chance that the stock will be undervalued in the long term. Unless you found a very unique situation -- a VERY unique situation – I don’t think you can say that about housing in California. What is the real price? Who knows!

And if none of that makes sense to you, read Michael Lewis’ book Boomerang. Very readable and enjoyable, just like everything Lewis writes.

As I try to wrestle my email box and task list into submission, I wanted to briefly respond to one comment made I regards to my proposal for financing a world class transportation system. Here is that comment:

I appreciate the thoughts on keeping the money under control of the various entities that are closer to the local level. But without some kind of understanding by the local interests they will probably do what is comfortable to them. They might just ignore street projects that create financially healthy communities and go for the frontage road serving undeveloped lots?

Who is to say that a good majority might just go through all the money in a year on a single intersection, you know one of those fancy ones with right turn lanes, dual left turn lanes, and crazy cantilevered traffic lights that span 60'?

Isn't some type of rational process still needed to allow the designers and owners to evaluate what will add financial value to their communities all the while standing up to the land developers looking for free money?

In my proposal, I called the State of Minnesota a “deadbeat, helicopter parent”. The “deadbeat” is because they are vastly overcommitted and, thus, financially unable to keep up on all the promises they have made to local governments, either directly or indirectly. Cities are finding themselves largely untethered from state and federal support, and while they occasional project still trickles out the pipeline, it is nowhere near enough to keep up with the needs. This is a reality that will not abate anytime soon.

The “helicopter parent” part is because the state – largely with the logic used in the above comment – feels they need to save cities from themselves. Constituents complain about stupid things that cities do and so the state steps in and restricts cities from doing stupid things. That the state is also, by extension, restricting all the variations on a theme and, in the process, also creating a culture where “stupidity” is going to be punished, creates a culture with little incentive to innovate.

I can tell you from personal experience, no city wants to be the case study that ends up getting the state cranky with them.

It is also important to point out that by “constituents” I mean “constituents with lobbyists” which is another way to say corporations, unions and large advocacy organizations. Want to institute that “stupid” local initiative that…..let’s see….

  • Restricts speed to 20 mph in core areas of the city.
  • Establishes an access fee along stroads to pay for maintenance and conversion.
  • Allows car sharing and rental of individual rooms.
  • Limits the square footage of retail space in a commercial building.

…well, the WalMart, CostCo, Target, McDonalds, taxi drivers, hotel associations, etc… are not going to like that very much. They may, in fact, call these ideas “stupid”.

So, yes, I fully believe that, given the flexibility, many cities will do things that we consider stupid. In fact, I suspect that the majority will simply continue down the current path, building stroads and subsidizing unproductive development. Only a small percentage of people – let alone organizations of people – are going to be innovative and go through the pain of trying something new.

Here’s the catch: with a limit on debt as I proposed, there is also a limit on the degree of stupid any one city can assume. A city can only get so far down the unproductive path before the financial reckoning happens. In my ideal scenario, we have a system here that reckoning happens sooner rather than later, thus being a smaller rather than larger amount of pain.

And when they hit that reckoning, my ideal scenario would have those handful of innovators already trying new ideas out that can then be migrated over to those later adopters. That won’t happen unless those innovators have flexibility.

While on vacation, I read a series of posts from John Michael Greer on political movements. In Part 2, he described traditional conservatism (which has only scant relation to modern conservatism) in this way:

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex tradition, conservatism was based on the recognition that human beings aren’t as smart as they like to think. As a result, when intellectuals convince themselves that they know how to make a perfect human society, they’re wrong, and the consequences of trying to enact their fantasies in the real world normally range from the humiliating to the horrific.

To the conservative mind, the existing order of society has one great advantage that the arbitrary inventions of would-be world-reformers can’t match: it has actually been shown to work in practice. Conservatives thus used to insist that changes to the existing order of society ought to be made only when there was very good reason to think the changes will turn out to be improvements.

Please understand that the Strong Towns movement is not about creating Utopia – about getting just the right policies to make everything work out perfectly – but instead about re-establishing a framework where our cities – the fundamental crucible of the human experience – can grow, evolve and adapt over time to meet our needs.

Evolution does not happen in the absence of stress. In fact, stress is a necessary ingredient. Stress is also unavoidable. When we put it off – as we do right now with our centralized set of responses – the stress only grows in size and scale. The small tremor becomes an earthquake. We want lots of small tremors. That’s not a stress free existence, but it is how we build a nation of strong towns.

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Reader Comments (6)

A lot of this post is quite brilliant. Your earthquake metaphor is right on the money--geologically, a locked-up fault will release its pressure in one big earthquake, but a "slippery" (there has to be a better technical term) fault continually releases its pressure in lots of small earthquakes. You can actually use this to chart which parts of California's various faults are "slippery" and which ones are locked up. Additionally, an earthquake storm--where release of one part of a locked-up fault triggers release in another, and another, and so on, is metaphorically the same as a systemic cascade failure...

...Although I do take slight umbrage to your first claim about Californian housing. While I agree the vast majority of the state's housing is overvalued, I'd argue that, if you know where to look, you'll still be able to find areas whose housing is persistently undervalued. Remember that valuation is a function of economic strength, and economic strength has little to do with the geology of an area (as places such as Pompeii have found out much to their consternation). Inner-city Oakland, for example. And places such as San Francisco are overvalued largely because zoning prevents organic densification along the Peninsula.

I think the catch to building Strong Towns is, we need a new set of financial metrics. We can't just invalidate the existing set, because in a vacuum they'll still be relied on for want of anything else. No, we need an entirely new set. And that means we need to find the nexus of civil and financial engineering, architecture, and urban design and planning, that yields an optimal set of metrics. That's the hard part.

March 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve S.

It's John Michael Greer, btw. =)

March 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJRB

So, is the newly minted "Minnesota Solar" program a Strong Towns project, or another Ponzi scheme?

http://grist.org/article/could-minnesotas-value-of-solar-make-everyone-a-winner/

March 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSophia Katt

Excellent expansion Chuck.

My own research on behaviour change finds that system-changing is the most effective way to change behaviour--you change the context people are in.

Of course, if you don't consult with people, what can look like bullying technocracy, just as you describe here.

But the reality is we can't meaningfully consult with everyone on everything, so we already have a large technocracy that is trying to constrain the stupid or build a utopia.

My concern with conservatism continues to be that the systems that have "actually been shown to work in practice" at one time included brutal discrimination and still include copious discrimination--against women, gays, foreigners, whatever.

My fear is that conservatism is a package deal--that it is a one of George Lakoff's frames--so when you adopt fiscal constraint you adopt some degree of social repression as well.

Now of course, we all like some degree of social repression. I really appreciate that I am sitting here in my bathrobe without being murdered by sickos. So, it is where you draw the line, and for me the line is on the far side of gay marriage and on the near side of wanton destruction of earth's ecosystems.

So, I am agreeing with the wisdom of the Strong Towns conservatism, but just naming some of the things that unsettle me as this conversation develops.

March 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRuben Anderson

Yes, California is still in the growth Ponzi phase, but the good news is San Diego couldn't get its 50-10 transportation plan approved because the sprawl it would create violates state requirements to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

March 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDerek

"To the conservative mind, the existing order of society has one great advantage that the arbitrary inventions of would-be world-reformers can’t match: it has actually been shown to work in practice."

Right, but when the existing order of society is NOT working, the conservative approach of "no change unless there is proof that the change will be an improvement" does not square with allowing some experimentation (which means a good amount of failure as well). And so that's how we get stuck in the "yes but the Ponzi scheme is working!" mode that we are now in.

Just as we need more than a few conservatives to admit that climate change is happening to figure out how we manage those changes, we need more conservatives to admit that our Ponzi-scheme development approach isn't actually working. Only after we get a majority to agree on the problem will we ever look for solutions in a rational manner.

Thanks for pointing out that the emperor has no clothes -- now if we can get more state and local governments to agree!

March 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterForaker
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