The world isn't ending

October 22, 2018

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

I'm fascinated by changes of opinion. They're a frequent topic of my writing here (Specialization, Job vs. Career, Judgment in Extremistan, Faith in experts, On being a contrarian, Happiness isn't fungible), and I think asking about them is a great way to get to know someone better.

I noticed another changes of opinion last night, when I stumbled back to Strong Towns from Hacker News. It's a pretty big one.

If you aren't familiar, Strong Towns is run by engineer-cum-city planner Charles Marohn. In a nutshell, Marohn thinks the US's pattern of infrastructure development is driving its cities to bankruptcy: too many pipes and roads delivering too little benefit, resulting in insufficient tax revenue to keep things in good repair. According to Strong Towns, the cycle of underfunded maintenance begets more megaprojects, which is a short-term band-aid that makes the problem worse; it's especially bad in the "suburban experiment", where there's lots of sprawl.

At its core, the problem is simple: faulty accounting. Infrastructure becomes "assets" on municipal balance sheets; repair and maintenance never becomes a liability. We just sort of ignore it, even though its long term effects are just like debt, that is, an obligation that demands an ongoing outflow of cash.

It's perhaps not surprising Strong Towns resonates with me; I've spent a lot of last year fighting exactly the situation they describe at my condo building: $800K in hard debt, minimal cash on hand, and $5-7 million in long-term liability for repairs. We assess $480K/year to fund all this. I've written plenty about this here (Total Cost of Ownership, HOA lessons): it's a complete disaster that's taught me never to ignore the need for maintenance. We had to do a one-time special assessment of 7x monthly dues to fix an elevator that's been broken for years, and even so, we've still in the hole described above. Watch out for this stuff if you buy a condo.

And yet, I'm not all-in on Strong Towns. Yes, there are problems. But we'll deal with them. The world isn't going to end. The following, pulled directly from their website, is pure hyperbole:

I have never been more profoundly pessimistic in my life than I am right now. I am guessing many other Strong Towns members and readers are demoralized just as I am, and for similar reasons. I’d like to have a conversation about that. Maybe you want to challenge my bleak outlook, and I would welcome that effort. Or perhaps you share my views, and maybe we can encourage each other.

That didn't sit well with me. I thought about it and realized that in my mid/late-20s, I used to read a lot of stuff like this: Peak Oil, the Peterson Foundation's writing on the US debt, Medicare/Medicaid insolvency, even the PIGS European debt crisis. We're always on the brink of some world-ending catastrophe, and yet, a decade of keeping up with this stuff has taught me it's never as bad as it seems. I would even go so far as to call the sensationalism journalists use childish, and cheap. As my dad says, "it's always something": subprime, a few coups (Turkey), Russian interference in the US election, the ongoing Chinese debt situation, the student loan crisis, Illinois's continued attempts to avoid pension reform, Venezuela's descent into a failed state, even a 2011 downgrade of US sovereign debt.

Somehow the world keeps on turning. And yet, it's all doom-and-gloom over at Strong Towns.

Maybe I've learned to take things in stride as I get older. But I can't help thinking of Tyler Cowan's "Complacent Class": a spectre is haunting the United States, and it's not communism, it's complacency. We used to put men on the moon and build huge skyscrapers in 400 days. Why does it feel like everything, from permit delays to air travel to building infrastructure, costs more, takes longer, and is generally done with such a lack of urgency compared to the past? I look at what China's doing with its national rail line and such a thing seems unthinkable in the US. Have we lost our ability to problem-solve?

Which brings me to Silicon Valley, my intellectual and vocational home.

Where I used to think it was populated by arrogant, overpaid snobs who felt the rules don't apply, what I've realized—and it took a while—is that people just aim higher here. People are smarter, harder-working, and just generally care more. It's a combination of the best people, a culture that rewards hard work, and an earnest belief in progress.

Can't keep the roads repaired? Complain about it, or build flying vehicles. Your choice.

Peak oil? Transition the world's cars to run on electricity, and build a solar energy grid and storage system to power them without oil.

Just decide, and do it.

There is a place for skeptical incrementalism. And when it comes to basic things with physical limits, stuff like growing one's way out of debt, or moving tons of steel, perhaps some skepticism of "the new way" is warranted. We can't innovate our way out of everything.

But overall, I think what Strong Towns gets wrong—and something I've learned a great deal about, since moving to Silicon Valley—is the role of technology in moving things forward.

There are a lot of problems where if we rolled up our sleeves and really worked at it, real change would be possible. It would involve sacrifice and hardship, and the risk of failure.

But these days, I think the risk is worth it. Maybe because I'm richer and finally have a decent place to live, maybe because I'm a conformist and this place has gotten to me, or perhaps I'm just looking for something worthwhile to do. But I think I've become a lot more optimistic, and willing to tackle big problems, than I was growing up. That's a big change and to be honest, I take a small measure of pride in it.

I like what this place has made me into.

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