Trying to Improve Others?

We spend a lot of time criticizing other people and trying to change those around us, and that energy might be misplaced. Instead of spending so much time thinking about others, worrying about their decisions and choices, and trying to get them to act differently, we should look inward, and consider if we are living up to the standards we are trying to set for someone else.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie writes, “Do you know someone you would like to change and regulate and improve? Good! That is fine. I am all in favor of it. But why not begin on yourself? From a purely selfish standpoint, that is a lot more profitable than trying to improve others-yes, and a lot less dangerous.”

 

Carnegie seems to suggest that we should be thinking about how we can help other people become better versions of themselves, but that we should first focus on making ourselves the best version of who we are. The gains that we will see in life will be greater if we focus on self-improvement rather than trying to change others. By focusing on ourselves we can improve our effectiveness, ensure we are engaging in the world in a meaningful way, and become more self-aware of the things we could do better. All of the gains in these areas will help us be the kind of role model that other people can look to when they try to make their own lives better.

 

It is through starting with ourselves that we can have an impact in the lives of others. Once we have made meaningful changes in who we are and what we do, once we have established habits of greatness, we can share what we have learned with others and provide them with advice regarding the things we have done to become successful, more engaged in the world, and more connected to the people around us. This will help us to change people and further the positive impact we have on the world. It all starts, however, with changing ourselves first.

Prioritizing Complacency

I studied political science during my Masters degree at the University of Nevada, and an important thing that we discussed in our classes early on is to think of a country by thinking of its voting constituents. Governments are ideally representative of all people in a society, but in reality, they are representative mostly of the people who vote for them. If you want to understand a society, think of its most likely voting groups, and their preferences and values are the ones you are most likely to see expressed in public policy.

 

Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University understands this and writes about it in his book The Complacent Class. Cowen recognizes that the voters matter because they influence the elected officials who make decisions, and voters are more likely to elect people who are like themselves. The class of voters in our country now, and the class of elected officials, Cowen argues, is relatively homogeneous, especially in regards to complacency. He writes,

 

“So overall, America is building its core culture and norms and politics more and more around people and families who just aren’t that mobile across the generations and who have a relatively static and stratified sense of how things work, which indeed is a pattern they see in their own lives. In other words, we are building our core norms and culture around the complacent class, even though some very different tendencies exist in the America of today.”

 

Our biggest voting block in the US is older, whiter, wealthier, more likely to be retired, and less likely to move across state borders in a given year than the general public. Those who can vote consistently, participate in town halls, and write letters to elected officials are the ones who have more time to spend tracking politics and attending events. They are more likely to have been rooted in a specific community for a longer period of time, and are more likely to have more wealth, equating to more vested interests in maintaining a status quo.

 

Our key electorate, is not a very dynamic group.

 

Cowen contrasts this group with immigrants, who have less free time, are likely to be working more to earn more, and are more likely to have dynamic lives that include moving from one place to another, starting a new business, or trying a new approach to something that has existed before. Additionally, younger generations show similar patterns of more dynamic lifestyles than our main electorate.

 

However, many immigrants cannot vote if they have not obtained citizenship, and younger people are less likely to vote and less likely to have a strong sense of what is happening in government, especially local government in a new region they have moved to.

 

So in the end, the strongest voice in our politics is likely the most risk averse, homogeneous, and complacent segment of our population. The dynamic people that our country relies upon in order to push the economy forward and deliver new innovations is not prioritized in our government and public policy. The voices of those who benefit from the status quo are usually the loudest. Cowen is concerned, and I think rightfully so, that we may be headed in the wrong direction by deprioritizing the most dynamic segment of our population and over-representing the least dynamic people in our country. We will have to make big changes to address the challenges we face in our new globalized world economy, and that will require thinking dynamically about growth, the future, and life in general.

To Wear a Sweater or Not?

There is a story that I hear from time to time in different contexts. Depending on the context, it is framed as either positive or negative, with different ideas about what our future holds and how we should behave. The story manages to hit political and social identities, aspirations and fears for the future, and concerns over self-sufficiency and parochialism. The story is about a president who encouraged us to wear sweaters during the winter.

 

I’ll start off with the negative view, one perspective of which Tyler Cowen expresses in his book The Complacent Class. He writes, “Jimmy Carter put on a sweater and urged Americans to turn down the thermostat, representing a new era of lowered aspirations. In other words, the American response to economic adversity was to seek to restore comfort more than dynamism, and Americans pushed their culture in this direction all the more in the 1980s.”

 

Cowen’s critique is that as a response to inflation and oil insecurity from foreign oil dependence, Carter suggested we accept limitations and lower expectations. Our president at the time did not encouraging Americans to find new ways to make the world the way they want it. I think this critique is fair. Instead of imagining that the world could be better, that we could be comfortably warm and energy independent through new technology, the story suggest we should just deal with some level of discomfort.

 

I’ve heard others reflect on this story in a similar way. They criticize Carter for a defeatist attitude and for thinking small. People don’t like the parochial feeling of having an elitist person tell them to be tougher and to put on another layer rather than be comfortable but use more resources. Its easy to understand why someone might have the mindset that they deserve to run the heat, even if it is wasteful, because they worked hard to be comfortable and they can afford it.

 

I also think there is value to having our top political leaders signal that we can be more and that we can use science, technology, innovations, and a sense of purpose to make the world a better place. Perhaps encouraging us to keep the thermostats where they were, but also encouraging us to, as the line from the movie The Martian says, “science the shit out of this” would have landed us in a better place than where we are now.

 

But on the other hand, perhaps Carter was right. I have heard people praise Carter for being honest and realistic with the American public. I have heard people criticize Reagan, Carter’s successor, as being an out of touch elitist wearing a suit 24/7. I think people today desire a president like Carter who would signal that they were more in touch with America by turning down the temperature in the White House, making a personal sacrifice themselves before asking others to do the same.

 

Carter’s statement that we need to conserve resources and think critically suggest that we should not just use resources in a wanton fashion. This is a sentiment that climate activists today are trying to mainstream, and perhaps if we had listened more carefully to Carter, we could have shifted our technology to be more green, less resource demanding, and less polluting. After all, who are we to decide that the world should perfectly suit us for every moment of our existence? Isn’t a little discomfort OK, and isn’t it a good thing for us to recognize that the world doesn’t revolve around us? Is it better if we turn the thermostat down, put on a sweater, and pull out a board game to play with friends and family rather than crank up the heat and stare at our screens?

 

My takeaway from this story almost has nothing to do with the story itself. Whether we decide Carter was right probably has more to do with who we want to be, who we want the world to see us as, and what is in our self-interest than it does with whether we truly believe his attitude reflected and encouraged complacency. My takeaway is that events happen in this world, and we attach stories and meanings to the events that can be understood in different ways depending on our background and context. The narrative we create and attach to an event matters, and it shapes what we see, what we believe, and in some ways how we feel about the things that happen in the world. Think deeply about your goals, what you want to achieve, and how a narrative can help you reach those goals, and you will find the ways to tie that narrative into an event. At the same time, watch for how others do the same thing, and when you have discussions with others and want to change their mind, be cognizant of the narratives at play before you go about throwing statistics and facts at someone. Maybe a new narrative will be more effective than a bunch of economics and math.

A Public Purpose Mandate

In The New Localism Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak advocate for new governance structures to help encourage innovation and lead to dynamic growth for cities and metropolitan regions. Katz and Nowak believe that current structures and institutions are inadequate to respond to global challenges that demand multisectoral action, technological innovation, and network approaches to problem-solving.

 

One of the recommendations from the authors is to produce new systems and structures for the effective management, use, and development of public assets. The authors are critical of public management strategies that often lead to politicized decision-making and cronyism. At the same time, the authors don’t suggest that public assets should simply be sold to the highest bidder from the private sector for their own profit maximization. Public assets can play a huge role in city revitalization and growth if managed properly, and the authors recommend that cities and metros look to Copenhagen for examples of better public asset management.

 

The City of Copenhagen has created publicly owned private corporations for the management of public assets and economic development spaces. An insulated private company is responsible for maximizing public benefit through the use of the city’s assets. In regard to transferring this system to cities in the United States, the authors write, “The United States also has to come to terms with the fact that public assets can be effectively managed by the same private systems and principles that build private wealth and productivity, but with a public purpose mandate.”

 

We like to think that there are either public systems, like say the DMV, or private businesses. Our debates and discussions generally center around the pros and cons of each, with people trying to reach an impossible conclusion that one system is inherently better than the other. Katz and Nowak show that Copenhagen took a different path, looking at how a private corporation could be established with public ownership and an ultimate purpose of maximizing public returns rather than private financial returns. The result has been an entity that can think long term, coordinate with both public and private organizations for responsible and equitable growth, and make decisions that focus on improving the city of Copenhagen in a realistic way that responds to actual economic trends, pressures, and forecasts. This blend of public and private is more robust than either pure private development or public management. The result of finding a third path is a new structure that can actually address problems in rational manners and sidestep the pitfalls that are so common in American city governance.

A Fresh Take on Public Asset Management

An area that I did not understand very well, since I have no real experience with city government, from Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s book The New Localism has to do with the management of publicly owned assets. According to Katz and Nowak, public infrastructure, public land, and locally owned buildings and spaces are underutilized and the value of these assets is poorly managed. Part of the reason for this is that much of government is split and segmented. One agency has control over a piece of land, and another agency has ownership of another near by asset. This fragmentation makes it hard for the city government to consider unified programs or projects that would utilize both of the nearby assets in a uniform manner.

 

Another issue the authors discuss with public asset management is elected political officials holding veto power over the use of public assets. Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow describes our risk avoidance tendencies, and I think these tendencies can easily be viewed in our elected officials and their veto power. Elected officials, like everyone else, is more worried about potential losses than they are excited about potential gains from the use or sale of assets. What is worse with elected officials however is that they ware worried about the loss of an electoral base, and the loss of a job from decisions regarding the use of public assets.

 

The authors write, “The removal of the political class from public asset management has a salutary effect on democracy by transitioning politicians from asset gatekeepers to consumer and citizen advocates on behalf of public asset productivity and quality.”

 

Instead of having elected officials be the ones in control of public assets, the authors suggest transferring ownership to quasi-governmental organizations that blend public, private, and civic actors. The authors envision new forms of port authorities or development organizations that would control public assets with a focus on maximizing public benefit. Elected officials would then be responsible for helping develop innovative uses for public assets rather than being responsible for the failure of projects and programs that use public assets. This is the essence of the point  that the authors make in removing the political class from public asset management. A rational organization that controls such assets can defragment them, and put them to better and more productive uses.

Dynamic Economies

A lot of work from both the Brookings Institute and from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University comes across my radar. Oftentimes the perspectives of the two think-tank centers differ quite a bit, but one area where they align is on local economies. Brookings (a center-left think tank) and Mercatus (a Libertarian leaning academic quasi-think tank) both agree that local economies depend on dynamic innovation and thriving centers where people actually want to be. Both agree that attracting competitive companies and driving innovation requires investments in placemaking, not just tax breaks and financial incentives for firms.

Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak (both from Brookings) write, “A globally dynamic economy requires that any locality that wants to thrive must invest in the qualities of place that attract and retain residents and firms, in human capital, and in an enterprise environment that enables innovation and business growth.” Mercatus also suggests that places focus on infrastructure and development to attract firms and encourage people to move to them. Mercatus is likely to encourage this growth in an organic invisible hand manner, while Brookings is more encouraging of using the state to intentionally develop infrastructure and systems for growth and network development.

The important lesson is that economic growth and development require meaningful investments in infrastructure. Human capital is the heart of networks and the key to innovation and growth. In order to attract people and to attract companies that can compete in a globalized world, cities need to make themselves livable and attractive to young and dynamic people. Tax incentives are not enough to attract companies for the long term. A company that is willing to move for a simple tax break, is not a company that is in it for the long run. Stable companies that want to grow and develop in one place will want places that are interesting and offer the amenities needed for a thriving 21st century lifestyle. Companies that are looking to make long-term and winning investments need human capital, and in order to attract human capital they need dynamic places where people want to live and set roots.

Competing in a Global Economy

“While competing in this global economy requires new thinking, many cities continue to pursue zero-sum economic development strategies that subsidize stadia and steal businesses rather than incent innovation,” write Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak in The New Localism. Our world’s globalized economy scares a lot of people. Add to globalization new technological innovations and the automation of a lot of jobs, and we find threatened people, threatened cities, and threatened industries. The proper response to such threats is adaptation and change, but a more common human reaction is fearful recalcitrance. Rather than go through reinvention, rather than develope new skills, and rather than embrace new changes, cities, states, countries, and the people within them double down on the familiar and the known, using policy to entrench themselves in the familiar jobs of yesterday.

 

Katz and Nowak continue, “These strategies are rarely aligned with smart education and workforce strategies that give workers the technical skills they need to succeed in growing occupations. And reinvestment in neighborhoods, downtowns, and water-fronts still has a long way to go to make up for decades of disinvestment, depopulation, and decentralization.” 

 

Stealing jobs, offering tax incentives to get companies/sports teams to move, and passing policy which prevents companies from automating away common jobs is not a strategy built for success in a globalized world of changing technology. To be competitive in a world where companies can move easily, where ideas can take root anyplace, and where jobs and technology are changing the way we work, cities and governments need to find new ways to build human capital and new ways to get innovative ideas into the economy quickly. Approaching the world and the economy as a zero-sum competition prevents innovation and encourages the short term thinking that leads to the poor strategies mentioned above.

 

The only way to truly adapt to the changing globalized world is to innovate. Protectionism leads to eventual disruption and greater anger on the part of the people whose industry and jobs are being disrupted. Those who lose out to automation without any training or skill development to help them adapt are understandably frustrated, but the proper response is not to dig our heels into the dirt to pull back on innovation and change. The proper response is to embrace change and help people innovate and learn alongside new technology, new jobs/industries, and new institutions.

Cities and Environmentalism

Cities can look like dirty places with no greenery or living plants among the concrete, asphalt, and towering buildings. At the same time, however, cities can be much more efficient and environmentally friendly than rural or suburban places. I live in the Western US and we expend a lot of energy just to move things from one place to another. A lot of the energy we produce just goes into moving water around. For us to get from our homes to our places of work can require a lot of driving by ourselves in a car. And because the West has so much open space, we have built large neighborhoods with houses spaced out from one another, requiring more concrete for sidewalks, more asphalt for roads, and more copper for electric lines.

 

The amount of resources needed to build suburban and rural connections between people is much greater than the per capita need within cities. As Jeremy Nowak and Bruce Katz write in The New Localism:

 

“The linkage between culture and cities also has to do with environmental sustainability and how its associated values translate into imperatives to re-purpose legacy places. Cities are ideal places for environmental stewardship, which is important to the culture: urban dwellers are not as car dependent as people in the suburbs, and urban life can be more energy efficient. Urban dwellers can use public transportation, walk, or ride a bicycle to work. Thus urban civic activism based on retrofitting the older built environment emerged in concert with an environmental ethos.”

 

I live in Nevada which is a state with a lot of rural space. I live in one of the two major metropolitan regions, but in the smaller of the two and toward the outskirts of town where the suburban starts to give way to the rural. I currently have an incredibly long car drive to work. The people I live around generally don’t seem to be as worried about environmental concerns, or if they are, then like me they may chose to ignore them or to accept living with a feeling of guilt because our way of life is in some ways very costly and resource demanding. The challenge is that it is hard to change and do much about our environmental impact, and we like our space, our quiet neighborhood, and our affordable homes.

 

People who live in the middle of a city don’t have as many of the same barriers to living a more energy efficient and environmentally considerate life as I do. When car reliance is less pronounced, it is easy to go without a car and decry the damage done by cars to our environment. When you spend less time in traffic and have more ability to use your time, you can engage in more pro-social and pro-environmental movements. Given the state of climate change, this is a positive aspect to cities. People can live more efficiently and be more inclined to advocate for a more environmentally considerate way of life. A shift in what we view as a good life (away from the picket-fence-two-car-garage-and-a-dog-in-a-yard to a life of greater connections in a city with less individual space) is a change in values, and is something that is leading to a revival of city centers and urban societies across the country. As networks and connections matter more and more, living close to people and having more interactions is becoming more valuable than having one’s own space and things.

 

Another important aspect in Katz and Nowak’s quote is the focus on rebuilding and re-purposing. Cities have existing infrastructure that needs to be updated as people move back into and begin to redifine their cities. This gives cities the chance to establish themselves as cleaner and better versions of what they have always been. The way that streets, buildings, and open spaces are used can be reimagined during this transition, allowing them to become more environmentally sustainable and more economically inclusive. This helps reduce the overall carbon footprint of city residents and helps them become places where people can actually live, work, and enjoy their time.

City Strengths

Cities are incredible organizational units that human beings organically developed long before larger political boundaries and units could be conceived. Cities were the first forms of collaborative human living for our ancestors, before we could think of nations or states. But even though the idea of cities is ancient, they are still dynamic and evolving. In an age where everything is online, where virtual human connections are common, and where goods, services, and products can be obtained from almost any couch in the United States, cities are nevertheless growing. Despite video chat and meet-up software, companies still like to have private offices and there still seems to be value in face to face communication and interaction. Cities, it seems, are here to stay in our globalized and digital world.

 

In The New Localism authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak lay out a vision of new structures of governance that hinge on the flexibility, adaptability, and inventiveness of cities. The authors explain why they think cities are natural and fitting leaders to manage globalization and help drive solutions to the problems that face the entire globe.

 

“The ability of local communities in the United States to become effective problem solvers should not come as a surprise. Cities and towns developed in the absence of any intentional federal urban policy during most of the nation’s history. Historically, city building was more of a bottom-up and relatively chaotic enterprise, involving builders and investors, merchants and workers, civic associations, immigration and immigrant entrepreneurs, and local government. It was never the result of a top-down policy so much as it was a self-organizing market and civic practice.”

 

Top down solutions to problems in the United States have not been super successful in recent years. The most pressing problems we face as a planet don’t have a structure that allows them to be addressed in a top down manner. Cities, however, operate best by adjusting to local pressures, demands, and opportunities. In a bottom-up way, cities are well positioned to respond to the challenges the world faces and to develop new technologies, new trends, and new organizational structures that can respond to threats. The chaotic and constantly evolving nature of cities can lead them to be administratively hard to wrangle and can make many of their decisions appear non-rational, but it also allows them to adapt and coalesce around shared goals that can drive the innovation that the planet needs for progress.

Ground Level Problem Solving

Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, in their 2017 book The New Localism, argue that problem solving and policy solutions to our pressing problems will not be found at the national level as we move forward, but rather at the local level. Large, established, and nationalized organizations will be less able to take on the problems of our new economy and evolving societies, but smaller, more responsive, and more local organizations and arrangements can address these challenges.

 

The authors write, “problem solving close to the ground rather than policy-making from a remote national or state capital has the tangible benefit of customization. A local solution can be a more efficient use of resources since it is more aligned with the distinctive needs of a particular place.”

 

Cities and states across the nation have competing and conflicting problems. What might be a major challenge in your city may not be a problem at all in another city. The solutions that would work to address a problem in your city might be completely ineffective someplace else. Economic structures, environmental concerns, resources, and human capital will all shape how a problem can be addressed, and every city and metropolitan region in the nation has a different mix of these variables to use to address challenges.

 

Even within a state, conditions can be drastically different from one region or county to another. I live in Reno, Nevada, and we are having major housing challenges as we receive an influx of companies and employees from the Bay Area in California. Our housing challenges, and the resources we have to address our problem is completely different than the problems being faced in Las Vegas. Introducing policy on a state level to address the issues we face in Reno may cause entirely different problems in Las Vegas housing markets.

 

If you are not going to address problems purely with policy from a state legislature or from Congress, then you need to address problems with local stakeholders and organizations. This includes philanthropic organizations who can back projects that don’t have a clear ROI and would be risky for a government agency to support. Local problem solving also includes local businesses and organizations that can coordinate and align on development goals. Public agencies have a role to play by ensuring that expertise and resources are being used in a way that is consistent with state law and policy. Each group of actors can help coordinate and push different parts of the solutions that individually they could not propel forward. This is what allows local problem solving to be efficient, effective, and innovative in tackling today’s problems.