The Two Ways of Dealing with Problems

18 October 2020

Well, here we begin! This blog will be an exploration of what’s wrong with our towns, cities, and suburbs; societies and communities; economies and politics; and how they could be better.

Why are homes so expensive? Why are some areas vibrant and thriving while others are run-down and crime-ridden, or just boring? How can we fit more people into our cities? How can we create more jobs? Why is everyone so depressed and what will help them? How can we bring polarized segments of society together? There are two ways to deal with problems such as these. One is to solve them, or at least to try to. The other approach is to discover why they arise, and if possible, not cause them in the first place. The latter approach, because it involves unpleasant things like questioning our assumptions, and undermining them, is usually overlooked. But that is the approach I will take here, because I believe it will produce the best outcomes.

The issue of rent, which immiserates so many, provides a primary example of this. It is as vexing to the individual and deleterious to society as it is unnecessary. I was among those who yelled and screamed in the 2011 protests in Israel against high housing costs (and the cost of living more generally). They took off when Daphne Leaf was ordered to vacate her apartment, and despairing at the prospects of finding another rental in Tel Aviv’s inflated market, pitched a tent in the middle of Rothschild Boulevard. Despite the fury of hundreds of thousands of fed-up citizens in cities across the country, the protests were ultimately a dud. The government made some gestures, the tents were removed, and guess what? It’s 2020 now and people here are still struggling to make ends meet.

What went wrong? I didn’t understand at the time of the protests, but a few years later I began to see an answer when I came to chapter 79 of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. The popular demands for increased regulation, taxation of rental income, public housing, transportation, freeing up land for construction, etc. were not wrong, so much as missing the point. In Alexander’s recommendation, he says something that stunned me at the time:

Do everything possible to make the traditional forms of rental impossible, indeed, illegal. Give every household its own home, with space enough for a garden. Keep the emphasis in the definition of ownership on control, not on financial ownership. Indeed, where it is possible to construct forms of ownership which give people control over their houses and gardens, but make financial speculation impossible, choose these forms above all others.

The problem was not quite that “the rent is too damn high,” as the slogan goes, but that it exists at all. It hadn’t occurred to me that this basic economic arrangement, which most of us take for granted, could be questioned, and eliminated if we wished (even in an otherwise capitalist, non-authoritarian setting).

Alexander’s reasoning focuses on the fractured relationship between a person and his home when he does not own it and is disincentivized from making adjustments and improvements to it, and the downstream effects when this is multiplied throughout a neighborhood. This is only one of several fundamental problems with rental, but what seems to underlie them all is an unnecessary indirectness — a mismatch — between two things that could have been more straightforwardly linked. One person lives in a home, yet he doesn’t have control over it; someone else does. One person pays for a home, yet never acquires ownership; someone else retains it no matter how much money is transferred to him.

I hope in future posts to look more deeply into this, as well as many other mismatches that make suffering inevitable:

  • We concentrate businesses in particular cities, and particular zones within those cities, while scattering the homes of their workers and customers wide and thin.
  • Sprawling settlement in general works against community cohesion.
  • Planners and architects design places they will never live in or near, while residents live in places designed without their input.
  • Individual buildings, and cities at large are often built outrageously out of scale to the needs and limitations of their puny human inhabitants.
  • The way governance is arranged is often ill-suited to how societies actually function.
  • Leaders in democracies are routinely promoted and chosen by methods that run contrary to the principles of democracy.

I will also point to some of the social and cultural practices that modern societies have lost as they’ve become unmoored from their foundations, and grown diffuse and unstable.

There is much to discuss, but ultimately, I hope we can begin experimenting to build real places that will be better fitted to human needs, that will obviate much of the alienation, injustice, despair, and sheer ugliness we see today.

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