Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Gentrification and the Commons

I would like to get a couple of ideas down before I go to sleep. In my Preservation Planning class with Rich Collins, a few major issues came up, and I had some ideas about them.

1. Rapid neighborhood change, also called gentrification, also called neighborhood succession. I am extremely critical of this process, because it harms neighborhood identity and displaces disadvantaged people (low income minorities on the way up in land value, and elderly residents on the way down). I believe that given a free property market, (and economics backs me up here), rapid, catastrophic neighborhood change would never occur. The property market would be sufficiently fluid, and various neighborhoods sufficiently similar in value and character (rather than highly segregated, the current norm) that catastrophic shifts would be impossible. The property market would bend like the reed rather than break like the oak. I'm saying we don't have a free property market, and it harms our neighborhoods. I believe that correcting this situation by eliminating building taxes (which grossly distort the market) and raising land taxes (which are either beneficial or neutral, depending on who you read) would enhance neighborhood security and wellbeing and ease ethnic and class tension. You get the dog used to the baby by slowly getting them together, not keeping them apart. In sum, I believe that eliminating the building tax will eliminate gentrification.

2. The Commons is sacred. I would argue that the central tragedy of our culture is the Tragedy of the Commons. By this, I mean that we are terrifically good at protecting, preserving, and enhancing everything that doesn't matter, and catastrophically clumsy at protecting, preserving, and enhancing what does matter. Enormous wealth and energy goes towards the marketing of pet care products, specialized shampoos, gambling, movies, SUV design, things. We're very good at dealing with things that we can count. Things we can't count so well, like security, health, learning, happiness, family, spirituality, nature, we have a lot of trouble with. The solution posed by many progressive thinkers is finding better ways to count these things. If we are creating negative externalities (actions that make economic sense, but harm the Commons), we should account for them. We should charge a carbon tax, or encourage offsetting, or eliminate subsidies, or make abortions more difficult, or tax people for not voting, or make polluters liable for cleanup, and so on. And these may be good things, but they are reactive. "Oops, I'm endangering my survival, I better change something." Survival is a logical good thing, but not sacred. God isn't there. I think this secularization of the Commons and making economic activities the sacred Good is a cataclysmic error of our culture.
Other cultures approach this problem differently. Native Americans have been quite clear that they view their relationships to each other, the land, the sky, other animals, the water, and other aspects of the Commons as sacred. Of course you don't destroy the air you breathe. It's sacred. It isn't even an option. The illogical becomes the impossible. You can still work within the sacred, but you understand and appreciate that that is what you are doing. One feels grateful and gives back to the community, the land, the animals, the Commons that have been so bountiful and kind.
Think about these issues this Thanksgiving. Amen.


maiaoming said...

Very insightful and very true.

Have you ever read Daniel Quinn?

I totally agree about the Sacred, how it is gone from our lives. We threw the baby out with the bathwater - ...

The question is, how can we reconnect? I was thinking about this the other day, in thinking about how I belong to this world, not the other way around. It's a small shift, but a big one (that made no sense, but it did).

Lyle Solla-Yates said...

Oh yes, Daniel Quinn is all over this post. And yes, that's a great question. I agree with your orientation regarding the world. Thom Hartmann would say that the way we reconnect is by bringing the sacred back into our lives through prayer, ritual, meditation, experience with nature, and community. That seems like a great start to me, and something I'm trying to do more of.

Lyle Solla-Yates said...

I later learned that my conclusion on #1 is incorrect. Building taxes are problematic, but failing to tax hidden government subsidies on land is much worse, because those subsidies make the market for grabbing those subsidies (higher land values) more significant than the market for productive use. Thus, a heavily distorted market, and weak neighborhoods.