Thursday, October 25, 2018

Jerusalem and the Traffic Engineers

We can get a lesson in the failings of mid-twentieth-century city planning by comparing the two most important gates to the old city of Jerusalem.

The Jaffa Gate was massively "improved" after the 1967 war, when Israel took the old city, and it became the main tourist entrance to the old city.  The traffic engineers built a highway below grade to create a large plaza for people entering this gate.

As a result, tourists have a good view from the plaza.
But there is a very weak connection for pedestrians coming from the adjacent Jewish neighborhood.  Tourists get off the bus and climb up this ramp, but people living right next to the old city rarely walk up to the Jaffa Gate.
As a result, the shops near the Jaffa Gate virtually all sell souvenirs to tourists. The vendors are generally Muslims, but the merchandise is Jewish or Christian religious trinkets.
By contrast, the Damascus Gate is the largest entrance to the old city from the adjacent Muslim neighborhood, so it was spared this sort of massive "improvement." There is a small plaza in front of the Damascus Gate because the old city is on a lower level than the surrounding city, but it gives you a view of the adjacent neighborhood, not a view of the distance. 
When you leave the plaza, a lively neighborhood is right across the street.
The people from this adjacent neighborhood go to the old city for their everyday shopping.  Inside the old city, near the Damascus Gate, there are stores selling clothing, toys, hardware, baked goods, and other useful products, rather than trinkets for tourists. 
At the Jaffa Gate, mid-century traffic engineering cut the old city off from the surrounding neighborhood. The Damascus Gate was spared by the traffic engineers, so the old city remains an integral part of the surrounding neighborhood.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Transcendentalism and Liberalism

Transcendentalism does not fit into the conventional history of liberalism, which says it originated with Locke, and that it was based on self-interested individualism that promoted economic growth.
For one thing, this important strain of American liberal thinking was anti-Lockean. Emerson wrote:
... the idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Konigsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses ....
For another thing, this strain of liberalism questioned technological progress and the market economy. Emerson wrote:
Machinery is aggressive. The weaver becomes a web, the machinist a machine. If you do not use the tools, they use you. ... What have these arts done for the character, for the worth of mankind? Are men better? 'Tis sometimes questioned whether morals have not declined as the arts have ascended. Here are great arts and little men.....
When he says he wants an economy that would produce fewer goods but would produce freer and better men, Emerson is in the tradition of Jeffersonian liberalism, which tried to limit growth,  but limiting industrialization was no longer a live issue in the 1840s, as it had been in Jefferson's day. Emerson had an economic ideal but no practical policies to go with it. Likewise, Thoreau criticized the new technologies of his time - he wrote "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us" - but he dropped out of the economy to live at Walden Pond, rather than trying to change the economy.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Socialism in the Democratic Party

Socialists in the Democratic party fall into two categories. Some, like Bernie Sanders, are old enough that socialism still seemed to be viable economically when they came of age and are too stubborn to learn from history. Others, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are too young to remember the collapse of socialism and apparently don't know the history. 
In the 1960s, when Sanders came of age, about one-third of the world's population lived in communist nations with economies that were totally socialist, owned and managed by the state. Many other nations, such as India, had economies that were partly socialist, with government owning and managing some industries.  Socialism claimed it was more efficient than capitalism: in 1956, Khrushchev told western ambassadors "We will bury you," meaning that Russia was growing more rapidly than the West, and the entire world would ultimately become socialist because of its economic success. 
It didn't work out that way. In the late 1980s, communism collapsed in eastern Europe because it was inefficient and the economies were stagnant. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed for the same reason; economists agree now that it had rapid growth in the 1950s only because population was moving from the countryside, where productivity was very low, to cities where it was somewhat more productive, and after this movement ended, its economy stagnated.  India socialized parts of its economy after independence, but a stagnant economy led it to privatize in the late 1980s and early 1990s. China still calls its economy "Socialism with Chinese characteristics," but the main Chinese characteristic is a large market sector, introduced in the 1980s, which accounts for most of China's economic dynamism. 
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, virtually every nation realized that the market was more efficient than socialism. The few nations that remained genuinely socialist, such as Cuba and North Korea, became economic basket cases. 
A market economy is more efficient for an obvious reason. As a result of competition, more efficient businesses thrive and less efficient businesses fold, so the economy as a whole become more efficient. By contrast, when industries are state-run monopolies, they keep plodding along no matter how inefficient they become. 
It is easy to understand why some young Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are socialists. Since the 1970s, most of the benefits of America's economic growth have gone to the wealthiest 10%. The average person's earnings grew slowly for decades, and median income has not grown at all since since the year 2000. In 1970, inequality in the United States was similar to other advanced economies, but now the United States is the most unequal of all the advanced economies.
But history should teach us that the solution is not to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Rather than replacing the market economy with a socialist economy that will lead to stagnation, we should distribute the wealth that the market economy creates more fairly. 
One key is overhauling the tax system. Raise taxes on the very rich. Lower taxes on the middle class. Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit for those with moderate or low incomes. Other things are needed, but using the tax system to reduce inequality is one key action that would let us bring back the widespread prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, when the benefits of economic growth were distributed fairly and incomes went up for all Americans, not just for the obscenely rich.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Hedonism

Since ancient times, there have been philosophers advocating hedonism, the idea that the good life is the life with the most pleasure and least pain.
But new technology should make it clear that this is not true. In 1954, psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner were doing research on rats brains, and they accidentally placed an electrode in a rat’s pleasure and reward center, the so-called limbic system.  Later, they wired rats so they could press a lever and stimulate the brain's pleasure center directly, and rats did this as much as 5,000 times an hour. If they were allowed to, the rats would die of starvation, because they would continue to press this lever rather than eating. This study became the basis for later research about serotonin and dopamine, and the endorphins, the chemicals associated with pleasure. 
This sort of machine refutes the ethical theory of hedonism. The life that with the most pleasure would be a life attached to this machine, with constant stimulation to the pleasure center of the brain, and with intravenous feeding and other medical care to insure that you live as long as possible. But no one would call this a good life.  
In the past, some philosophers were able to believe that the best life is the life with the most pleasure, only because all pleasures were the side-effect of some natural activity -- such as eating, friendship, sex, or learning.  Once we see that it is possible to have pleasure detached from any natural activity, it is absolutely clear that pleasure itself is not the essence of the good life.

Monday, June 11, 2018

London and the Traffic Engineers

The traffic engineers have made London into one of Europe's most pedestrian-hostile cities.

On major streets, such as Marylebone Road, near where we stayed, they removed all on-street parking to increase capacity. Of course, the traffic increased to fill the new capacity, so the streets remained congested but became much less comfortable for pedestrians because there is heavy traffic right next to the sidewalk.

Marylebone Road
Even on streets with less traffic, such as Albany Street, where we stayed, they removed parking near every traffic light to allow for right-turn lanes. (Because they drive on the left in England, right-turn lanes are their equivalent of our left-turn lanes.)
Albany Street
The picture does not convey how aggressive the traffic is. If there is no traffic coming in the other direction, cars do not even slow down when they make a right turn. In addition, drivers to not yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, so it is up to the pedestrian to check before they cross and make sure no one is coming who might make a right turn. 
They also made life harder for pedestrians to protect them from the danger that they themselves created. There are islands for pedestrians in the middle of the street, but they require pedestrians to go out of their way: they cross one half of the street, and they have to go sideways before crossing the second half of the street, with fences to make sure that they do not just walk straight ahead when they cross.
Crossing on Albany Street
On all of these streets, the stop lights are timed to speed up traffic, which means that you usually have to cross one half of the street on one stop-light phase and then have to wait - often for a long time - before the stop-light for the other half of the street lets you cross. On streets with less traffic, of course, many people cross illegally rather than waiting for the second pedestrian green light - so these crossings are not as safe as they are meant to be.

Imagine if the traffic engineers had not taken over, and instead London had just left Albany Street as a conventional two-lane street with parking on both sides.  Cars would have to slow down when someone stops to park or waits to make a right turn.  The slower traffic would make the street safer. And so pedestrians would be able to cross the entire street on the green light, with cars yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks, rather than waiting for two pedestrian greens.

London now has congestion pricing, so today's traffic engineers are turning away from the old idea of accommodating and speeding up cars as much as possible while ignoring pedestrians. But it is still extremely congested: it is hard to imagine how bad it must have been before congestion pricing.

There are a few exceptions, such as the Soho neighborhood, which is still a good place to walk because the traffic engineers did not overhaul the streets. But overall, London is the worst city for walking of all the European cities where I have ever been.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Liberalism and Idealism

According to conventional histories, nineteenth century liberalism in America was based on Locke's self-interest-based individualism and on laissez-faire economics, with its vision of gratifying as many desires as possible through endless economic growth.  But there was another idealistic side of nineteenth century liberalism that was more idealistic and more skeptical about progress and growth.
Idealism entered America through the writing of Emerson and the transcendentalists, who were liberals. In Emerson’s view, political reforms – from the Protestant reformation to the American revolution to the anti-slavery movement of his own day – were based on idealism, not on self interest: “The history of reform is always identical, it is the comparison of the idea with the fact. Our modes of living are not agreeable to our imagination. We suspect they are unworthy.” Reforms sharpen our consciences by exposing us to higher ideals.
Emerson believed that freedom was important because of its moral value: "Wild liberty develops iron conscience. Want of liberty, by strengthening law and decorum, stupefies conscience."  Emerson was an individualist - he wrote that “the nation exists for the individual” - but he believed in moral individualism rather than self-interested individualism.
 The transcendentalist Thoreau invented the idea of Civil Disobedience, which looks back to Thomas Aquinas’ idea that we have an obligation to disobey unjust laws, and looks forward toward Ghandi and Martin Luther King, who turned it into the most powerful political tactic of the twentieth century. Civil disobedience is based on the idea that we must disobey unjust laws because we have an obligation to a higher law: there is no basis for it in the theory that bases liberalism on self-interest. It derives from the natural law tradition of classical liberalism.
 Transcendentalism does not fit into the conventional history of liberalism. For one thing, this important strain of American liberal thinking was explicitly anti-Lockean. Emerson wrote:
... the idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Konigsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses ....
 For another thing, this strain of liberalism questioned technological progress and the market economy. Emerson wrote:
Machinery is aggressive. The weaver becomes a web, the machinist a machine. If you do not use the tools, they use you. ... What have these arts done for the character, for the worth of mankind? Are men better? ‘Tis sometimes questioned whether morals have not declined as the arts have ascended. Here are great arts and little men.....
These transcendentalist ideas do not fit into the conventional history of American liberalism, which traces it to Locke’s self-interested individualism and ties it to commercial values and economic growth. 
When Emerson speaks of an economy that would produce fewer goods but would produce freer and better men, he is in the tradition of Jefferson, but limiting modernization was no longer a live political issue in the 1840s, as it had been in Jefferson’s day. Emerson had an economic ideal but no practical policies to go with it. Likewise, Thoreau criticized the new technologies of his time – he wrote “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us” – but he dropped out of the economy to live at Walden Pond, rather than trying to change the economy.
In practice, laissez-faire liberals dominated thinking about economics during the Victorian age, while idealist liberals worked on social issues, such as abolition and women’s suffrage. The idealists worked to extend freedom to groups that had been excluded, but they could not stop industrialization from eroding freedom, as the market economy did more and more things that people used to do for themselves.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Dewey's Pragmatism and the Good Life

John Dewey’s pragmatism was the most important philosophy of American liberals during the first half of the twentieth the century. Like many others during the Progressive Era, Dewey believed that modernization was inevitable, and he hoped to find room for American values in modern society.
Dewey wanted to revive the sense of community that people have when they work together, but as a pragmatist, he did not believe that the community could base decisions on its moral beliefs. He thought that ideas were tools we use to manipulate the world, and that people were indulging in meaningless metaphysics when they asked what is the good life. 
In the chapter on ethics in Reconstruction in Philosophy, Dewey criticizes the Greeks for trying to replace traditional morality with morality based on reasoning about the good life: “reason as a substitute for custom was under the obligation of supplying objects and laws as fixed as those of custom had been.” Dewey rejects these fixed ends, arguing that “Moral goods and ends exist only when something has to be done,” so ethics should be redefined as practical work to solve problems:
...experimental logic when carried into morals makes every quality that is judged to be good according as it contributes to amelioration of existing ills. … When physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, contribute to the detection of concrete human woes and to the development of plans for remedying them, they become moral; they become part of the apparatus of moral inquiry of science.  … Natural science … becomes in itself humanistic in quality. It is something to be pursued not in a technical and specialized way for what is called truth for its own sake, but with the sense of its social bearing. …  It is technical only in the sense that it provides the technique of social and moral engineering.
Dewey turns the usual meanings of the words upside down when he says the search for truth is merely technical and specialized and the search for techniques of “social and moral engineering” is humanistic. 
His philosophy is obviously inspired by the dynamism of modern technology, which he expects to solve our moral and social problems. In his theory of ethics, Dewey says, “the process of growth, improvement and progress, rather than the static outcome and result, become the significant thing. ... Growth itself is the only moral ‘end.’”
For pragmatists, reason can tell you the best way to reach a goal, but it cannot criticize the goal itself. Reason can never tell you to limit growth in cases where growth is not making life better. The community cannot govern itself based on a common idea of the good life.