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Jane Jacobs is most famous for her Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book that I continue to recommend to anyone interested in the way that cities create value by encouraging human interaction (and destroy value by inviting cars to disrupt and impede that interaction), but Jacobs was also a prolific thinker and writer on a number of other topics.
In this 250pp 2004 book, she looks back at past dark ages to identify the patterns that she sees emerging in North America (she was born in the US but migrated to Canada as a 52-year old after she was arrested in 1968 for disrupting plans to “pave over” Greenwich Village. She died in Toronto.)
In her definition, a “dark age” is one in which a culture loses its past knowledge, falling into a “mass amnesia” in which life grows more miserable and short under the influence of quacks, fear and superstition, with each resulting failure driving people further into desperation, isolation and further self-destructive action.
The key idea is that dark ages arise from internal forces within a culture, even as each failure is blamed on outsiders, which creates a dynamic in which further reliance on homegrown “solutions” leads to more failures because those solutions are untested and oversimplified.
As an economist, I would put this theory in the context of trade, i.e., the exchange of goods or services that leads each trading party better off by allowing both to benefit from the resources and experience (the comparative advantage) of the other. Such win-win exchanges clarify why a reduction in trade (towards “self-sufficiency” or autarky) is so harmful: it turns us from specialists able to benefit from our productivity into generalists who must learn skills and use resources over which we are more amateur than expert.
You should be seeing some parallels to Brexit and Trump by now, but those parallels are merely the most recent version of a long-running human desire for simple answers that end up failing, thereby increasing misery and poverty.
Jacobs discusses five pillars of culture whose decay moves people towards a dark age:
In making this list, she notes that she is not listing racism, environmental destruction, wealth inequality, and so on. That’s because — and I agree — she sees those problems as the result of failures of the deeper factors listed above.
Let us look briefly into how the weakening of each of these pillars leaves a culture vulnerable to demagoguery, civil strife and collapse.
I’m sure that you can add your own arguments and examples to these categories, but Jacobs’s claim is that their mismanagement undermines our collective wealth, cooperation and tolerance, leaving the door open to quacks and demagogues who promise quick victories over “those guys.” The Economist recently covered this story by way of Trump’s campaign, but you can see similar lies by “leaders” in Russia, China, the UK, France, Turkey, Egypt and many other countries. The upshot of lies and deception in all corners is an increase in paranoia and permissiveness towards “us versus them” policies that makes everyone worse off.
What drives this process of undermining the five pillars? Money provides an excuse to sacrifice others. Jacobs describes how the US car industry did its best to remove public transportation and pedestrians from city streets that would be freed for use as parking lots and expressways. She also identifies “credentialism” businesses that make money from selling access to jobs that used to be open. (I’d add universities that have raised their prices just as fast as “affordable loans” were issued to students.)
Then you have the “job creators” who seem to think that it’s ok to pollute the environment or kill children if someone gets paid to produce that death. The US Chamber of Commerce just claimed that “EU energy prices in the US” would cost the average American household $4,800/year. This travesty of an analysis misses the obvious point that higher prices in Europe are due to taxes that can easily be recycled to families. Energy intensive US businesses, OTOH, are NOT eager to pay for their pollution, as that would force them to
use waste less energy.
Jacobs has her own (sound) logic for debunking the “cars=jobs=growth” garbage spewed by the car/oil/cement industries, but what matters here is the combination of weak communities that cannot oppose new roads, undereducated graduates who cannot think of the human impacts of cars everywhere, a lack of sound science to counter lobbyists, the distortions of lobbying to oppose taxes on harmful car/fuel use and to favor those industries, and — finally — the lack of consequences for lawyers and engineers paid by industry to forego their professional methods as they serve their employers’ PR departments. Jacobs’s point, in other words, is that the social infrastructure that has opposed exploitation of the many by the few (aka “privatize profits and socialize losses”) has weakened to the point where we risk slipping into a Dark Age.
Recall that she published this book in 2004.
Her solution, as ever, is “subsidiarity,” which would often be more effective than centralization, e.g., cities controlling their budgets and policies (something that’s prevented by provincial governments in Canada, Washington DC in the US, and Brussels in the EU). Greater subsidiarity makes it easier to avoid one-size-fails-all policies,* but not it is not the solution to larger issues such as international trade or climate change. Those issues cannot (and should not) be resolved at the postal code level, BUT it would surely be easier to talk about free trade if people lived in safe communities, felt protected by poverty-reducing taxes (e.g., basic income as an insurance against unemployment) and so on.
Speaking of communities, she has an interesting discussion of the housing bubble and its “inevitable collapse” due to supply outpacing demand. She predicts that collapse will create an opportunity to cut back on sprawl and “densify” cities and suburbs as people find cheaper ways to live in the existing housing stock. This analysis has turned out to be exactly right, except in the magnitude of the damage from the bubble blowing up from its Wall-Street-DC-supercharged size.**
Hopefully, this review gives you a feel of the topics under discussion — topics that can hardly be more important in today’s world. As additional notes, I will mention that the book seems to be structured into a series of essays rather than one long thesis, which can make it seem more like a series of magazine articles than a book, even if its chapters all revolve around the same topic. Further, the book has end notes that are far more interesting than normal. Jacobs was clearly a passionate thinker on these topics.
Bottom Line I give this book FIVE STARS for its timely (timeless?) examination of the forces that support and undermine our communities. The forces propelling us towards a Dark Age are already there, and we must understand them if we are to fight for our quality of life today and in the future.
** Again, you can use her five factors to explain how weak communities (who needs community when you’re getting rich?), etc. contributed to the housing crisis. The sad thing is that there’s no sign of the Federal Reserve or Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac changing their poor underwriting policies.