Saturday, 13 April 2019

Government's deal with the public is broken - education, effort and achievement no longer guarantees you a real stake in society

I've felt for a while that the deal that successive governments did with the public - get educated, work hard, raise a family and you will be rewarded with a real, cash stake in society - has broken. And nowhere is this clearer than in our housing markets:
“Young people,” wrote Montesquieu in the mid-eighteenth century, “do not degenerate; this only occurs only after grown men have become corrupt.” By endorsing policies that restrict suburban development and home ownership, planners, investors, and the media are asking the next generation to accept conditions that their predecessors would never have tolerated.
This, says geographer Joel Kotkin, is a new feudalism where, despite the trappings of a good life and the promises of equality, we become little better than the peons of powerful oligarchies. For some, being part of the team is fine, the bread and circuses work - as Kotkin puts it, the oligarchs preferred solution is " have the state provide housing subsidies as well as unconditional cash stipends to keep the peasants from rising against their betters."

Elsewhere though people are looking for different answers - some see them in a cuddly green socialism that doesn't rock the oligarchs' boat too much but attaches faith-like to heterodox theories of government and economics as the basic for a planned utopia. Despite over 100 years of socialism's consistent failure its appeal persists. The oligarchs don't fear these middle class socialists because they know they can control them - America's tech billionaires are the main funders for progressive causes and for Democrat candidates, they also control the flow of political communication (the main reason why Mark Zuckerberg is such an enthusiast for online media regulation), no democrat will win a presidential election without this support.

Outside the wealthy halls of the dense urban centres, there's a different story with people in red baseball caps, yellow hi-vis jackets and check shirts asking - often angrily - why they are excluded from the society the urban elites have created. As I've commented before, the opening chapter of Robert Heinlein's 'Starman Jones' captures the sentiment:
"The incredible sight and the impact on his ears always affected him the same way. He had heard that for the passengers the train was silent, with the sound trailing them, but he did not know; he had never ridden a train and it seemed unlikely, with Maw and the farm to take care of, that he ever would."
A high speed train swooshing through Max Jones' world - not stopping just barrelling through carrying the rich and beautiful between the oases of urban wonder. And people who can leave the places inbetween do just that, decanting from Barnsley and Telford, South Bend and Flint to cram into overpriced and tiny rented apartments while working for the businesses those oligarchs own. For the rest, all the get is patronising articles about "the left behind" and kindly curated glimpses into the world of the city.

What we have isn't sustainable, the great cities of the west are parasites, humanity's dead end:
Because the great mass of the city dwellers can't afford a family, the only way to provide the services is to import more people from elsewhere. But what happens when those elsewheres don't provide people any more? The city grinds to a halt when economic growth in other places reduces the imperative to migration. So perhaps this explains the enthusiasm of the great and good of such places for elsewheres to remain poor - not starving but just poor enough for the stream of migrants not to dry up.
At the heart of all this is the idea that to maximise utility, we need denser cities and to get denser cities you have to stop people building suburbs. We know active regulatory intervention is needed by the city fathers because, left to their own devices, people will chose to live in suburbs, will prefer a family home with a garden, and will opt for comfort, safety and good schools over the excitement of a city's nights. What we're doing by stopping this happening is making such a life - once available to near all in society - something only the rich and powerful can afford.


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