“Our people made that choice, the choice to go to Sameness. Before my time, before the previous time, back and back and back. We relinquished color when we relinquished sunshine and did away with difference. We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.”
– Lois Lowry, The Giver
My year living in the Denver area was the first time I was really, glaringly aware of what life could be like when all the businesses and street corners and houses in a city were plagued with sameness. For most of my life I’d lived in smaller towns or in towns that have in some way resisted this state of corporate replication. Certainly these places have all eventually been accosted by Burger Kings and Starbucks and Jiffy Lubes and the myriad other national chains, but in Colorado – at least in the suburb in which I had imprisoned myself – sameness reached critical mass. One could very well end up lost from one major intersection to the next. The same grocery store sat in the same parking lot with the same shoe outlet all walled in by the same streets, the same sidewalks. There were urban trails, thankfully, but for a long ways the grid-like city stretched bleak and flat and boring. No interesting bars, no dusty old book stores. No character.
This, of course, in utter contrast to some of the grittier parts of the city. Uptown Denver (though not so much Downtown) is fairly full of its own unique flair. There are non-Starbucks coffee shops and at least one bar with a giant mural of Jerry Garcia painted in the men’s bathroom. I went to a hamburger shop on Colfax and an employee there tried to sell me one of a variety of rings with my meal. I don’t think the job paid well enough to sustain certain habits, or at least the shakiness of his hands and the fact that he was peddling rings on the clock seemed to indicate as much. Indeed, crime festers around the edges of the older parts of the city. A woman was kidnapped in the parking lot of one of the largest liquor stores I’ve ever visited, a block from where one of my friends lived. Then again, Colfax Avenue stretches east to west across the city and crime is bad all along it, whether it’s downtown or in the eastern suburbs. Certainly, though, the appeal of the old Victorian and brick apartment buildings and ancient houses of the older downtown neighborhoods is dampened by the heightened crime the further into the city one burrows, the further from the comfy Cherry Street suburbs or the new, glossy burbs lining the Tech Center.
So I suppose there is good and there is bad. There is a trade-off one makes for city life, or for country life; for the burbs or the vibrant urban centers. The sterile suburbs are indeed often fairly safe from crime but they are also deadening and lifeless. I was a lot more troubled driving around the creepy manufactured neighorhoods of Aurora than I ever was walking down Colfax Avenue or drinking beers in funky downtown hippie bars. I was a lot more at home amidst the old, quirky half-dilapidated houses than I ever felt in the suburbian realm of copy-cat domiciles. Similarly, areas of Phoenix – like Anthem – while admittedly less dangerous than much of that city, are frighteningly devoid of any human touches, any sense of locality or history or organic development. I would argue that Phoenix itself, as a whole, suffers from this quality of rushed, impersonal growth. It’s a young city that spread much too fast – a huge grid of sprawl and cement, unsustainable and hot and after Mexico City, the second most likely place to be kidnapped in North America. It is a freeway city.
Regarding the similarity of American cities, James Joyner writes:
Something has undoubtedly been lost as a result. But let’s not discount the gains. The homogeneity that people complain about means that small town Mississippi now has many of the advantages that were, even twenty years ago, available only in the big cities. Sure, there are better options in most big cities than Starbucks, Samuel Adams, Ben & Jerry’s, and Olive Garden. But they’re a damned site better than Maxwell House, Budweiser, Blue Bunny, and Pizza Inn. And let’s not forget the wonder of an Amazon Prime membership, which will allow someone on Paducah, Kentucky to get pretty much anything they want delivered to their door in two days with no shipping costs.
That we’ve become relatively disconnected from our neighbors is without question a bad thing and one imagines our frequent moves and the ability to disconnect from our local reality by plugging in to various faraway virtual realities contribute something to that. Then again, sociologists have been lamenting this trend since the 1920s so perhaps not so large a role as one might think.
This takes us back to the argument(s) Mark has since backtracked from a bit, which posit that globalism and free trade actually help local communities. I think that certainly in some respects they have. It’s wonderful to be able to blog from your small town in the boondocks, and it’s great that there are companies like Apple and Dell who will make computers for you to play around on, and software companies to provide the blogging software and internet browsers and such. But there is a cost to all of it, and one cost is the rise of massive corporations that stretch, often too thin, across the nation and the globe and render local flavors and local businesses obsolete. Sure, the Wal*Mart that just moved to town may have cheaper goods but it also pays lower wages, and it centralizes capital into one entity; beyond that it’s a terrible eye-soar, and ends up sucking money out of a community and putting it into the pockets of shareholders who may live a thousand miles away. Lots and lots of short term gains like cheaper loaves of bread and a wider variety of cheap, Chinese plastic toys can make people feel like their dollar is travelling further, but in the end one has to question the quality – both in terms of services rendered and products purchased, as well as in the quality of life that homogeneity and centralization provides. Something intangible yet essential was missing in the Dnever suburbs, that isn’t where I live now.
Mark makes a good point that protectionism, as wielded by the Federal government, can hurt as much as it can help and that subsidization of industries can certainly be a bad thing. Likewise, I think, free trade in its current form – which is little more than an arrangement benefiting the largest international organizations, or at least rewarding them the most – is equally damaging when wielded by the Federal government. Trade policy, generally, when under the devices of the big centralized state seems to be ad hoc and unsustainable, overly influenced by lobbying powers and political pressues – now more apparent than ever as we witness our politicians running to the rescue of the very same giant corporations that benefit the most from lax regulations and globalization.
Which leads us to the concept of self-government and self-determination, and to the economic philosophy of distributism and other philosophies that seek to change the way capitalism works and capital flows and de-centralize property and government. Kevin Carson has a really interesting comment in Mark’s thread that looks at free trade from a mutualist (anarcho-anti-capitalist) point of view:
What we have is subsidized trade and corporate protectionism on a massive scale.
Government subsidizes the export of capital through foreign aid and World Bank loans to build the utility and road infrastructure overseas without which offshoring couldn’t be profitable.
Government subsidizes long-distance shipping (highway and civil aviation subsidies, keeping the sea lanes open at taxpayer expense, etc.).
Perhaps most importantly, so-called “intellectual property” serves the same protectionist function, for TNCs, that tariffs did for the old national industrial economies of a century ago. They create artificial “comparative advantage” by erecting toll gates against the free flow of technology and information, and secure corporate ownership of the latest generation of production technology.
It’s probably no coincidence that the dominant profitable sectors in the corporate global economy all pursue business models that rely heavily on “intellectual property” (software and entertaiment), direct government subsidies (agribusiness and armaments), or both (electronics and biotech).
If you take a look at the largest TNCs, they’re only nominally private. What we have is an interlocking directorate of corporate and state bureaucracies. To call the corporate bureaucracies “private” is as misleading and meaningless as to say the feudal nobility were private landowners.
There’s a difference between “trade” and “free trade.” When you subsidize something, you get more of it. And we’ve got a lot more trade now than we’d have in a free market. If we had genuine free trade (everybody free to do business with any willing party, on whatever terms they could negotiate on their own, with no subsidies, no patents and copyrights, no trademark law, no protections of any kind, and no government role in forcibly opening up foreign markets for American business), we’d have the optimal market quantity of foreign trade–in other words, a hell of a lot less of it. We’d have relocalized economies of small-scale production for local use.
Unfortunately, the establishment left and establishment right seem to have a mirror-image vested interest in the “globalization=free trade” meme. The right benefits from the pretense that all those corporate turtles got up on those fenceposts by being such good climbers in the “free market.” The left benefits from the pretense that a big government controlled by liberal social engineers is necessary to stop the turtles from climbing up there.
In fact big business wouldn’t even exist if the corporate economy hadn’t been created by a top-down government revolution in the late 19th century.
The ostensible enmity between big business and big government is about as phony as the “good cop/bad cop” routine in an interrogation room. The folks on the right who squeal about big government are a bit like Bre’r Rabbit hollering “Please don’t fling me in that briar patch.” And liberals who regulate the economy for “progressive” purposes almost always wind up being useful idiots for big business (Google “Baptists and Bootleggers”).
This all makes a lot of sense. The “free” trade we have today is really little more than international corporations working in tandem with governments to further and further centralize and globalize control of both capital and politics. I don’t mean to say this is some massive conspiracy, but rather the natural evolution of corporatism and big government operating under the auspices of capitalism and free trade. The irony, I suppose, is that if Carson is right, what we’re witnessing is being touted as “free trade” but is in fact a very selective sort of subsidization. What I would argue contra to purist arguments for free trade is that protectionist measures, just like opening trade, can only be used with any sort of efficacy at a local or regional level, and that localities and communities should be empowered to self-determine, whether that means setting up trade agreements or protecting vital local businesses – including banning outright all big box stores or refusing to purchase non-local supplies for city governments.
The problem is that trade policy is not made by localities, at least not in the US. If it were, then communities would have to weigh both the benefits and the consequences of their trade policies. But when trade policy is the exclusive province of the federal government, communities who succeed in obtaining tariffs or subsidies for their local industry reap all the benefits, but watch as the negative effects are either dispersed throughout the country or heaped on a handful of other communities who are left to bear the brunt of retaliatory tariffs or higher prices for their raw materials. Qualitatively this localized benefit and nationalized cost is little different from the privatized profits and socialized risks that so many of us now decry in other contexts.
I would even say that cities and communities should feel compelled not so much to “city plan” but to enforce aesthetic and enivornmental standards and to push for architectural diversity rather than homogoneity. Suburban sprawl is bad for the earth, bad for humanity, bad for our souls and psyches. Detachment from our neighbors can lead to crime or, alternatively, lead to the centralizing of crime into low income areas. City planning often leads directly to the dime-a-dozen glossy sterile “communities” we now see, and I think a bit of a reverse is necessary in order to recapture the way cities ought to be – walkable, human, diverse, alive.
Nathan Origer writes:
Conservatives must embrace a New Urbanism that not only “believes in community,” but specifically one that recognizes that our “districts” must be “conscious of [their] own, particular ident[ies]“, rather than being mere political divisions. Again, this goes back to my point in Part I about the problems inherent in the coerced integration espoused by some planners. We need to embrace a variant of New Urbanism that not only seeks to define each community, but to empower it — to bring as much political power to the lowest level possible, in addition to the (moderate) cultural control (A bogeyman term? C’est la vie!) of the community. (See, in Patrick J. Ford’s “Edmund Burke, Anarcho-Conservative,” Burke’s admiration for the anarcho-conservative Massachusetts colony.) It’s not just about community, but about a community’s control over its own fate.
Along with the decentralization of power and the community-facilitating traditional urban design and architecture (contextually appropriate, of course!) of Anti-Federalist New Urbanism, we must espouse Distributist(-esque) economics, Jeffersonian economic democracy.
These are practical solutions and means by which to regain local control: new urbanism minus the planning; neo-distributism; the empowerment of the community to decide its own course; the empowerment of small capital, small sustainable farms over inefficient, unhealthy agribusiness, credit unions over mega-banks, and so on and so forth. I just don’t see what’s to be done now that we are already girdled with a massive state apparatus and entrenched corporate entities that are “too big to fail.”
I am keeping an eye on Britain’s David Cameron and on writers like Philip Blond and his Red Tories. I think the answer to much of this lies in compromise. I think on many issues pertaining to government, social issues, globalization and so forth the answer can only be found if we continue to listen to one another. I know we’re stuck to some degree with the world – for better or worse – that we now have; the big government that we have now, especially in this time of crisis, isn’t going anywhere, and perhaps this federal apparatus can be used to direct control and capital back into the communities eventually. I don’t know. I think we have a long ways to go.
For now, I hope the President succeeds. I want very badly to be wrong about all my misgivings.