Category: The Better Column

Cars Should Be For People — Not The Other Way Around

This is an ongoing series of extracted readings from various authors we’ve come across who offer unconventional, out-of-the-box thoughts on the social, the political, the religious and everything in between. This column will run each Friday and will feature authors with varying backgrounds and philosophies. The common thread is that their wisdom is sought by some of the most successful and effective people in the world, thus putting you, the reader, in that same elite company. Although this column is for everyone, we have a hunch that it will prove particularly valuable to leaders and individuals — in government, in business, in religion, in the nonprofit sector, etc. — who are on the cutting-edge of making the world a better place. And it all starts in Maywood.

Lewis Mumford (October 19, 1895 – January 26, 1990) was renowned as a humanist, architectural critic, innovative urban thinker, historian of the city and philosopher of sorts. His 1961 book, The City in History, won the National Book Award and its insights are relevant today. Mumford is particularly important, in our opinion, because his writings hold some of the keys toward both understanding and dealing with a future that will almost certainly be defined not so much by humanity’s failures, but by our successes — in getting what we want, in inventing and exploiting new technologies, in increasing our material comfort, etc. These successes are causing our present, gradual downfall — from precipitous global warming to abominable income and wealth inequality. Mumford explains that in order to save ourselves, we have to discover and realize those values that made us so unique in the first place and we have to realize them in our day-to-day lives. Below is an excerpt from an essay called “The Highway and the City,” which Mumford published in Architectural Record (April 1958):

“As long as motorcars were few in number, he who had one was a king: he could go where he pleased and halt where he pleased; and this machine itself appeared as a compensatory device for enlarging an ego which had been shrunken by our very success in mechanization. That sense of freedom and power remains a fact today only in low-density areas, in the open country; the popularity of this method of escape has ruined the promise it once held forth. In using the car to flee from the metropolis the motorist finds that he has merely transferred congestion to the highway; and when he reaches his destination, in a distant suburb, he finds that the countryside he sought has disappeared: beyond him, thanks to the motorway, lies only another suburb, just as dull as his own. To have a minimum amount of communication and sociability in this spread-out life, his wife becomes a taxi driver by daily occupation, and the amount of money it costs to keep this whole system running leaves him with shamefully overcrowded, understaffed schools, inadequate police, poorly serviced hospitals, underspaced recreation areas, ill-supported libraries.

In short, the American has sacrificed his life as a whole to the motorcar, like someone who, demented with passion, wrecks his home in order to lavish his income on a capricious mistress who promises delights he can only occasionally enjoy.

For most Americans, progress means accepting what is new because it is new, and discarding what is old because it is old. This may be good for a rapid turnover in business, but it is bad for community and stability in life. Progress, in an organic sense, should be cumulative, and though a certain amount of rubbish-clearing is always necessary, we lose part of the gain offered by a new invention if we automatically discard all the still valuable inventions that preceded it. In transportation, unfortunately, the old-fashioned linear notion of progress prevails. Now that motorcars are becoming universal, many people take for granted that pedestrian movement will disappear and that the railroad system will in time be abandoned; in fact, many of the proponents of highway building talk as if that day were already here, or if not, they have every intention of making it dawn quickly. The result is that we have actually crippled the motorcar, by placing on this single means of transportation the burden for every kind of travel. Neither our cars nor our highways can take such a load. This overconcentration, moreover, is rapidly destroying our cities, without leaving anything half as good in their place.

…we lose part of the gain offered by a new invention if we automatically discard all the still valuable inventions that preceded it.

What’s transportation for? This is a question that highway engineers apparently never ask themselves: probably because they take for granted the belief that transportation exists for the purpose of providing suitable outlets for the motorcar industry. To increase the number of cars, to enable motorists to go longer distances, to more places, at higher speeds has become an end in itself. Does this overemployment of the motorcar not consume ever larger quantities of gas, oil, concrete, rubber, and steel, and so provide the very groundwork for expanding the economy? Certainly, but none of these make up the essential purpose of transportation, which is to bring people or goods to places where they are needed, and to concentrate the greatest variety of goods and people within a limited area, in order to widen the possibility of choice without making it necessary to travel. A good transportation system minimizes unnecessary transportation; and in any event, it offers a change of speed and mode to fit a diversity of human purposes.

[…]

The fatal mistake we have been making is to sacrifice every other form of transportation to the private motorcar — and to offer as the only long-distance alternative the airplane. But the fact is that each type of transportation has its special use; and a good transportation policy must seek to improve each type and make the most of it. This cannot be achieved by aiming at high speed or continuous flow alone. If you wish casual opportunities for meeting your neighbors, and for profiting by chance contacts with acquaintances and colleagues, a stroll at two miles an hour in a relatively concentrated area, free from vehicles, will alone meet your need. But if you wish to rush a surgeon to a patient a thousand miles away, the fastest motorway is too slow. And again, if you wish to be sure to keep a lecture engagement in winter, railroad transportation offers surer speed and better insurance against being held up than the airplane. There is no one ideal mode or speed: human purpose should govern the choice of the means of transportation. VFP.

Advertisements

Our Loss, Their Gain: On The Booming, Multibillion Dollar Business of Mass [re: Black Male] Incarceration

This is an ongoing series of extracted readings from various authors we’ve come across who offer unconventional, out-of-the-box thoughts on the social, the political, the religious and everything in between. This column will run each Friday and will feature authors with varying backgrounds and philosophies. The common thread is that their wisdom is sought by some of the most successful and effective people in the world, thus putting you, the reader, in that same elite company. Although this column is for everyone, we have a hunch that it will prove particularly valuable to leaders and individuals — in government, in business, in religion, in the nonprofit sector, etc. — who are on the cutting-edge of making the world a better place. And it all starts in Maywood.

Michelle Alexander, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, is the author of widely acclaimed book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), in which Alexander fleshes out a devastating observation: “Today, due to recent declines, U.S. crime rates have dipped below the international norm. Nevertheless, the United States now boasts an incarceration rate that is six to ten times greater than that of other industrialized nations — a development directly traceable to the drug war.” Philosopher and activist Cornel West called it an “instant classic” and since its publication, the book has been widely cited among leaders and experts in a diverse array of fields. In the following excerpt, Alexander delineates the blunt economics of America’s incarceration system:

“If we hope to return to the rate of incarceration of the 1970s — a time when many civil rights activists believed rates of imprisonment were egregiously high — we would need to release approximately four out of five people currently behind bars today. Prisons would have to be closed across America, an event that would likely inspire panic in rural communities that have become dependent on prisons for jobs and economic growth. Hundreds of thousands of people — many of them unionized — would lose their jobs. As Marc Mauer has observed, ‘The more than 700,000 prison and jail guards, administrators, service workers, and other personnel represent a potentially powerful political opposition to any scaling-down of the system. One need only recall the fierce opposition to the closing of military bases in recent years to see how these forces will function over time.’

Screen shot 2013-05-24 at 4.52.10 PM

Arguably, Mauer underestimates the scope of the challenge by focusing narrowly on the prison system, rather than counting all of the people employed in the criminal justice bureaucracy. According to a report released by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Statistics in 2006, the U.S. spent a record $185 billion for police protection, detention, judicial, and legal activities in 2003. Adjusting for inflation, these figures reflect a tripling of justice expenditures since 1982. The justice system employed almost 2.4 million people in 2003 — 58 percent of them at the local level and 31 percent at the state level. If four out of five people were released from prisons, far more than a million people could lose their jobs.

If four out of five people were released from prisons, far more than a million people could lose their jobs.

There is also the private-sector investment to consider. Prisons are big business and have become deeply entrenched in America’s economic and political system. Rich and powerful people, including former vice president Dick Cheney, have invested millions in private prisons. They are deeply interested in expanding the market — increasing the supply of prisoners — not eliminating the pool of people who can be held captive for a profit. The 2005 annual report for the Corrections Corporation of America explained the vested interests of private prisons matter-of-factly in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission:

‘Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. This possible growth depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates and sentencing patters in various jurisdictions and acceptance of privatization. The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.’

[…]

In short, the market for private prisons is as good as it has ever been” (pp.230-31).

You Can’t Hammer a Nail Over the Internet

This is the first in an ongoing series of extracted readings from various authors we’ve come across who offer unconventional, out-of-the-box thoughts on everything from food to work to play. This column will run each Friday and will feature authors with varying backgrounds and philosophies. The common thread is that their wisdom is sought by some of the most successful and effective people in the world, thus putting you, the reader, in that same elite company. Although this column is for everyone, we have a hunch that it will prove particularly valuable to leaders and individuals — in government, in business, in religion, in the nonprofit sector, etc. — who are on the cutting-edge of making the world a better place. And it all starts in Maywood.

The following is an excerpt from Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (2009), by Matthew B. Crawford, a philosopher and mechanic. Crawford holds a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago and has been a postdoctoral fellow on its Committee on Social Thought. He also owns and operates an independently-owned motorcycle repair shop in Virginia called Shockoe Moto:

Matthew B. Crawford
Matthew B. Crawford

Writing in Foreign Affairs, the Princeton economist Alan Blinder considers the question of job security and falling wages for U.S. workers in light of global competition:

‘Many  people blithely assume that the critical labor-market distinction is, and will remain, between highly educated (or highly skilled) people and less-educated (or less-skilled) people–doctors versus call-center operators, for example. The supposed remedy for the rich countries, accordingly, is more education and a general ‘upskilling’ of the work force. But this view may be mistaken….The critical divide in the future may instead be between those types of work that are easily deliverable through a wire (or via wireless connections) with little or no diminution in quality and those that are not. And this unconventional divide does not correspond well to traditional distinctions between jobs that require high levels of education and jobs that do not.’

Blinder suggests the crucial distinction in the labor market will be between what he calls ‘personal services’ and ‘impersonal services.’ The former either require face-to-face contact or are inherently tied to a specific site. Physicians who treat patients don’t need to worry that their jobs will be sent offshore, but radiologists who examine images have already seen this happen, just as accountants and computer programmers have. He goes on to point out that ‘you can’t hammer a nail over the internet.’

…the crucial distinction in the labor market will be between … ‘personal services’ and ‘impersonal services.’

Blinder’s analysis suggests a future of rising wages for construction, for maintenance and repair work on physical plants, and for maintenance and repair of durable machines (such as cars) that aren’t too cheap that they become disposable at the first sign of trouble, as for example a toaster oven is. In a follow-up piece in the Washington Post, he writes that ‘millions of white-collar workers who thought their jobs were immune to foreign competition suddenly find that the game has changed–and not to their liking.’

He finds 30 million to 40 million U.S. jobs to be potentially offshorable, ranging from ‘scientists, mathematicians and editors on the high end,’ to ‘telephone operators, clerks and typists on the low end.’ Blinder predicts a massive economic disruption that is only just beginning, affecting people who went to college and assumed their education prepared them for high-paying careers with lots of opportunity. Now their bosses are looking to India, or the Philippines, and finding well-qualified people who speak good English and will work for a fraction of what Americans have been earning. Architects face this threat, builders don’t.

The MIT economist Frank Levy makes a complementary argument. He puts the issue not in terms of whether a service can be delivered electronically or not, but rather whether the service is itself rules-based or not. Until recently, he writes, you could make a decent living doing a job that required you to carefully follow instructions, such as preparing tax returns. But such work is subject to attack on two fronts–some of it goes to off-shore accountants and some of it is done by tax preparation software, such as TurboTax. The result is downward pressure on wages for jobs based on rules.

These economic developments command our attention. The intrusion of computers, and distant foreigners whose work is conceived in a computer-like, rule-bound way, into what was previously the domain of professionals may be alarming, but it also compels us to consider afresh the human dimension of work (33-35).