Jane Jacobs and America’s Dysfunctional Urban Design

It’s the 100th anniversary of Jane Jacobs birth, even celebrated with a Google doodle, despite Google going against literally everything she believed in and wrote about.

So, it’s time for a quick overview of the urban environment.

Data mining has confirmed what Jacobs knew through observation:

Back in 1961, the gradual decline of many city centers in the U.S. began to puzzle urban planners and activists alike. One of them, the urban sociologist Jane Jacobs, began a widespread and detailed investigation of the causes and published her conclusions in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a controversial book that proposed four conditions that are essential for vibrant city life.

In her book, Jacobs argues that vibrant activity can only flourish in cities when the physical environment is diverse. This diversity, she says, requires four conditions. The first is that city districts must serve more than two functions so that they attract people with different purposes at different times of the day and night. Second, city blocks must be small with dense intersections that give pedestrians many opportunities to interact.

The third condition is that buildings must be diverse in terms of age and form to support a mix of low-rent and high-rent tenants. By contrast, an area with exclusively new buildings can only attract businesses and tenants wealthy enough to support the cost of new building. Finally, a district must have a sufficient density of people and buildings.

Data Mining Reveals the Four Urban Conditions That Create Vibrant City Life (MIT Technology Review)

Lloyd Alter points out that this contradicts the dictums of the “market urbanists” who claim that building as many tall, dense buildings as we can in urban areas will solve all our house-pricing problems (who can afford them anyway?):

[Jane Jacobs’] words are an anathema to many in the so-called market urbanist school, who see all of this preservation of older buildings as an impediment to development; as Steve Waldman explains, these market urbanists…

…argue that cities should eliminate restrictive zoning and other regulatory barriers to development, then let the free-market create housing supply. In a competitive marketplace, high prices are supposed to be their own cure. Zoning restrictions, urban permitting, and the de facto capacity of existing residents to veto new development are barriers to entry that prevent the magic of competition from taking hold and solving the problem.

Which is where we are today, with economists like Ed Glaeser, Ryan Avent and writers like Matt Yglesias and Alex Steffen persuading many that Jane Jacobs was wrong, and Felix Salmon defending crappy towers filled with rich people by saying “Better we have a living city with a couple of less-than-perfect buildings, than a stifled one governed by nostalgists and Nimbys.” Glaeser has written that “An absolute victory for Jacobs means a city frozen in concrete with prices that are too high and buildings that are too low.”

In fact, in Toronto, the city where Jane Jacobs lived the last 37 years of her life, you can see what happens if you let this happen. Yes, there is a boom in housing, with lots of relatively affordable small units that are full of a monoculture of childless young people, with the ground floor plane filled with a monoculture of chain restaurants, banks and drugstores…

Someone posted this video on Reddit: Most of the problems that we face today in the United States, whether they are cultural, economical, social or environmental are rooted in poor urban design and planning. Due to America’s unique experience of economic growth during the 20th century (2015)

Okay, that’s clearly hyperbole. But despite that, it is a good overview about how badly our built environment contributes to a large number of problems. Every facet of living has become separated by miles and miles of land due to zoning restrictions originally intended to separate people from polluting industries. Here are just a few of the problems the video puts on poor urban design:

  • Corporate control and the loss of small business. Mom-and-pop stores which depend on social connection to the community were eliminated, because there was no more street life or mixed-use communities. Less stores mean less buying options and more power to the large corporations. Barriers to starting businesses are put in place by restrictive zoning and high rents.
  • Obesity  and food deserts As people had to drive everywhere, they relied on drugstores and gas stations for food. Fast food made it easy to get drive-through food. People were unable to walk anywhere, obesity rates increased.
  • Loss of community and civic participation With gas making it too expensive to drive, and unable to walk anywhere, people stayed in their houses, eliminating a sense of community. Children are poorly socialized since they can’t play or bike anywhere, and must be driven around.
  • High crime rates and incarceration. As people moved to sububs, urban areas lost revenue, tax base, and businesses. Those unable to move became trpped in cities. Loss of revenue caused jobs to disappear, leading to desperation and crime. This led to an expanded police presence, overcriminilization and mass incarceration.
  • Fragmentation of society. Americans are becomeing ever more segregated by income, race, and class, leading to more conflict mistrust, and suspicion.

“There is a populist notion that sprawl and suburban setting disperse people in such a way as to make things more peaceful between them. Simply separating people and resources from one another doesn’t make for a more peaceful society. Separating people and destroying the chance for social connection and communities makes people more stressed. Humans are inherently social creatures. If you try to take that away from them it makes for a tumultuous society.”

Let’s not forget other deleterious effects on health too. Maybe this is why our health care spending is so high: Commuting Takes Its Toll (Scientific American)

To the above list, we might add ADD. Boring buildings have a cost as well:

A growing body of research in cognitive science illuminates the physical and mental toll bland cityscapes exact on residents. Generally, these researchers argue that humans are healthier when they live among variety — a cacophony of bars, bodegas, and independent shops — or work in well-designed, unique spaces, rather than unattractive, generic ones. In their book, Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, Tufts urban policy professor Justin Hollander and architect Ann Sussman review scientific data to help architects and urban planners understand how, exactly, we respond to our built surroundings. People, they argue, function best in intricate settings and crave variety, not “big, blank, boxy buildings.”

And studies show that feeling meh can be more than a passing nuisance. For instance, psychologists Colleen Merrifield and James Danckert’s work suggests that even small doses of boredom can generate stress. People in their experiment watched three videos — one boring, one sad, and one interesting – while wearing electrodes to measure their physiological responses. Boredom, surprisingly, increased people’s heart rate and cortisol level more than sadness. Now take their findings and imagine the cumulative effects of living or working in the same oppressively dull environs day after day, said Ellard.

There might even be a potential link between mind-numbing places and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders. In one case, physicians have linked “environmental deprivation” to ADHD in children. Homes without toys, art, or other stimuli were a significant predictor of ADHD symptoms. Meanwhile, the prevalence of U.S. adults treated for attention deficit is rising. And while people may generally be hardwired for variety, Dr. Richard Friedman, director of the pharmacology clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College, makes the case that those with ADHD are especially novelty-seeking. Friedman points to a patient who “treated” his ADHD by changing his workday from one that was highly routine — a standard desk job — to a start-up, which has him “on the road, constantly changing environments.”

The Psychological Cost of Boring Buildings (New York Magazine)

As this Atlantic article points out, our dependence upon automobiles is insane from a practical standpoint:

What are the failings of cars? First and foremost, they are profligate wasters of money and fuel: More than 80 cents of every dollar spent on gasoline is squandered by the inherent inefficiencies of the modern internal combustion engine. No part of daily life wastes more energy and, by extension, more money than the modern automobile. While burning through all that fuel, cars and trucks spew toxins and particulate waste into the atmosphere that induce cancer, lung disease, and asthma. These emissions measurably decrease longevity—not by a matter of days, but years. ..53,000 Americans die prematurely every year from vehicle pollution, losing 10 years of life on average compared to their lifespans in the absence of tailpipe emissions.

There are also the indirect environmental, health, and economic costs of extracting, transporting, and refining oil for vehicle fuels, and the immense national-security costs and risks of being dependent on oil imports for significant amounts of that fuel. As an investment, the car is a massive waste of opportunity—“the world’s most underutilized asset,” the investment firm Morgan Stanley calls it. That’s because the average car sits idle 92 percent of the time. Accounting for all costs, from fuel to insurance to depreciation, the average car owner in the U.S. pays $12,544 a year for a car that puts in a mere 14-hour workweek. Drive an SUV? Tack on another $1,908.14
Then there is the matter of climate. Transportation is a principal cause of the global climate crisis, exacerbated by a stubborn attachment to archaic, wasteful, and inefficient transportation modes and machines…Total passenger miles by air are miniscule compared to cars. In any given year, 60 percent of American adults never set foot on an airplane, and the vast majority who do fly take only one round trip a year. Unfortunately, air travel is not the primary problem, contributing only 8 percent of U.S. transportation-related greenhouse gases. Cars and trucks, by contrast, pump out a combined 83 percent of transportation carbon.

And that’s not even counting cars’ most dramatic cost: They waste lives. They are one of America’s leading causes of avoidable injury and death, especially among the young. Oddly, the most immediately devastating consequence of the modern car—the carnage it leaves in its wake—seems to generate the least public outcry and attention…Car crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 1 and 39. They rank in the top five killers for Americans 65 and under (behind cancer, heart disease, accidental poisoning, and suicide). And the direct economic costs alone—the medical bills and emergency-response costs reflected in taxes and insurance payments—represent a tax of $784 on every man, woman, and child living in the U.S.

The numbers are so huge they are not easily grasped, and so are perhaps best understood by a simple comparison: If U.S. roads were a war zone, they would be the most dangerous battlefield the American military has ever encountered. Seriously: Annual U.S. highway fatalities outnumber the yearly war dead during each Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, the War of 1812, and the American Revolution. When all of the injuries from car wrecks are also taken into account, one year of American driving is more dangerous than all those wars put together.

The Absurd Primacy of the Automobile in American Life. (The Atlantic) Considering the constant fatalities, rampant pollution, and exorbitant costs of ownership, there is no better word to characterize the car’s dominance than insane. But what isn’t insane about the way we live in America, hmmm?

The freeways clearly facilitated sprawl and cut the heart of America’s formerly-prosperous and glorious cities. So why were they built? A lot of it was intentionally destroying African-American neighborhoods in the interest of “urban renewal”:

State and city politicians accepted these plans for a variety of reasons. In an era when suburbs had just begun to grow, DiMento says, “local politicians saw urban freeways as a way of bringing suburban commuters into city.” Some local businesspeople supported them for similar reasons.

But an unmistakable part of the equation was the federally supported program of “urban renewal,” in which lower-income urban communities — mostly African-American — were targeted for removal.

“The idea was ‘let’s get rid of the blight,'” says DiMento. “And places that we’d now see as interesting, multi-ethnic areas were viewed as blight.” Highways were a tool for justifying the destruction of many of these areas.

Highways gutted American cities. So why did they build them? (Vox). A must-read on the history:

City planners…saw the crowded African American areas as unhealthy organs that needed to be removed. To keep cities healthy, planners said, these areas needed to be cleared and redeveloped, the clogged hearts replaced with something newer and spiffier. But open-heart surgery on a city is expensive. Highway construction could be federally funded. Why not use those federal highway dollars to also tear down blight and rebuild city centers?

The urban planner Robert Moses was one of the first to propose the idea of using highways to “redeem” urban areas. In 1949, the commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads, Thomas MacDonald, even tried to include the idea of highway construction as a technique for urban renewal in a national housing bill. (He was rebuffed.) But in cities across America, especially those that didn’t want to—or couldn’t—spend their own money for so-called urban renewal, the idea began to take hold. They could have their highways and they could get rid of their slums. With just one surgery, they could put in more arteries, and they could remove the city’s heart.

The Role of Highways in American Poverty (The Atlantic) Syracuse, New York as case study. The fallout from this is what I touched on in my last posts on automation.

Lloyd Alter proposes the bringing back the Euroloaf building concept. I have to admit when I first saw this, I assumed Euroloaf referred to how Europeans spend their typical August.

Back in the 1970s a remarkable housing project was built in Toronto; The St. Lawrence neighbourhood has been described by journalist Dave LeBlanc as the “best example of a mixed-income, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, sensitively scaled, densely populated community ever built in the province”. Designed around principles espoused by Jane Jacobs (some even claim she had a hand in designing it; she didn’t), it was a mix of low street facing townhouses and long mid-rise apartment blocks of a relatively consistent height. They looked a lot like buildings from Paris or Scandinavia and were nicknamed “Euroloaf” because they are kind of shaped like loaves of bread.

Coincidentally, I was working on a post about Swedish prefab and looking at all their Euroloaves, still pretty much the standard typology…Right now wood is having a renaissance, and the point man is Vancouver’s Michael Green, with his Tall Wood…But perhaps he is trying to push a square wood peg into a round hole; perhaps it’s the wrong planning model for wood, where the Euroloaf is probably more appropriate…I have been arguing for Euroloaf planning for years without calling it that. I called it the Goldilocks Density,

 …dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can’t take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.

That’s what the Euroloaves are. The trouble with them is that developers like to build tall and thin; better views, (especially in Michael Green’s Vancouver) more repetition of elements vertically and cheaper costs per square foot (because of things like one plumbing stack serving more units).

When those Toronto developments were proposed in the seventies, the codes limited wood to three floors and they were built out of concrete. But now, building codes are changing to allow for six storey wood buildings. This changes the economics changes making low rise construction more affordable. Suddenly Euroloaves make a lot more sense.

Instead of Tall Wood, Let’s Bring Back the Euroloaf (Treehugger)

Various other readings:

Deferred in the ‘Burbs (Mike the Mad Biologist)

Finally! Tiny home subdivisions and developments are becoming a reality. (Treehugger)

How Burglars Commit Crime and Take Advantage of Cities by Hacking Architecture (Vice) Hey, I know architecture and programming! Is this my next career move?

Welcome to the Future: Middle-Class Housing Projects (New Yorker)

What Architecture Is Doing to Your Brain (Citylab)

Geography is making America’s uneven economic recovery worse (Quartz) Not geography, but urban planning.

Urban population growth and demand for food could spark global unrest, study shows (Los Angeles Times)

And finally, if you haven’t been reading the excellent series from The Guardian on the history of cities, it’s basically the equivalent of an entire book on urbanism in the proud tradition of Lewis Mumford:

The story of cities (The Guardian) Here’s the Jane Jacobs entry: Story of cities #32: Jane Jacobs v Robert Moses, battle of New York’s urban titans More here: Celebrating Jane Jacobs’ Birthday ’round the net (Treehugger)

Neoliberalism Shows Its Face

Neoliberalism is the ruling ideology of the post-Communist world, and yet no one knows what it is.

That’s the thesis of this George Monbiot column, who sheds light on the doctrine and its history. It’s a great explanation; it ties together the ideological construct of Neoliberalism with the political rhetoric which uses it as a justification, even as it denies it is an ideology at all.

Why is the private sector big business “efficient” but government spending always “waste?” Why must we turn everything over to “market forces?” Why must we always blame individuals for failure rather than systems? Why are regulations always seen as “distorting” the market? What’s up with all the “public-private” partnerships? Why should schools, hospitals, and governments be run “like a business?” Why are we forced to “shop around” for healthcare and fund our own retirements by gambling in the stock market? Why is education looked at through the prism of “return on investment?” Why have “citizens” been replaced by “consumers?” It’s all underpinned by a single ideology; an ideology maintained and elucidated by the economic priesthood:

So pervasive has Neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions, that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counter-productive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems (The Guardian)

That’s a good summary. Neoliberalism is often referred to as “free market fundamentalism,” which is a good summary of its doctrine. This article details some of the history of how it became so predominant:

Free market economists believe that markets work best when left alone, and any type of government intervention to help the economy can only have harmful effects. Even after the Great Depression, they continued to argue that the government intervention would only cause further harm, and the free market would automatically resolve the problems. However, it was obvious to all that the massive amount of misery called for urgent action. [The Quantity Theory of Money] was discredited and mainstream economists accepted Keynesian ideas, rejecting free market ideologies. US President  Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) started his campaign with orthodox promises to balance the budget but converted to Keynesianism when faced with the severe hardships imposed by the Great Depression. He later said that “to balance our budget in 1933 or 1934 or 1935 would have been a crime against the American people.” In the 1960’s, the aphorism that “We are all Keynesians now” became widely accepted.

Free market ideologues like Friedman and Hayek patiently bided their time, while preparing the grounds for a counter-attack. Their opportunity came when stagflation – high unemployment together with high inflation – occurred in the 1970’s as a result of the Arab oil embargo. They skillfully manipulated public opinion to create the impression that economic problems were due to Keynesian economic theories, and could be resolved by switching to free market policies. The rising influence of free market ideology was reflected in the election of Reagan and Thatcher, who rejected Keynesian doctrines. Milton Friedman re-packaged old wine in new bottles, and the [Quantity Theory of Money] went from being a discredited eccentric view to the dominant orthodoxy… monetarists succeeded in persuading many academics and policy makers of the pre-Keynesian ideas that money only affects prices, and has no long run effects on the real economy. Central Bankers were persuaded to abandon the Keynesian idea of using expansionary monetary policy to fight unemployment. Instead, they started to focus on inflation targets. Forgetting the hard learned lessons of the Great Depression led to The Global Financial Crisis. Excess money creation for speculation led to a boom in housing and stock markets, followed by a crash very much like that of the Great Depression. Chastened Central Bankers remembered Keynes and took some actions necessary to prevent a collapse of the banking system. A deeper understanding of money could have prevented the Great Recession which followed. The truth is exactly opposite of the QTM idea that money does not affect the real economy. In fact, money plays a central role in the real economy.

The Veil of Money (WEA Pedagogy Blog)

Chris Dillow thinks that defining Neoliberalism as any sort of coherent ideology is giving it too much credit. He points out all the inconsistencies between Neoliberalism’s supposed purpose to let the Market decide, and the huge salaries and profit margins of well-connected insiders and their political cronies. “It might be that “neoliberalism” is not so much a coherent intellectual project as a series of opportunistic ad hoc uses of capitalist power.”

Most leftists, I reckon, would describe all the following as distinctively neoliberal policies: the smashing of trades unions; privatization; state subsidies and bail-outs of banks; crony capitalism and corporate welfare (what George calls “business takes the profits, the state keeps the risk”; the introduction of managerialism and academization into universities and schools; and the harsh policing of the unemployed.

What do they have in common? It’s certainly not free market ideology. Instead, it’s that all these policies enrich the already rich. Attacks on unions raise profit margins and bosses’ pay. Privatization expands the number of activities in which profits can be made; managerialism and academization enrich spivs and gobshites; and benefit sanctions help ensure that bosses get a steady supply of cheap labour if only by creating a culture of fear. Ben’s claim that neoliberalism is happy with a big state fits this pattern; big government spending helps to mitigate cyclical risk.

All this makes me suspect that those leftists who try to intellectualize neoliberalism and who talk of a “neoliberal project” are giving it too much credit…. Perhaps neoliberalism is simply what we get when the boss class exercises power over the state.”

Over-estimating neoliberialism (Stumbling and Mumbling)

Dillow points out that many recent phenomena have nothing to do with markets, and everything to do with enriching a small elite. In fact, truly free markets would compete away excess profits. But if you sell off the commons to rent-seeking investors who can depend on taxpayer money and game the system, you would see guaranteed high profits supported by state money. And if markets were run by monopolies and oligopolies where barriers to entry and regulations kept out competitors, you would see excess profits as well:

…one feature of the neoliberal era has been the soaring wages of those claim to deny the power of markets. CEOs – who are in effect central planners – and financiers who aspire to beat the market have seen their pay increase massively since the 80s. That’s not something that would have happened if market ideology has triumphed.

That’s the point of this article: High Profits Mean Capitalism is Cooked (BoingBoing):

The efficient markets hypothesis holds that high margins attract competitors, who whittle them away to next to nothing, spurring firms to innovate to create new products, services, and methods that are more efficient, benefiting the wider society. This process is the whole moral and utilitarian basis for “free market” capitalism, the idea that if you let companies compete without limitations, they will force one another to ever-greater heights of innovation, efficiency, and productivity, giving all of us more for less.

When firms — and sectors — enjoy consistent high margins, there’s something wrong. The only way that’s possible is if the companies are cooking the process: securing monopolies, conspiring to fix prices, capturing their regulators and using regulation to keep new entrants out of the market. Collectively, these activities are called “rent-seeking” and preventing them is, in free market ideology, the most important function of the state. Without an extra-industrial referee to police rent-seeking, it will grow to dominate every industry, since investors and managers and employees tend to prefer to lay down their arms and use collusion and capture to secure their positions, rather than constantly striving. Without constant vigilance, there’s no markets, only crony capitalism.

So Neoliberalism in real life has been a way of cooking the markets, a way for managers to gain control of the state. But herein lies a paradox: capitalism needs a state strong enough to maintain it, but such a strong state can by captured. “Because Markets” is just an ideological smokescreen for the looting of society, what David Harvey calls a “new enclosure movement,” where the commons is sold off to the investor class for profits, and access is restricted to those most able to pay.

No doubt libertarians would be quick to label this as “crony capitalism”–their catch-all for when the market delivers lass than optimal outcomes for the majority of people.
As for the crony capitalism charge, this Reddit user makes some good points about the use of that all-purpose, “get-out-of-jail-free” card by defenders of the status quo:

I’ve been reading a lot of comments by people who wedge the word “crony” before “capitalism,” as if it somehow constitutes a meaningful defense of the neoliberal religion.

Capitalists seek profit by almost any means necessary. If it means corrupting the state (assuming the state wasn’t corrupt in the first place…), siphoning off money from “entitlement spending,” (ex: Walmart administering food stamps or hospitals over billing patients on Medicare/Medicaid), lobbying politicians for local development subsidies for the ostensible purpose of creating jobs and revitalizing industry, etc. (basically, whatever the fuck will help them realize additional profits), that IS the essence of the system. It’s not some distorted, deviant version of it; ergo, crony capitalism is the logical outcome.

If they want to play the “well, that’s not REAL []” game, perhaps they should accept the argument that the USSR/Maoist China didn’t represent “real communism.” I’d love to see how that goes.

Second, crony capitalism is the symptom, not the problem. Laws from a century ago in America were designed to curb/regulate the problems of capitalism. Those regulations did not cause the problems themselves. (Need to stress this point over and over again, some people seriously think it was unicorns and fairies before the evulllllll gubminttt stepped in)

An apt analogy for this level of delusional thinking is if someone contracts tuberculosis and visits a doctor, who prescribes antibiotics. The antibiotics work for a while, but a few resistant strains survive and return with a vengeance. The antibiotics no longer work…of course, nobody reasonable would say “yeah, the solution is to roll back on the meds, because then the Mycobacterium tuberculosis will die off.”

Or as I put it, crony capitalism IS capitalism. It always has been. But since history was purged from the field of economics in favor of abstract math and ideology, we are told to forget that fact. Michael Perelman’s “Railroading Economics” tells much of this sad story. Crony capitalism is the default mode.

A trenchant example of this is the dismantling of health care and higher education in the United Kingdom. The bleeding of higher education is described in this article by Trainspotting author Ian Welsh:

As with the economy, so too with higher education; Thatcher might have set up the Student Loans Company, but it was Blair’s government who introduced tuition fees with the Teaching and Higher Education Act of 1998. This was followed by the draconian act of 2004, which increased fees from £1,000 [$1,400] to £3,000 [$4,300] pounds.

Since then, paid higher education has remained a political consensus in English politics (a Liberal Democrat pledge to abolish fees when in coalition partnership with the Conservatives was swiftly reneged upon), though not in Scotland, where remarkably, in the devolved parliament, the SNP administration still supports free tuition.

So student loans and debts are not an incidental strategy. They represent the starting point of inducting people into a life package of debt-servitude, which includes mortgage and car loans. In more innocent and economically buoyant times, we used to call this credit. In the words of leading American-Canadian critic and social theorist, Henry Giroux: “Higher education is viewed by the apostles of market fundamentalism as a space for producing profits, educating a docile labor force, and a powerful institution for indoctrinating students into accepting the obedience demanded by the corporate order.”

When the US media, such as the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, discuss student debt, it’s from a neoliberal perspective, with the question being: how can politicians prevent the banks from losing money on these debts? The invariable answer: by tightening the screws on the debtors. The banks got the government to guarantee such loans, which gives politicians the leverage to contend that they must protect the taxpayer and make these shiftless students pay. Even if the taxpayers in question are often the parents of the indebted students.

The Wall Street Journal recently described student loans as just another example of Obama’s socialism. A fairly ludicrous contention, as the American state neither runs the education system nor provides its financing. As in the UK, tuition fees in the US have risen steeply over the last decade. The socialism is reserved for the banks who benefit from this and other scams, as they are deemed “too big to fail” by Anglo-American capitalism. For everybody actually in the education system, the story is one of privatization and financialization.

How the Banks Stole Higher Education (VICE)

And the dismantling of Britain’s National Health system is described well by this comment to a Reddit discussion of the walkout strike of England’s emergency room doctors:

Step 1: Intentionally under-fund the NHS, transforming surplus creating hospitals into debt ladden hospitals ‘un-able to manage themselves’.

Step 2: Divide the workforce, for example a bad new contract for some staff.

Step 3: Push hospitals into crisis and paint staff in a negative light to gather public support.

Step 4: Effectively degrad personal morale to initiate highly skilled migration out of the NHS to value appreciating organisations (Private Practice and Overseas health services) with aim for a critical mass of vacant positions.

Step 5: Portray the NHS as failed and ‘not a fit for modern society’.

Step 6: Sell easily saleable/profitable hospitals to private management companies.

Step 7:Split the NHS emergency and elective services and allow private companies e.g. ABC Healthcare sell priority to healthcare for a price (Need a operation? Pay or have insurance to get operation straight away and not wait 12 months until it’s an emergency).

Step 8: Engage TTIP laws to allow American medical/pharmaceutical companies to force contracts under threat of lawsuit against the British Government, Crown and People.

Step 9: Keep the worst performing assets and hospitals, and proclaim that ‘We have saved the NHS’.

Step 10: Retire and profit.

To which some commenters added:

It really is phenomenal how much and how fast the conservative government strips and cuts through all that has been painstakingly built over the years. Afterwards one can then claim to have solved the deficit issue and help your friends in the private sector, while the average Joe is left with unaffordable, inadequate services. Yay…

Yep, the strategy is called “starve the beast” and has been used for decades by US Republicans.

England’s Doctors Walk Out of Emergency Wards in First Ever All-Out Strike(Reddit)

So Neoliberalism is still destroying and dismantling the world, heading us forward to a kind of neofeudal order. And it seems unstoppable. Yet we’re finally seeing a backlash all over the world:

The greater the failure, the more extreme the ideology becomes. Governments use neoliberal crises as both excuse and opportunity to cut taxes, privatise remaining public services, rip holes in the social safety net, deregulate corporations and re-regulate citizens. The self-hating state now sinks its teeth into every organ of the public sector.

Perhaps the most dangerous impact of neoliberalism is not the economic crises it has caused, but the political crisis. As the domain of the state is reduced, our ability to change the course of our lives through voting also contracts. Instead, neoliberal theory asserts, people can exercise choice through spending. But some have more to spend than others: in the great consumer or shareholder democracy, votes are not equally distributed. The result is a disempowerment of the poor and middle. As parties of the right and former left adopt similar neoliberal policies, disempowerment turns to disenfranchisement. Large numbers of people have been shed from politics.

Chris Hedges remarks that “fascist movements build their base not from the politically active but the politically inactive, the ‘losers’ who feel, often correctly, they have no voice or role to play in the political establishment”. When political debate no longer speaks to us, people become responsive instead to slogans, symbols and sensation. To the admirers of Trump, for example, facts and arguments appear irrelevant.

Judt explained that when the thick mesh of interactions between people and the state has been reduced to nothing but authority and obedience, the only remaining force that binds us is state power. The totalitarianism Hayek feared is more likely to emerge when governments, having lost the moral authority that arises from the delivery of public services, are reduced to “cajoling, threatening and ultimately coercing people to obey them”.

Like communism, neoliberalism is the God that failed. But the zombie doctrine staggers on, and one of the reasons is its anonymity…

Fun Facts

In the first decade of this century, America lost 56,190 factories, 15 a day.
http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/18911/murdering_american_manufacturing_TPP

The scale of workers’ insecurity since the economic crisis is revealed in research showing that 32% believed that there was a risk of losing their jobs and 38% were anxious that their pay would be cut. Many workers also feared arbitrary dismissal and loss of autonomy and pay, as well as discrimination and victimisation by management.
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-03/s-aat030116.php

China accounted for just 3 percent of global manufacturing output in 1990. Today it produces almost a quarter, including 80 percent of all air conditioners, 71 percent of all mobile phones, and 63 percent of the world’s shoes.
https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601215/china-is-building-a-robot-army-of-model-workers/#/set/id/601326/

Chinese steel production has expanded hugely. Over the past 25 years, output has grown more than 12-fold. By comparison, the EU’s output fell by 12% while the US’s remained largely flat.
http://www.bbc.com/news/business-36099043

Beijing now had 100 billionaires living in the city, 5 more than New York. China now has more billionaires than any other country
http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-35672287

GM paid $904M more in taxes to China than the US in 2015
http://www.foxbusiness.com/markets/2016/03/31/wheres-presidential-debate-on-gms-crony-capitalism.html

About 16.1 percent of China’s land is polluted. This amount of land is equal to more than twice the size of Spain. 19.4 percent of arable land in China is polluted. 82.8% of contaminated lands are polluted by pollutants like Arsenic, Cadmium, and Nickel.
http://guardianlv.com/2014/04/pollution-a-huge-problem-in-china/

More than 80 percent of the water from underground wells used by farms, factories and households across the heavily populated plains of China is unfit for drinking or bathing because of contamination from industry and farming.
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/12/world/asia/china-underground-water-pollution.html?_r=2

Delhi has 8.5 million vehicles and with car sales soaring in India, 1,400 extra cars are added to the capital’s streets every day.
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-36051628

Syria’s drought has likely been its worst in 900 years.
http://www.climatecentral.org/news/syrias-drought-worst-900-years-20087

Water availability in India’s 91 reservoirs is at its lowest in a decade, with stocks at 29% of their total storage capacity. Some 85% of the country’s drinking water comes from aquifers, but their levels are falling.
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-35888535

Children spend less time outside than prison inmates.
http://www.treehugger.com/culture/children-spend-less-time-outside-prison-inmates.html

The United States’ Largest Public Schools Have More Police Than Counselors.
https://www.colorlines.com/articles/study-nations-largest-public-schools-have-more-police-counselors

The two largest private prison operators made a combined $361 million in profits in 2015.
https://twitter.com/SenSanders/status/703366272726208518

In 1988, 0.20% of the population of the USSR was police, and the US had 0.24%. Today, the US has 0.35% of the population acting as police.
https://www.reddit.com/r/collapse/comments/49jyor/in_1988_020_of_the_population_of_the_ussr_was/

At the current rate of decline in prison population (~1.8 per year), it will take until 2101 —88 years — for the prison population to return to its 1980 level.
http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2016/02/america-fact-of-the-day-5.html

The NFL makes more than $9 billion annually, is projected to make more than $25 billion a year by 2027, and pays its CEO more than $30 million a year. Yet sixty-eight percent of NFL stadium construction costs since 1923 have come from taxpayer money.
https://www.reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/43os83/til_that_despite_the_nfl_making_more_than_9/

Michael Jordan makes more money from Nike than all of the Nike factory workers in Malaysia combined.
http://www.letsrun.com/forum/flat_read.php?thread=5125929&page=1

Almost no industry would be profitable if environmental costs were included.
http://www.trucost.com/_uploads/publishedResearch/TEEB%20Final%20Report%20-%20web%20SPv2.pdf

When adjusted for inflation, wages for investment bankers and securities-industry employees, including salary and bonuses, increased 117 percent from 1990 through 2014, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Over the same period, wages for all other industries rose 21 percent, to $51,029 in 2014, about one-fifth of the $264,357 that bankers and brokers earned that year.
http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2016-04-11/wall-street-wages-double-in-25-years-as-everyone-else-s-languish

The U.S. individual income tax will raise about four times as much as the corporate income tax ($1.8 trillion vs. $419 billion).
http://www.investopedia.com/articles/markets/042616/what-all-candidates-tax-plans-are-missing.asp

The first architect ever to appear on television was Albert Speer.
http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/The-architect-of-the-Reich-8384

A successful campaign for the Best Picture award could spend around $10 million to influence just 6,000 Academy members.
http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-35613630

According to a 2012 survey in El Tiempo 82% of Colombian men and 42% of women say they have been unfaithful at least once in their lifetime.
http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35660047

Scientists in 1916 felt America was degenerating into a second rate nationality. They listed the Top 20 threats to USA: #8 America leads all nations in murders #12 Hearty eating without exercise #18 Remarkable cancer mortality increase.
https://www.reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/43zif0/til_that_scientists_in_1916_felt_america_was/

Collapse, Race, and Class

I’ve often been struck by the extent to which collapse-phobia is a predominantly white, middle-class phenomenon.

It seems that whites, many of whom have very comfortable lifestyles and significant dynastic wealth, are the ones most terrified of collapse, however defined – stock market crash, empty shelves in the stores, civil order breakdown, panics, natural disasters, resource depletion, etc. They are the ones in panic mode–buying gold, stockpiling guns, buying rural land, hoarding supplies, learning how to forage, installing solar panels, stocking up on rice and beans, etc. Many of the people I have met who are concerned about economic collapse and environmental unsustainability have advanced degrees (not cheap), and live comfortable lives that I could only dream about in terms of expensive houses, families, and job security. By contrast, most lower-income people I have dealt are totally were unaware of the issues surrounding collapse–economic fragility, environmental destruction and climate change, our dependence on fossil fuels for everything, the creeping police state–and probably wouldn’t care too much if they did know about them.

Now, you would expect the poorest people in society to be the ones most afraid of a potential collapse, not people who are quite privileged and well-off. After all, they are society’s most vulnerable people. Any collapse would surely hit them hardest, right? But that’s not what you see.

The reason I think poor people are not very well-represented in the collapse community (to the extent that there is one) is because for them, the wealthy, white, middle-class fears have already been realized in their day-to-day reality.

That is, they’re already living in the post-collapse world that middle-class collapsniks fear so much. The poor aren’t concerned about collapse because they’re already living it.

Unable to get a job, any job? Check. Random acts of violence? Check. Living out of your car? Check. Cash transactions in the underground economy? Check.

People in inner-cities are already growing food in urban gardens on abandoned lots all over the place–a perennial “future” scenario for collapsniks. The buildings around them are already decrepit and falling apart due to neglect. Copper wires are already being stripped from the local buildings. They already can’t afford to put gas in the tank, even at today’s prices. They are already squatting in abandoned houses and trying to avoid eviction and foreclosure. They are already wearing second-hand clothing and foraging in trash-bins for recyclable glass and aluminum. They are already out begging on the streets. They are already dumpster-diving for food. They are already routine victims of state violence via militarized police. As for stocking up on guns to defend yourself from theft and violence, well, for a lot inner-city folks, that’s been a reality for quite some time now. Gangs are already a feature of daily life there in the absence of a working economy. The inner-city already has warlords; they’re called gang leaders.

Now it’s true, there is still gas in the pumps and still food on the shelves. The issue is affording it. The food on the shelves isn’t much consolation if you can’t afford it. Poor people often live in so-called “food deserts”–places where the only food on offer and affordable is corn-syrup laden, heavily-processed human dog food. They’re alive-but sick. Getting healthy, nutritious food, especially protein, is difficult.*

I think it boils down to this:

You can’t be loss-averse if you have nothing to lose.

It’s also why it’s pointless to argue about when collapse will happen: for may of us, it’s already happened, as I’ve pointed out many times before. That’s why blacks, and poor people of any race, are more concerned with getting a job that pays the bills and staying one step ahead of the debt collector than whether humans are going to go extinct a hundred years from now.

This realization is what prompted my last series of posts.

See, most white people don’t ever set foot inside an inner-city, so they don’t know the extent to which a inner-cities already reflect a post-collapse reality. The government has already abandoned these people (except for locking them up, that is). I think that’s because of the racial divide. I’ve spent some time in places like these, so to me, collapse is a much more real phenomenon.

African-Americans have already been living with collapse for generations. That’s why collapse-phobia is largely a white, middle-class phenomenon. A lot of immigrants to the U.S. also come from collapsing countries, so, to them, the fears of most North Americans seem foolish given the conditions where they came from (Latin America, Subsaharan Africa, the Middle East, etc.). A common question you often hear in collapse forums is “how can I preserve my assets in the event of collapse?” For people who’ve never had any assets, this question is absurd. “What should I invest in given my collapse knowledge,” seems rather detached from people who are already living with it and who have nothing.

How did it get this way? Was there a war? Economic collapse? Secession? Natural disaster? Fuel shortage?

Well, in the case of Milwaukee, none of the above. In contemplating how the inner-city got to be the way it is, it’s pretty obvious that it was economic trends which caused the damage. Black people just aren’t needed in the economic order anymore. And, as I detailed in the last series of posts, automation is the ultimate culprit. It’s true that deindustrialization unfolded in different ways, including sending factories to China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Honduras, etc., in addition to automation and suburbanization. But even when you suggest bringing factory jobs back, experts point out that manufacturing just won’t employ that many people anymore no matter what. There are already “lights out” factories that employ only a handful of technicians. The robot future is already here when it comes to making stuff.

So if automation caused America’s urban areas to become post-collapse hellholes, what does that bode for the rest of America? Blacks were only the first victims; the blind eye turned to that fact means that probably nothing will be done to help the latest series of victims who are being made equally redundant to the economic order.

You already see this attitude all over the place. The economists blithely assuring us that automation will create more jobs than it destroys. The “low” unemployment rate of five percent in the official government statistics. The redefining of more and more people as “not in the workforce.” The constant reports in the media of the economy “getting better.” The sneering derision of anyone without a STEM degree. The constant efforts to demonize and humiliate people on public assistance to the greatest extent possible. The fomenting of resentment toward “entitlements” and people “dependent upon government.”

What it ultimately means is that, to once again paraphrase William Gibson, collapse is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed. But just wait. If you want to know how to cope, my suggestion is to look at inner-cities. If you want to “collapse now and avoid the rush,” there are more places than ever to choose from.

It also means that the more lurid “zombie apocalypse” fantasies are just that–fantasies. People aren’t killing each other over gasoline (but do like to use the old “I just need a dollar for gas” line when begging). They aren’t starving, for the most part (but are living on McDonald’s and frozen pizzas). There’s no cannibalism in sight (unless you’re that bath-salts guy in Florida).

I think people want collapse to be a great reset applying to us all. That’s a lot more sexy than a life of poverty on the margins of society while a smaller and smaller number of privileged people continue to enjoy comfortable lives with all the modern conveniences for some time to come. Getting harassed by bill collectors and being unable to get (still available) medical treatments is a lot less enticing than fantasies about abandoned cities overgrown with weeds, bankers hanging from lampposts, and growing vegetables in your own self-sufficient homestead. I think the anxiety is really less about collapse than about falling into the poverty trap that white people have stubbornly ignored for so long in a feeling of misplaced superiority. I think a lot of collapse fear is really just fear of marginalization and poverty, and the idea that everything will burn when you do, so you don’t have to worry about it, is a comforting salve.

* Here, organizations like the Victory Garden Initiative and Will Allen’s Growing Power have helped in this regard. Both are pioneers in urban farming.