Tuesday, August 03, 2010

What if?

Here is how our leaders think about cities (and themselves). From an email blast that just arrived:

WASHINGTON Today, the Senate Banking Committee voted to approve the Livable Communities Act, a proposal to create the next generation of smarter, sustainable and energy-efficient communities. Sponsored by Chairman Christopher Dodd, this bill would authorize HUD's new Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities and create an interagency working group within the federal government to align the community planning and development functions of HUD, the U.S. Department of Transportation and other agencies to allow for a more coordinated and comprehensive approach to building better communities.

The following is a statement by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan:

Today, the Senate Banking Committee took a bold and forward-thinking step toward creating the next generation of livable and sustainable communities. In particular, Chairman Dodd understands that if we're going to encourage the development of smarter, more energy-efficient communities, we have to break down the policy silos that keep many parts of our government from talking to each another. Not only does this measure align the collective energies of the federal government toward this task, but it will help generate jobs, encourage a new way of thinking about land use, reduce congestion, and generally make our neighborhoods better places to live.
But what what if cities are more like spontaneous orders than complex playthings amenable to politics? What if: (1) people will “truck, barter and exchange” (A. Smith) no matter what their leaders come up with? and what if (2) Prisoners Dilemma situations illustrate the limits of trade (insecure property rights, high transactions costs, low levels of trust), but one man’s problem is another man’s opportunity and entrepreneurs act to remedy prisoners dilemma situations when they can (E. Ostrom); and if (3) the rules of the game have many sources beyond our leaders, including bottom-up common law and many “unwritten rules” that Ostrom and others illustrate; and what if (4) public choice economics highlights the actions that are incited by any set of rules, including many “unintended consequences”; politicization is inevitable; and if (5) top-down planning is impossible; planners lack local knowledge and local knowledge is too complex to be fathomed by individuals or committees (Mises, Hayek); and if (6) planning is universal, but markets reconcile competing plans, and this also challenges the idea of top-down planning; and if (7) the most ambitious top-down planning (the Marxist legacy) has failed repeatedly, bringing on misery and starvation -- and state terror to manage starving populations (North Korea); and what if (8) large bunches of redistributionist policies are enacted with presumably progressive intent, but often end up being regressive; they have been a staple of U.S. politics since at least the New Deal, but complaints about increasing inequality are greater than ever; and if (9) land use controls in America help to explain housing affordability problems; and if (10) the world has been urbanizing for many years because cities are the “engines of growth”; cities encourage entrepreneurial success as long as they foster spatial arrangements that are congenial to entrepreneurial discovery; this includes spatial arrangements that internalize many positive externalities and minimize the possibility of many negative externalities; and if (11) such spatial arrangements are too complex for top-down planning (Jacobs, Mises, Hayek); and if (12) public goods market failures are minimized via Tiebout competition; and this includes private land use planning (in malls, industrial parks, private communities); and (13) designers do essential work; we willingly board airplanes, trusting the engineers who designed them.

And what if, in light of all this, we think very hard about what role is there for planners and designers when it comes to modern cities and decide that the presumption ought to be towards the lightest possible touch? Naw.