ECON: Jane Jacobs Epiphany

The Low Golden Willow (
Sat, 16 Aug 1997 14:40:04 -0700 (PDT)

Max More has written in the past about two intellectual epiphanies in
his life: one when he discovered libertarian writings, another when he
encountered the pancritical rationalism of Popper and Bartley. I have
been having one of my own in the past few weeks, stimulated by the
writings on cities of Jane Jacobs.

In _The Death and Life of Great American Cities_ (1961) she attacks
conventional urban planning of the time, citing as evidence of great
intellectual bankruptcy first the origin of urban planning assumptions
in writings by people who hated cities and wished to do away with them,
and second the failure of urban planning implementations to solve or
even prevent from worsening the problems they purported to solve. Slums
were removed and replaced by large housing projects, which spiraled into
decay even faster; attempts to solve traffic congestion by accomodating
more cars simply led to more congested cars; zoning which separated out
commerical and residential uses to improve the quality of life in
residential areas led to decay and crime in those areas; a belief that
high population densities were synonomous with slums and overcrowding
was belied by the collapse of tracts of low-income houses while many
well-off people (the "people with choice', as she reiterates over and
over) choose to live in crowded and dynamic neighborhoods such as
Greenwich Village or much of San Francisco; etc.

The strength of cities is in diversity of uses, as closely intertwined
as possible, which attract and draw along the streets strangers who
visit the various shops and keep, by virtue of numbers, the streets and
parks safe. And cities are instances of organized complexity
("spontaneous order", in the Extropian lexicon) which cannot be
understood by simple mechanical models or statistical models, but by
detailed examination and knowledge akin to the process of understanding
how a biological organism works.

Now I've begun _Cities and the Wealth of Nations_ (1982), wherein she
boldly challenges every macro-economisc theory I've heard of. Here her
damning evidence is the existence of stagflation (high inflation and
unemployment, common in the 1970s), the possibility of which was denied
by each and every theory, whether demand-side, supply-side, monetarist,
Keynesian, Marxist, etc. First she notes that high prices *relative to
local wages* coupled with high unemployment is the normal state of most
historical economies. Prices in India look low to us, but high to the
locals. (I'm forced to note, however, that stagflation should involve
high and rising prices; stagnation would simply include high prices.
She may have claimed that stagflation was simply the natural route to
full stagnation, though; I don't remember precisely, I'm afraid.)
Scotland in Adam Smith's time had locally high prices and high
unemployment relative to England, even as Britain did relative to Europe
in the 1970s.

Having claimed every existing theory was falsified by severe
disagreement with reality, she identifies the theoretical flaw as the
assumption, inherited without question from mercantilism, that nations
are a viable level for examining economic activity. As she points out,
the idea that comparing Singapore, Indonesia, Italy, and the United
States at the same level should appear inherently ridiculous,
particularly as California alone is nearly as large as Italy, itself
divided into two quite differently healthy economies, and the United
States has long been composed of many diverse areas -- industrial North,
stagnantly rural South, dynamically rural West, etc. -- which have
changed over time.

Instead she posits the city as the basic unit of economic expansion,
especially through the route of import-replacement, namely the
development of local industries to make what had formerly been imported
from other cities. I haven't read any further in the book yet, but it's
been very exciting so far. I hope I've conveyed a bit of that.

On an unrelated note, I looked at Eric's Loglan book while I was in
Berkeley and the language does look neat. Caltech libraries don't have
anything on it, though.

Merry part,
-xx- Damien R. Sullivan X-) <*>

At that point, it didn't matter to Jame if this was a god, a
hallucination, or the local form of street sanitation; she was out of
the alley the way she had come before the creature had turned the far