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TED talks about city design and capitalism

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Why buses represent democracy in action by Enrique Peñalosa (TED)

The title is a way of saying that building bus lines before four-lane highways for cars is inherently more democratic because more people use the buses. It has less to do with democracy and more to do with social fairness and providing for the basic rights to which civilized peoples are entitles. We are talking about a form of socialism here. Instead of letting the elites bend the will of the market with their gravitational wells of overwhelming buying power, cities should be designed to serve the needs of the people living in them.

Build bike lanes, walking paths, bus lanes and parks before putting in support for elite, individual travel. Perhaps once the city has been built, there will be no need for it. There are many cities in Europe that are slowly widening the circle around their centers where cars are no longer allowed or severely limited.

If the highways are built first, there are two primary deleterious effects: the poorest suffer more vehicular deaths, more health problems due to pollution and spend much more time in commute, all contributing to a miserable lives which are very difficult to improve. It also convinces the poor that the only way out of this situation is to get a car, putting themselves either on the road to ruin or to becoming part of the problem.

Peñalosa did not have time to discuss to what degree he thinks that such situations are entirely deliberate. His talk is representative of the other three here: they all give their talk as if they were pointing out a problem of which no one had previously been aware and that should be eminently solvable now that we all know about it. The problem isn’t that people are no aware of the problem but that the main OECD societies actively fight to keep things this way.

Still, socialists are so inherently optimistic. He managed to awaken a glimmer of hope in me even though I can’t believe that India would step back from the precipice of avarice and hypercapitalism to “have the state buy up all the land around its cities” and build parks and bus lanes.

The next clash will be between cyclists and pedestrians, methinks. Bicycles are already quite fast with the right rider on it (an average of 30+ kph is not unheard of) and more and more people are getting electric bikes, which allow them to achieve similar speeds without the fitness or effort. But should a city get to the point where this is the largest of their problem, then they’re doing quite fine.

Why we shouldn’t trust markets with our civic life by Michael Sandel (TED)

He makes an important point, but he does it without mentioning any of the pioneers or sources of this line of thought. The problem I have isn’t that he seems to be taking credit for having thought of the idea of “becoming a market society” but that he doesn’t give his audience a few other names that they could research to get more in-depth information on this very important topic.

His talk boils down to: in our rush to create a society that is simple enough to understand by those taught only to apprehend simple things, we have chosen a very basic capitalist axiom as the “one idea to rule them all”, leaving all other considerations by the wayside, particularly any consideration for what is moral and what is right rather than just what is most cost-efficient.

There is also the problem that we allow the same people who decided that this will be the ground rule to also provide us with the only legitimate metric for it. They will tell us whether it’s working. They’re getting richer, it must be working. You’re not getting richer, you must not be trying hard enough.

That is the essential problem. It’s not that we are marketizing everything. If done in a rigorously scientific manner, that might actually work out better in some semi-utopic way. But we are letting gangsters and con-men (persons?) sell us a set of societal rules that make it easier for them to take advantage of us—and we kick ourselves when we fail.

He points out that there are places where markets are being introduced where they are failing us. But what does failure mean in those cases? That is, is the outcome a failure for all parties? Or did some parties actually benefit despite the ostensible failure? His example of incentivizing education with monetary rewards is an interesting one but the outcome is relatively predictable: the original goal of education is twisted around to maximize profit.

The original goal of providing self-actuating, thinking citizens falls by the wayside. The history of education indicates that this is not a concept that just showed up with Reagan and the 80s. It did not just show up with the No Child Left Behind program. Instead, for at least the last century, it has been the goal of society to provide workers for its employment positions. If the people are smart enough to read a newspaper, that’s a bonus. The Idiocracy is not an unintended consequence; it’s the plan.

Twisted incentives lead to twisted outcomes. He could have chosen the entire financial industry as an example. With that example, he could have more clearly shown what he really means when he says that markets don’t belong everywhere. What he is implicitly saying with that statement is that markets in civic life tends to lead to bad outcomes for almost everyone. When school suck and kids hate education, they are relegated/relegate themselves to the lower echelons of society, ready to serve rather than to agitate and disturb the lofty lives of the elite (I’m picturing the undisturbed surface of an infinity pool here).

There is also the whiff of first-worldism: America is so accustomed to being a first-world nation that when eminently third-world situations arise because of a widening class dividechasm, he speaks of them as if America had invented them. People standing in line for other people because they literally have nothing else to do is not a unique feature of a go-getter society with higher unemployment than it used to. It’s what has always happened when there is a noble class in society.

The walkable city by Jeff Speck (TED)

He makes a very good point about city design in the U.S. being largely crap, except for, you guessed it: Portland. All the hopes of a nation hang on the slumping shoulders of Portland. Instead of emulating Portland’s policies of the last decades in their own cities, people choose to move there, which isn’t really the point that Portland was making. Portland would much rather remain the same size and serve as an example to be followed rather than to serve as a mecca for hipsters too lazy to enact change in their own cities.

He’s very much worth watching, if only for his seemingly indefatigable upbeat nature. He seems to think that we’re still on the uphill side of this problem and can beat it in America. Some of those hurdles are discussed in part above. Others are addressed by an older talk The ghastly tragedy of the suburbs by James Howard Kunstler in 2004 (TED) where he starts off with “[t]he immersive ugliness of our everyday environments in America is entropy made visible” and quickly moves on to describing America’s suburbs as the “greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world”. Where the majority of Americans live are “places not worth caring about”.

Subsequent material by Kunstler, who’s much more of the opinion that America is heading for an imminent societal contraction, which entails smaller communities but built out of necessity and hardship rather than planned by civic designers.

Unfortunately, Speck’s talk is too short to encompass the myriad other societal and philosophical reasons for why America is going to find it impossible to change course without taking significant damage first. There is no way to transform from caterpillar to butterfly without first passing through the near-death of the chrysalis.

Hat tip to Peo for the links.