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Wonderland is a series produced by my friend Jane that creatively explores issues of philosophy and political theory by taking listeners on a journey through an immersive fantasy world. As a seasoned complexity theorist, she has an approach to understanding the world that I admire even when I disagree with her conclusions.
In the most recent episode which focuses on the environment, Jane examines the unhealthy relationship between humans and Mother Earth along with the root causes of dysfunction in our cities. She thoughtfully explores what it might look like “to create new and vibrant communities from the bottom-up.”
Here are some thoughts that came up for me in response to some of the episode’s major themes: georgism, healthy cities, and mass surveillance.
Jane’s ideal city-state would embrace the economic ideology of Georgism which advocates for a “land value tax (LVT).” Rather than individuals being taxed on their income, capital gains, or improvements to private property built on land, they would only pay a single tax to the state in exchange for the right to use land, which is collectively owned and administered by the state.
The land, Jane argues, “can belong to no one. No man creates it, and no man alone may keep it.”
I see the appeal of Georgism and the LVT and think it would be great to have more nations and localities experiment with it so we can gain information about how it plays out in practice. While Singapore has successfully implemented Georgist policies, and Vancouver flirted with a LVT in the early 20th century, we haven’t seen a whole lot of experimentation with the concept.
I do question some of the assumptions made in this section about the role of the state and the value of land.
The following paragraph follows and supports a statement about how the state “provides the groundwork upon which the people may flourish.”
“Imagine how much territory a single individual could exert control over, if placed in an absolute state of nature. Assuming he’s a strong and capable man, he still couldn’t monopolize much more than his wingspan. Give him a gun and some elaborate booby traps and he may be able to defend a bit more, but not indefinitely, not without the help and ingenuity of his friends.”
This is largely true today and has been for much of human history. But I’m not certain how long this dynamic will hold into the future, especially given the rapid pace of future technological advancement that is assumed later in the episode. Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Isaac Asimov, but I can easily imagine one-man estates managed and secured by advanced robots and drones. As presciently outlined in The Sovereign Individual, technology is drastically altering the relationship between the individual and the state.
I would also question the idea that land value is “created by the community as a whole” and that “the worth of any particular lot is rarely inherent, but contingent upon who and what surrounds it.”
“The most valuable land on earth lies not in diamond mines or Amazon rainforests, but in Manhattan and Hong Kong, where people and the culture they bring are richest. We value density, opportunity, and diversity more than anything else. Where these things are abundant, real estate prices will soar.”
The notion that everyone values “density, opportunity, and diversity” more than anything else strikes me as not entirely accurate. These certainly aren’t the main qualities I look for in land. When billionaires buy large swaths of isolated rural farm land are they valuing it for population density, diversity, or social opportunities created by people already living there?
But these are minor quibbles which don’t really impact the core point being made about the potential benefits of a LVT. I’m all for giving Georgism a try.
I’ve never been a “city person,” and I’ve never given much thought as to why that is. I tend to feel cramped, stressed, and overwhelmed in big cities so I choose not to live in them. I’ve opted to live in the outskirts of smaller towns for most of my adult life.
Jane’s discussion of urban design and city planning helped me understand why this has been the case and to develop a sense for what sort of practical features and design choices would make city life desirable for me. She convincingly argues that “people don’t usually hate cities, but city failure.” Laws imposed by public servants who don’t actually know what their constituents want, let alone how to serve them, are responsible for the “chaos masked as order” that plagues modern cities.
She advocates for a central authority that promotes decentralization where possible in order to develop a city that mimics natural processes of spontaneity and self-organization in order to become more adaptable and resilient.
“A modern city should realize these dreams through a concentric district design. The centre of the city being highly centralized and divided into three sub-sections. The second ring around this nucleus would consist of nine more districts, each managed independently and catering to the needs of different communities. The outer layer of the city would be completely unconstrained and open to cultivation, allowing people to create whatever conditions are agreeable to them. Moving inwards, the city becomes more dense and centralized. Moving outwards, it becomes rural and free.”
Her ideal city would be largely self-sustaining and not reliant upon foreign imports. Harsh penalties would be imposed upon all actions that damage the natural world such as contamination and pollution. Healthy air, water and earth would be protected at all costs.
“A city that leans into its organic constitution will feel like a natural extension and celebration of the Earth. It should be made with the land in mind, constructed so that its natural beauty is emphasized and extended”
This is certainly a vision I can get behind.
As anticipated, the last section of the episode is where I had the most skepticism.
Jane imagines how a “world filled with Wi-FI, cameras, sensors, drones, and AI” might facilitate utopian urban design.
Private cars as a primary means of transportation would go the way of the horse and buggy, replaced by fleets of autonomous vehicles. Internet of Things (IOT) technology would “imbue everyday objects with their own agency and vitality, animating them like any other organic system.” Cameras on every street corner would ensure low-crime, and citizens would willingly give up their personal data to corporations in order to receive better products and service.
There are aspects of this vision that appeal to me. A “digital dashboard where citizens can connect and acquire information about their city” would great. I would love to see our cities filled with less cars and parking lots, although I’m a bit wary of self-driving cars in their current state.
But it’s hard for me to imagine how enthusiastically embracing all of this technology without the proper social and political infrastructure in place wouldn’t simply empower tyrants that have no interest in building healthy cities filled with happy people.
“Of course, cameras on every street corner offer a much more detailed picture than any set of eyes alone. When it comes to stopping crime and streamlining commerce, this is a good thing. Watchful eyes are a reliable form of security so long as they are kind. The concern lies where the observer turns cruel or is otherwise compromised.”
My experience as an American citizen has led me to conclude that a very high percentage of trusted observers and people in positions of power are both cruel and/or “otherwise compromised.” This seems to be the default state of affairs, and I see one of the primary tasks of modern political economy as finding ways to address this. Technology can and should play a role, but at the end of the day this is a human problem, not a technical one.
I’m reminded of the words of John Adams who said, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
I would also question the notion that companies are simply motivated by profit and could never use personal data in a way that harms consumers. In America’s modern crony capitalist corporatocracy, it is often the case that corporations have strong incentives to prioritize the needs of government officials and agencies over consumers.
I’m not convinced that they are unable or unwilling to abuse their access to large swaths of personal data.
“There is this idea that access to data invariably leads to manipulation and control, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Data simply provides insight into the signals and drives that already exist.”
While most conclusions drawn from academic studies in the social sciences must be taken with a grain of salt, I’m not willing to completely dismiss the implications of findings that Facebook experimented on nearly 700,000 unaware users and was able to “make people happier or sadder on a massive scale and without their awareness.”
Do we live in a world where kind and uncompromised people tend to fill and maintain positions of government and corporate power? It seems a truly enlightened despot or benevolent dictator with awesome leadership powers and a miraculously moral bureaucracy is required for this techno-optimist vision to flourish.
I enjoyed this episode and the ways that it inspired me to think. Overall I find the vision for how to build healthier cities and create a better relationship between humans and Mother Earth compelling.
While it’s easy for me to sit here and nitpick, the fact is that Jane is undertaking a challenge that few, including myself, have the patience or discipline to tackle. She is pursuing the difficult work of moral clarification as a means of developing a coherent political philosophy and complete vision of what is required to create a good society.
I believe this sort of focused, rigorous, and imaginative research will be essential for developing healthier political economies as humanity navigates ever-increasing complexity and chaos over the coming decades. The debate, collaboration, and creation that this type of work can inspire is invaluable.