This is a strange podcast. Nassim Taleb on antifragile cities then Russ Roberts on the Theory of Moral Sentiments and now John Dominic Crossan on how to read the bible? What does this Jesus stuff have to do with Strong Towns?
That’s a compilation of the feedback in my inbox from the weekend. Added to the comments on the article I wrote on density last week and the follow up on efficiency, it reminded me that we cover a lot of ground here. Our audience growth continues to accelerate – we have doubled in size since November – and, as we continue to experience, Strong Towns readers and listeners don’t comprise a nice, clean demographic profile (one of the greatest compliments you all provide).
In short, I appreciate that I sometimes need to slow down and connect some dots. I’m going to try and do that today.
For those of you that are not podcast listeners, last week I released an interview I did with a New Testament scholar named John Dominic Crossan. It’s the second time I was able to interview him; the occasion this time was a new book of his on divine violence. I’m an avid reader of his work and was very excited about this particular book having some inkling on the difficult contradictions it would explore.
That’s fine, Chuck, but what does this have to do with Strong Towns?
Last week I wrote a piece called The Density Question in which I tried to establish a ratio of private investment to public investment using a $200,000 home as a benchmark. In that piece I wrote:
Let me deliver the tragic news that demonstrates why discussions of zoning, new highways, high speed rail across America, recreational trails, decorative lights and every other fetish of the modern planner/zoner is a sad distraction from our urgent problems. I’ve now done this analysis in two cities – one big and one small – and for a $200,000 house in either of these cities, the once-a-generation bill for your share of the infrastructure would be between $350,000 and $400,000.
That’s right; these cities have more public investment than private investment. As we gather more data, I suspect these two examples will not be anomalies. Forget sensible ratios of 20:1 or 40:1. In pursuit of our fanatical belief that public infrastructure investment drives private investment, we have cities that have actually accumulated more public infrastructure liability than they have total private investment.
That is bizarre. There is no way all this public investment will ever be maintained. In the coming years and decades, our cities are going to contract in ways that are foreseeable, but not specifically predictable.
Some of you may find this to be hyperbole. This is just Chuck – a passionate advocate – being a little over-the-top pushing the cause. No, that’s really not me. I’m not flamboyant, not a fear-monger and I have a really powerful skepticism of people who are. I’m just looking at the numbers and I can see that we’re totally screwed.
I saw this a decades ago working as an engineer but on a project by project basis. My assumption at the time was: well, this project is really stupid, but it must be an anomaly or there must be something happening that I don’t understand. I even bought into the Quantum Theory of Infrastructure, the notion that, while each project may not make any financial sense when measured on its own, it is the system when combined that creates all the benefit. I’m bet-my-life convinced at this point that the notion is total, self-serving dogma.
So what does the technical term “totally screwed” mean? Start with an understanding that what can’t be sustained won’t be sustained. We’ve so deformed our development patterns – for a variety of reasons that transcend politics and reflect a broad social consensus – and, at some point, we are not going to have the financial resources or even the desire to continue to maintain this deformation. Totally screwed means a radical and unwelcome shift in our living arrangement back to something that is financially viable.
To quote from a piece I wrote about a year ago on Memphis.
The physical challenge of this generation is to contract our cities to something financially viable. This is prompted by the financial challenge of not having enough money to make good on all the promises prior generations made to themselves. The accompanying social challenge is going to be to make this transition without leaving people behind, without leaving the least empowered among us isolated on the periphery of the community.
And here’s why that social challenge is really the key piece. Again, from that same Memphis article:
When the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised of a prior generation were left behind in our central cities, it was a terrible injustice. Crime and disinvestment followed poverty in a cycle we now too often subconsciously think of as inevitable. But they were left behind in neighborhoods that still functioned. People there could still get around without a car. They could still get groceries. They could walk to school, even if it was a bad school. At least initially, there were still jobs.
When we abandon our exurbs and distant suburbs – something I see as inevitable -- if we leave behind the poorest and most disadvantaged, we won’t be leaving them in functioning neighborhoods. We’ll be leaving them in total isolation. Places without grocery stores that can be walked to. Places without transportation. If the 1960’s inner city was inhumane, this will be far, far worse.
I’ve been laughed at for suggesting that we’re all Detroit, that we’re all someone on the continuum trending to that state of collapse. In 2013 I wrote a book review of Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy where I walked through the progression of American auto-oriented development, concluding with this:
Eventually, we reach the condition of Detroit. As LeDuff describes it, it feels a lot like some of the third world. Call the police, they don't show up. If they do, it takes thirty minutes or more. Same with the fire department. People who can, hire their own security. The rest carry weapons and travel in groups. Money is allocated for fixing things like the cracked floor at the fire hall, but nobody knows where it went. The floor is never fixed. City hall is distant and clearly corrupt, but who among decent people would step up and try to fix it. Decent people need to survive, or they are already having their needs met and, in that case, there is little to be gained for the enormous trouble.
For most of the city and most of the people, things just stop working. A lot of resourceful people find work arounds. A lot of others don't. LeDuff's book is full of both. It will break your heart.
This is where I think we’re headed. This is the unavoidable destination of a nation that is not serious about its future, that has created a system that not only lacks incentives to solve problems but actually has every incentive not to. A national consensus. Bread and circuses until the empire falls.
Strong Towns can’t stop this. I’ve fully accepted that there is nothing really that we can do to stop this unwinding from happening. This is partially why so many of you were flummoxed last week with the density discussion; you actually think that (a) a better centralized policy than the one we have now would solve our problems and (b) that even if we could magically come up with a new national consensus absent any pain or distress but solely through logic and reason, that we actually have the money to make such a change. That’s crazy.
All we here in the Strong Towns movement can do is give America the softest landing possible.
That starts with what we are doing every day and the reason why I travel so much trying to share this message. We desperately need people to understand what is going on. We need them to understand the Growth Ponzi Scheme, the fallacy of the stroad, the reason why investing in an out-of-control transportation system is not courageous but cowardly. We need as many people as we can to understand this because, if we don’t understand it, we are going to have a hard landing.
And this is where John Dominic Crossan comes in. What is the typical response of a powerful society with a high degree of comparative affluence to decline? How do empires respond to the collapse of their empire? What have we learned from the ancient Persians, ancient Romans and even from the modern Germans in the decades before World War II?
The easiest thing to do during times of stress is to blame others. It’s immigrants. It’s Jews. It’s heretics. Whoever it is, it isn’t that we got our national consensus wrong. It isn’t us; it is what someone else – someone that can be discounted or marginalized – has done to us.
I’ve spent a lot of time studying early Christianity, not only from a personal standpoint but also because I’ve found a lot of guidance and wisdom there in deal with difficulty. The Jews at the time of Jesus were going through terrible distress. Occupied by the brutal Romans, subjected to economic exploitation and a powerful ruling elite, the average Judean, let alone the average Galilean, struggled to survive.
There were three prominent models for the average person who suffered under this oppression. One was to fight. These were the Zealots and, as typified during last week’s Holy Week stories, by the person of Barabbas. Another model was separation, typified by the Essenes, the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, who lived along the sea keeping to themselves in isolation. The third was non-violent resistance typified by the Jesus movement.
Around AD 66, the Zealots gained the upper hand and started a rebellion that kicked the Romans out of Jerusalem, murdered their Jewish collaborators and sought to reestablish God’s rule in Israel. The Romans returned in AD 70, killed everyone – thousands by crucifixion – and threw down every stone in the temple until only the platform remained (which today we call the Wailing Wall, Muslims built the Dome of the Rock on the platform 600 years later). The Essenes also disappeared around this time leaving their scrolls wrapped up in caves.
Only the Pharisees and the Christian Jews remained. Both were religious movements that focused largely on how to live as a community. Jewish faith today is largely descendent from Pharisaic laws and customs, many of which – Kosher diet being one – are credited with helping Jewish people survive in some of the most difficult and persecuted situations throughout the past 2,000 years. For Christians, it was the breaking of bread – the sharing of a meal among all believers – that formed the bond of community that, in the best practice, helped build the relationships needed to make it through hardship.
This isn’t to say that religious practices have always been a positive for community. As John Dominic Crossan pointed out in that podcast, the normalcy of civilization is a tendency to violence, often violence justified by religion. By understanding that, and understanding how the Christian God is one of peace and not of retribution, we can be in a position to resist our worst urges during trying times.
As we go through this transition – I’ve called it contraction for lack of a better description – we’re going to need each other. We’re going to have to work together in a close and personal way. We’re going to have to resist those who would pit us against each other and/or exploit us to maintain their own privileged position. I’m a Christian and, while I’ve dedicated myself to reading about, understanding and being accepting of other faiths (including non-belief), it is easiest for me to talk about how we help each other using the words of the Christian bible.
Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled. Love one another as I have loved you.
These are impossibly difficult teachings to live, especially (and perversely) in times of plenty. However, as we continue to slide into more difficult times, it is going to take people with very strong principles of peace and justice to help us find that that soft landing we need. That’s not a dollars and sense issue, and it’s not even a topic I have any special insight or leadership on. I just sense that it’s important to where we are headed.