in About Markets, Politics and Plans, Urban Politics

The World of Ideas

A conservative friend of mine argues that everyone’s property is no one’s property, and wealth left is valued by none. Why? I said with a few examples brewing, but then she says, “Who would be fool enough to wait to use it when the next moment, it could be used by another?” I interrupted with “could be used.” Unphased, she said, “Would a tree for timber be left in the ground for another, would fish found in the morning sea be left if they would be netted in the afternoon?” Then she pulled out her economics degree and said, “Every factor of production without assurance leaves all things for all people as things without value.”

Natural resources and common property are free goods for individuals but recognized as scarce goods by the rule of “use or lose.” Value is obtained when the rules of property for value becomes subject to a unified directing power. To the conservative, this power is held as private. It is associated with the “free-rider problem,” freedom and the capacity to be free. It is tied to individual and corporate rights as the fuel of competitive innovation, new technology, and wealth, without which new problems cannot be solved.

“…there is no such thing as society; only individuals and families.”
“The ten most dangerous words in the English language are “Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help .”

Margaret Thatcher 1987 & Ronald Reagan 1988

The progressive’s argument (that would be me) is if the property becomes public (government), it does so for specific purposes. Regulating development that reduces abuse or corruption can produce value not only by preventing damage or by litigating cause but through the encouragement of a global culture that recognizes solutions to problems before they exist. Assign a value to that and we leap into a future that capital alone refuses to provide. My brief crisis management analysis (here) sees self-interest as a useful compulsion but if unregulated or tested, the practice drains shared resources.

When modified through price mechanism alone, addiction can be repackaged as vapor and the resource drained is the lungs of children. The charge of negative impact continues in the population (endemic) in unregulated markets, followed by claiming the need to add wealth to fix or mitigate the cause of problems. The progressive’s complaint continues because doubling down on methods (risks) that are counter to a long-term interest such as a child’s health (changing/eliminating flavors) are digressions that further discourages the mobilization of resistance.

The arguments of a conservative vs. progressive approach also have a long, tedious set of false premise conditions that also deter effective challenges to the status quo. Whether corporate or within the public realm, several types of economic behaviors clearly threaten the stability of individual nations and global health in general. The theft of a treasury, election fixing, killing in all places, and many geographies reveal known horrors.

Geopolitical oil, rare earth minerals, even access to space force technology are considered sustainable practices due to irrational thinking and false arguments. Corporate identity-interests also build on a variety of absurd claims. We know the tag lines: We are the best, the safest, most loved, recommended, and philanthropic business in the world.  All of this is protected by free-speech and self-regulation norms until a stated fact is proven false. All of this is useless until a “False Premise Agency” becomes an agency with power, there are a few reasonable straight forward steps to logical thinking in a society. Examples are:

  • Change the mode of problem-solving with a new process.
  • Redefine problems in a categorically different fashion.
  • Eliminate the damage at the source or the cause, include failed prevention.
  • Substitute damages with relocation, replacements, and technical upgrades.
  • Legislation and litigation practices that pay for failure as an ongoing process.

The last three activities are classic fire brigade solutions, and while reasonable, essential, and undoubtedly continuous, it is the first two actions that require renewed focus if ending the cycle can be expected. Improving the modes of problem-solving processes is inherently demanded by the catastrophic resolution perspective in the position taken by operatives of the last three.

Thomas Hale of University-Oxford describes a similar but more hopeful choice he calls “catalytic cooperation” (here). Hale accepts the “resilience is all that is left” from the Club of Rome folks and rolls up his sleeves as a member of a very large group of academic economists. He sees three features of climate mitigation that depart from the accepted model: joint goods, preference heterogeneity, and increasing returns. The presence of these characteristics reveals the chief barrier to global cooperation is not the threat of free riding but the lack of incentive to act in the first place.

Humans have been redefining problems in new ways, from deciding that a cave with a guarded entrance is a good idea to the billions of “falsifiability” exercises ongoing today.  They are theoretical, mathematical in the laboratory and the field.  All of it is refreshing, but much of it is like a solid slap in the face with someone screaming, wake up, wake up.  In many ways, we are still in that Neolithic cave, redefining problems in categorically new ways.

More recently, the injection of scientists into the partisan “what can vs. should be done?” debate has begun to dance around the global commons’ problem. A list of over fifty non-United Nations multilateral, mega-regional agencies (a list here) represents a doubling of “brigades” in 25 years and a trend toward continuing expansion on an even longer list of issues. Pushing a top priority for greater capacity in the global “what should we do” debate became the jingoistic nightmare that turned government into the problem.

“If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and to promote their common welfare – all else is lost.”

Barack Obama (2006)

As the world’s economic growth slows due to realignments caused by climate change, combinations of regional populism, and global security interests, we are gripped by widening inequality as if it was only an issue of the unequal. The global human health condition is part of the climate change question that proves humanity is far more alike than unalike, with greater similarities with beautiful variations of great benefit to all.

A dip in growth caused by ongoing investment reductions in carbon-intensive industries also opens new processes that will break into a vast network of capital chains searching for alternatives. Short of an energy solution as dramatic as fusion, new forms of growth will from new stock symbol combinations associated with government-backed initiatives that reduce risk. The central question will be whether decision-makers will become sufficiently undistracted to plan effectively to implement a proposed change.

Public investment works with noted success in the traditional practices of the scientific method. Concerning theory, predictability, and peer reviews of specific concerns such as a common cancer problem, AIDS or SARS are successful. If Science is needed to solve macro human system problems, on the one hand, the public investment appears helpless on the other. The failure to end the rise of life degrading processes is all the more frightening because of how easily they are identified. Commercial food production, bacterial and viral contagion, energy use, poor transportation systems, and biome systems worldwide, to name a few.

If it is for the lack of “trust” that all may be lost, then public investment in the sciences of planning and engineering, art and architecture are all practices that can produce the immediate feedback essential to discovering how to live in a categorically new way, especially if the way now is killing us slowly or with deadly precision. It may only be a few at a time, in sadly separated multiple room huts, scattered across the American landscape of false independence or in the towers of despair we so eagerly and carelessly build, the task of getting on track is right now.

Getting on Track

Three global factors have brought about the demand for global, multilateral change in national societies that have experienced varying degrees of tragic impact. First, climate change is an umbrella disaster held over nasty little wars, floods, and firestorms followed by infectious diseases.  Second, most of these effects are recognized as inevitable for a century or more, and third, the world’s leadership is beginning to understand that for the lack of a global agreement, much of all of this was and remains preventable in each new cycle.

Ironically, a fourth global factor is a conservative viewpoint expressed as the tragedy of the commons. The negative impact on a common pasture and the relationship among households raising grazing animals is a real thing. The rules should change if the entire earth becomes that metaphorical pasture. Losing entire portions of massive coastal cities all over the world to surging ocean tides and entire biomes (forest to coral reef) will become the lived experience of millions of people. It will be as if billions of tons of waste that floats and sinks in the shared resource of the global oceans and the “dead zone” of the Gulf of Mexico could be seen by all. Societies pay for these disruptions with the starvation of children, the screams of helpless parents, and the stunned dismay of families who falsely believe they are saved with compensatory access to wealth.

The global climate has been stable for only the last 2,000 to 3,000 years. There should be no expectation that it would remain constant, the global climate is in many ways barely stable as a system and a single push of added gases, heat, human and natural would make change inevitable, yet still feel inconsequential as a threat. The demand for alternative ways of living is unimaginable as the swell of cheap energy continues to make everything, including faith in a quick tech-fix easy to expect. In this psychological climate, finding replacements is difficult, and forcing amelioration by changing the price with substitutes violates the status quo. When assessed in the “commons” framework, two new categorical patterns of thinking emerge as environmental and emotional intelligence.

Ostrom’s Answer is Occam’s Razor

A problem that exists in the future has two elements, one to design a defense, the other is to alter the future to make that unnecessary. The leaders involved may have had the skills of the legislative lawyer and personality for political leadership, but to produce solutions essential to create trust, the science part of our minds and the science professions will form a new community. To do that, the change in the mode of problem-solving begins with a process that Elinor Ostrom has already figured out in a Nobel prize winning way.

Our ancient brains in various shelters for the night knew of beasts, enemies, and trouble. That sense of big trouble is real, but the community may never experience the pain of it because of that sense alone. What we have done, from the cave to the laboratory, is to define problems we believe might be unlikely to occur, but we solve them anyway. The quality of thinking in this instance is an old tactic still in use by scientists today called Occam’s Razor. – a theory of a threat with the fewest variables, as Albert Einstein notes, requires problem-solving work where, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

The first of Elinor Ostrom’s core design principles began in Governing the Commons (1990) and as continuously optimistic as an economist can be in her research for the World Bank in 2009 (here). The paper, A Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change, considers the possibility of a non-tragic global commons. It is here that she gives her life-long partner Vincent Ostrom an attribution to a central observation. She quotes his definition of polycentric as, “one where many elements are capable of making mutual adjustments for ordering their relationships with one another within a general system of rules where each element acts with the independence of other elements.” It was written with Charles Tiebout, and Robert Warren, (Economic Base and Local Expenditure Theory).

Ostrom examined the power of working with problems using a thing already reasonably possessed and understood in the world – clearly defined boundaries. In strictly economic terms, such boundaries would be needed everywhere for everything and difficult to implement. On the other hand, this first rule is essential to working with big global problems such as thermonuclear war or climate change and the threat of a pandemic. Defining a boundary in a categorically new way offers promise as the concept is simple and easily understood.

Because purely economic solutions are easy to argue and difficult to implement, start with a simple physical entity such as a city as that category. Cities are places with a fixed boundary and a legal process for expansion or contraction. The city is an excellent place to begin the implementation of the remaining seven of Ostrom’s solution. It is a “back to the future” type of problem.

A city is an outstanding place to begin the implementation. The city with a boundary offers proportional equivalence and a clear, constantly improving data stream to monitor processes beginning with the measurement of benefits and costs in every imaginable or possible center capable of giving itself a boundary. It is ongoing but without mutual benefit consent. Proportionality within multiple geographies of a dense polycentric city of neighborhoods, cultural groups, ideologies, genders, and so on, can become a transparent way to fully understand variables. In this way, it is possible to put the equality sign (or not) between two or more in the social and economic expressions.

The city also offers multiple platforms for “collective choice agreements.” The center of Ostrom’s argument recognizes the practical use of carefully implemented sanctions. The boundary of the city offers a set of measures from price restrictions to penalties, incentives, and subsidies designed to meet goals such as a good balance of affordable housing or lower per capita energy use. In New York City, neighborhood-level participation in governance is voluntary and advisory, but it expands central government capacity to understand issues as they are experienced locally. As these practices contribute to local autonomy, they are also capable of interpreting them globally. Coming to the resolution of problems begins with the kind of efficiency and quality of data feedback.  that empowers local autonomy through participatory governance.

The last piece of Ostrom’s change-the-world puzzle looks to resolve existential threats with the ability to grow a polycentric rulemaking authority in a manner that global rules are instantly recognized because they are already well-organized and in use locally. The only element missing is the lack of political recognition of this as an urban fact. Ostrom’s groundbreaking approach is not built on how people think, but how they will eventually need to organize their thinking. Hopefully, this work will escape its decade of discussion where it floats in the partial oblivion and trappings of its academic Nobel Prize (2009). It needs to find a city to live in as a permanent place of proof. I recommend New York City, and you know why.  If you can make it here, you can make it everywhere. Again, the city with a strong existing boundary has these systems in place.  The only element is the lack of political recognition of this fact.

Getting On Track

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