I've been doing spots on a radio station here in Central Minnesota since the early 2000's. This past year, I've been paired with a good friend of mine, Aaron Brown who writes at the blog MinnesotaBrown.com, on a show we call Dig Deep. It's an attempt at a left/right conversation about the issues of the day, with a local flavor and Minnesota focus. You can get the podcast version of the show when it comes out monthly.
Yesterday we recorded our final episode of the year. We looked back at some of the big events and then, in a podcast-only extra (that you're going to have to wait for), gave some predictions for the coming year. Aaron and I are both optimistic people, but upon reflection, I'm kind of surprised how pessimistic about the near-term future I sounded. The ride home got me thinking about it.
We've been on the biggest stock market run in, well, perhaps forever. I have the savings of someone who is a saver and has worked professionally for over two decades, but I don't own any stocks. I'm getting a lot of my friends crowing at me about Bitcoin. I don't own any Bitcoin. I downsized my house last year. I drive a car with nearly 300,000 miles and refuse to buy a new one. I've got a garage full of wood and fuel and a couple week's worth of emergency food in my basement. I've thought of this as prudent — sound, rational steps akin to cheap insurance — but, if I'm honest with myself, it's also because I think our present stability is a fragile illusion. And I don't expect it to last.
I'm not predicting a stock market crash — I lack the confidence to make such predictions — but having most of my savings in cash getting no return (I've even had the banks holding some of this call me to see if they can help me invest it) is, to me, kind of like not wanting to walk across a frozen lake when I suspect the ice is thin. I'm adverse to the downside more than I am anxious to capture the upside. This article, a response to my friend Johnny Sanphillippo of Granola Shotgun, expands on the rationale behind that sentiment.
On a frigid Norwegian island in the Arctic Ocean just over 800 miles from the North Pole there is an abandoned coal mine that, depending on your viewpiont, is either a silly waste of resources or cheap insurance on the survival of humanity.
The mine houses the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a bank that stores backup copies of tens of thousands of seeds in three-ply foil packages tucked into tupperware containers. The idea is that, if something should happen to the ever-changing strains of seeds that we have—whether because of war, natural disaster, etc.—there is a copy there that we can go back to, one that we know works. In a world of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), there is also a fear that we may create a strain of something that we don't fully understand the impact of and, for one reason or another, we may come to deeply regret that decision.
The vault is part of a broader conversation that has two very polar viewpoints. The videos below feature people I deeply respect, yet they have opposing notions on GMOs. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a brilliant man and points out -- quite correctly -- that pretty much every plant or animal product we consume is a byproduct of tens of thousands of years of cross-breeding (aka: genetic modification). In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond discusses how corn -- the crop of the Americas -- was very small in the wild and took a long period of time to not only migrate across multiple latitudes but to become large enough to really matter. Without genetic modification, we wouldn't have corn, and without corn, we wouldn't have Mountain Dew, which, speaking for myself, would be a personal tragedy.
Nassim Taleb, the patron saint of Strong Towns thinking, has a big problem with GMOs. It's not that he is predicting doom (he isn't) but he states -- quite correctly -- that the incremental pace of change over tens of thousands of years ensured that nothing destabilized the system. Today, where tens of thousands of years of incremental transition can be reproduced in an afternoon, we can accidentally create things that have devastating effects and not be aware of those unintended consequences until it is too late. GMOs may be a panacea, and the risk of devastation may be small, but a small risk of total devastation should never be taken lightly, especially when we've shown over and over that we humans are terrible at estimating these kinds of risks.
I find myself in a strange place where I -- and Strong Towns, the organization -- am often speaking in the calm and professional manner of a Neil deGrasse Tyson while my heart beats with the skepticism, fear and passion of a Nassim Taleb. I've spent the weekend camping and pondered this situation a great deal, prompted by "An Open Letter to Chuck Marohn" written by our good friend and Strong Towns member Johnny Sanphillippo on his blog, Granola Shotgun.
In the past, Johnny has accused me -- in the joking manner that friends do -- of wanting to send a hot dish (or casserole, to you non-Minnesotans) to people who suffer tragedy. He's pushing back on the Libertarian-Catholic tug-of-war I have going on in my mind. I do want to make things better and I do think I can help, if only a little. Here's a specific passage that Johnny wrote in his post, which I have dwelled on:
Building in the traditional manner simply isn’t legal or culturally acceptable anymore and engaging with regulators to change the rules is a generational multi-decade process. I won’t live long enough to see the required political shifts unfold. That’s the bad news.
The good news is I don’t have to wait for the larger society to change all the interlocking regulations and protocols in order to achieve my personal goals while helping to build stronger communities along the way. But the process won’t look anything like what Chuck has imagined so far and it won’t involve the Department of Transportation or city council legislation anytime soon. Bureaucracies – both public and private – are determined to maintain themselves at all costs. They’ll continue to ratchet up the rules, fees, and complexity to sustain their own prerogatives.
The process won't look anything like what I've imagined. Johnny's accusing me, in a sense, of being too optimistic, of thinking we can actually save things, that things can be turned around if we just try hard enough. I'm very grateful for this critique — as I always am with Johnny's promptings — because I don't hear it very often. I am almost always inundated by the opposite critique: I'm way too negative.
Let me be clear about what I actually imagine is in store for us. I look at America's cities, towns and neighborhoods and I see overwhelming levels of fragility. I see a development pattern that destroys wealth; the more we build, the poorer we become. I see municipal debt levels rising as a consequence of this, as well as an increased dependence on state and federal assistance. I see property values and consumption rates (property tax and sales tax) artificially manipulated higher by federal monetary and fiscal policy — a lofty, unstable perch. I see local governments overwhelmed with liabilities — from infrastructure maintenance to pensions and rising health care costs. And I see the people in the system — politicians, professional staff and residents — all with powerful short-term incentives to simply increase this level of fragility.
Is it possible that we could reach some pinnacle of growth and prosperity, that a — take your pick: socialist or capitalist — revolution would take place to purify our current hybrid system and get us to some economic utopia that allows our pensions to be paid, our debts to be met (or written off), all our cul-de-sacs to be fixed, and everyone to have affordable housing in nice, walkable neighborhoods with transit and bike lanes and beautiful parks? It's possible, I suppose, but I don't find it very likely.
I think we're royally screwed. I think this thing is going down and it's going down hard. I see all of these fragile systems being pushed to the brink and I think the only open question is how fast does it unwind? Is it something that happens suddenly -- like the collapse of a fragile bridge -- or is it something that happens more slowly? Do we all experience a variation of the Detroit situation over a couple of decades, or over a couple of years?
And note what I've said about Detroit. First, we're all Detroit. Detroit isn't an anomaly; it's the canary in the coal mine. They adopted this development pattern a couple decades before everyone else and we all copied it. They've now arrived at the logical destination of that approach and we're all just a few decades, at most, behind them. Second, it wasn't pensions or corruption or Wall Street swindles that brought down Detroit -- all of those things have happened in many cities in different ways over thousands of years. It's that Detroit was too fragile to recover from them. They were felled by a cold because they were really fragile.
I think Johnny and I are on the same page with all that. Where we seem to differ is on what comes next and what we should do about it. Here's another excerpt from Johnny's piece:
The sweet spot for self-directed, resilient, and adaptable living – very often at a far lower price point than newer more fashionable properties in the same metro region – is the modest small town or older suburb at the urban/rural interface. Start there. Keep your debt levels low. Explore quiet under-the-radar work-arounds that build household autonomy and reduce critical dependencies on larger systems. Work with like-minded neighbors to solve problems without engaging with the authorities. Create a home based business that generates income, but doesn’t attract unwanted attention from officials. Organize your affairs so if your car went away you could still function without it. Grow a big productive garden. Take on a house mate or two to defray costs and achieve common goals. Wean yourself off critical external inputs. Build a Strong Home first. Lead by example.
Again, here we seem to agree. I live in a small town in a walkable neighborhood within walking distance of the downtown. I have more savings than debt and am increasing the former and reducing the latter aggressively. I work from home, bike or walk a lot and don't drive much, work with my neighbors on things, and more. I maybe don't talk about this stuff enough, but I have. I don't think this is the problem, though. It's what comes beyond this where Johnny and I diverge.
Let me -- and I apologize for this in advance -- throw my friends from Fate, TX, under the rhetorical bus here. I've held up the work they've done, specifically their work on requiring a minimum Private Investment to Public Infrastructure Ratio in their town, as a great model. I think it is, but not so much because it gets to something I think is an answer — rather because it applies a thought process to move us along a path of understanding.
Fate's innovative approach is not the answer. It has some serious flaws, not the least of which is that Fate won't be able to maintain the 20:1 ratio they put forward if most of their properties maintain single-family zoning and lack the ability to incrementally renew themselves. Does that mean it is a bad proposal? Absolutely not; I think it's a huge leap forward. Here is a city grappling with a difficult problem that most other places just plain ignore. I think their effort is worth a lot to all of our futures, whether or not it ultimately proves successful.
When I say things are going down hard, though, I mean it. I don't think there is anything the Strong Towns movement can do to change that. If the entire county adopted Fate's idea, I don't think it would change the end result in any appreciable way. So what are we doing here at Strong Towns? Why don't we just -- as Johnny suggests -- just wait for society to catch up?
I think the difference is that I don't see the Suburban Experiment as a development problem, i.e. a physical problem that will need to work itself out. I see it, first and foremost, as a social problem, one where our narrative about decline is more damaging than the decline itself.
I go back to Taleb's lecture, "How to Live in a World We Don't Understand." He's hard to follow sometimes, so I've tried to transcribe his words (at 15:02) into something intelligible:
With the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, came a greater control over our environment. So what did we get? The smoothness. We remove everything. We smooth out the economic cycles. It's okay until it blows up.
You want to smooth out the forest fires? It's okay, but without fires the forest blows up. You want to make people comfortable? Okay, but their bone density goes down.
A small amount of variation is good for us.
In our rising affluence, Americans have -- for perhaps all the right reasons -- wanted to solve every problem, to smooth out every variation that would cause stress. And in doing so, we've created that chain of unintended consequences I discussed in my piece, "A Composition of Fallacy."
We want to lower unemployment, so let's put people to work building highways. We want to get more people into housing, so let's create a couple government-sponsored enterprises and gradually lower underwriting standards. We want to help people in poverty, so let's spend a billion dollars on a commuter rail line and zone the station for high density housing. We want to maintain our infrastructure, so let's borrow a bunch of money at the federal level to do it. I could go on and on. Each of these positions had -- and still have -- supporters arguing that it was the right course of action, mindless of that chain of unintended consequences.
It's too obvious to say that we're in the weirdest political time any of us can imagine, but I want to say it with some historical context. Each day reminds me more and more of the craziness that accompanied the transition in Rome from republic to empire, from rule by the senate to rule by an emperor. While decline was a part of that transition, it wasn't permanent. Julius Caesar started many public works projects and his successor, Augustus, saw many more through to completion. Rome experienced centuries of glory under subsequent rulers. It took an emperor to step into the chaos and restore some sense of order, albeit a one-sided and despotic order.
So where is our republic headed? Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein was quoted this summer as saying that America was in the middle of a "cold civil war" and I find that to be a fairly accurate description. I don't know who is going to win or how victory will be achieved, especially amidst all this fragility, but I feel confident in predicting the strategy that will be employed: promise more smoothness. Whichever side can take away the pain of volatility is the one that will win. Whether your volatility is college tuition or medical expenses, housing costs or traffic congestion, the side that wins is going to be the one that promises to put out the comparatively little forest fires.
And those who follow Strong Towns understand that this only means the forest is going to blow up someday.
So, Johnny, I don't think society's going to catch up. I think we're going to be dragged kicking and screaming in the best case scenario and, in the worst case, see our world come crashing down around us. I think it's going to be nasty and, to the extent that people identify Trump as part of this, I think whatever comes one or two iterations next is likely to be even worse. So, I'm with you on all of us working to be personally resilient -- get out of debt, have some savings, build social capital with those around you -- but I also think we have to do more.
At Strong Towns, we need to help people talk about the actual problems. The more people who understand — who can be calm voices in a room of hysteria — the better off we are all going to be. We need to start experimenting with responses. Fate, Texas is not perfect, but their bold step forward is going to inspire someone else to take the next step. We need to highlight more and more of those examples at Strong Towns, share them broadly and have a conversation around them.
Ultimately, we must be in place to scale the best ideas when they're needed. We must find an alternative to all those bad ideas that are going to get thrown out. We must make this transition easier.
So you can think of Strong Towns as the urban intellectual version of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. We're going to be a repository of tested, proven thoughts and ideas, sitting at the ready for when they are needed. We're going to attract some people who are naively optimistic about the future -- who just want a train or a bike lane -- and that's okay. They're welcome here and maybe we can learn from each other. We're also going to have people like Johnny who are more pessimistic and they'll keep us honest. That's okay too.
In the end, Johnny, as I said to you in an email before you released your piece: I really value you, our friendship and how you've helped keep me grounded and focused. I hope you'll stick with us and continue to add to our conversation. We all benefit from having you here.
(Top image courtesy of CIP)