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Archive for February 4th, 2010

The term guard labor, for me, calls to mind situations in developing countries in which the wealthy feel the need for multiple armed guards around their estate to keep out possible intruders. The mansions sit on the hill, likely looking out over a valley of slums, paintintg a portrait of a highly unequal society. However, this situation need not be limited to the third world- US inequalities are great enough such that the US employs guard labor strikingly. Mark Thoma to a piece discussing the economist Samuel Bowles, who has done work on inequality and its relationship with guard labor.

“Prior to about 20 years ago, most economists thought that inequality just greased the wheels of progress. Overwhelmingly now, people who study it empirically think that it’s sand in the wheels.” … Bowles offers a key reason why this is so. “Inequality breeds conflict, and conflict breeds wasted resources,” he says…

Inequality leads to an excess of what Bowles calls “guard labor.” […] Roughly 1 in 4 Americans is employed to keep fellow citizens in line and protect private wealth from would-be Robin Hoods.

There is also a clear relationship across states between the state’s gini coefficient and it’s proportion of guard labor. There is thus a clear mechanism by which inequality is not just unfair but inefficient:

The problem, Bowles argues, is that too much guard labor sustains “illegitimate inequalities,” creating a drag on the economy. All of the people in guard labor jobs could be doing something more productive with their time—perhaps starting their own businesses.

Thoma writes,

With progressive taxes the lucky do pay a little extra, and that allows society to provide social insurance to the unlucky…if the guard labor hypothesis is correct, it provides yet another rationale for a progressive tax code.

My question is: is a progressive tax code enough to address this societal ill? Redistribution programs are great when they work, but the political space for them is limited. Perhaps our economic structure has endemic fissures like these; in that case, studies like this one call for a deeper look at our society’s basic mechanisms of distributing wealth, rather than retooling around the margins.

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The New York Times’ Opinionator blog features a piece (ht: AD) by Allison Arieff on the efforts by some to shift empty space from disuse.

There’s a staggering glut of empty space around the country right now, unused space that’s not doing anyone much good. That in itself isn’t new; what is unprecedented is our ability to visualize that data in an entirely new ways…

More broadly, G.I.S. allows us to literally view our place both globally and in a hyperlocal context.

That level of specificity, both at the micro and macro level, is helping revolutionize the way we think about, plan for and design the space we inhabit (or abandon). A visual map can show us patterns of overbuilding, abandonment, mis- (or lack of) use; it can teach us something about our current tendency to overbuild.

A professor at Berkeley has started a project called Local Code, which takes advantage of these new capabilities to propose specific projects such as “re-greening” swaths of pavement. The idea is that

Though most of us barely notice or give any thought to this seemingly useless space, finding pragmatic ways to use it can have a beneficial impact on the social, economic and environmental health of a region…

Neglected at the local level because they neither provide nor generate revenue, these sites are markers of larger patterns of neglect (much as we’re seeing with homes abandoned to foreclosure). In San Francisco, they often outline the shape of entire, mostly lower income neighborhoods…in need of ecological and social attention.

The plans are hyperlocal and hyperspecific.

Looking through this lens also enables us to think about infrastructure in a new way. The era of massive, expensive, centralized projects like the Big Dig in Boston has passed. “Now, with the ability to model dynamic systems, we can show a much more decentralized collection of resources could provide greater benefit…The best way to provide infrastructure is to not go in with a meat ax but to practice urban acupuncture, finding thousands of different spots to go into.”

Of course, a note of limitations is necessary:

Data-visualization capabilities can’t solve all the problems, but it’s hard to overestimate the extent to which this information can help us to think about larger systems and their interrelationships, so that we see a building as not just a building but an ecological infrastructure…

These challenges are massive; the attitudes responsible for them, deep-seated. Inquiries like de Monchaux’s illustrate that there is intelligent inquiry and actionable theorizing happening about how patterns might be broken, planning might be more flexible and dynamic, and our visions of space and its functions could expand — and, perhaps, contract.

Our society is not well-suited for dealing with the commons in a systematic way. The problem of space disuse is a classic example of a positive externality, which in some ways makes it more difficult to tackle than something like pollution. Unexploited opportunities like empty pavement require not only a will to act, but also imagination and the necessary tools. GIS and data visualization certainly help with the latter issues, but where does the will to act come?

The green movement has entrenched itself and yet green spaces aren’t seen as goods in and of themselves. I was struck yesterday reading Greater Greater Washington, a DC blog that covers area transit and livability issues. They were proposing that an unlidded urban underpass be capped with a streetscape to better serve pedestrians, shoppers, et al. Another (cheaper) plan for a median greenery was seen as suboptimal because its benefits were less direct- after all, people might not use the park. When the benefits of green space are so abstract, it makes collective action to implement them that much harder. I think we are far from a new urbanism in the Local Code mold.

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