Helping front office teams grow better

High regulation, low trust - #371

We're at the stage of our home addition where the final invoice is about to be sent and it's about to wipe out our extra funds. Right at the time when I thought our usual spending was under enough control to build back up those funds, our van's shock absorbers gave out. It wasn't a giant setback financially, although it certainly is a noticeable expense. Was it preventable? I think it may've been: our city's streets are riddled with years-old potholes; the state highway up to the ski hill has been patched in a few places with gravel, which the snowplows regularly scrape away; when you drive on I-93 to New Hampshire, you can tell where state line is precisely: the road has two additional lanes and is perfectly smooth in the Granite State, while in the Bay State its narrower lanes are rough with grooves and holes and decrepitude. We pay the commonwealth twenty-seven cents per gallon of gas; we pay the feds eighteen: neither can keep the roads paved.

Why can't we have nice things? The crotchety old man in me wants to attribute blame to the people running our cities or highway departments. As if they had some other, perhaps nefarious, goal than paving the roads or building the bridges. Those people are probably doing their best. The fault lies in something more to do with the conservatism of our society: we bristle against the unregulated and against the new.

Chris Arnade has made a few appearances in this email before, including a much-replied to piece about Albany.This time, I'm referencing his theory about why we can't have nice things: the US is high-regulation and low-trust.

Here's how he introduces the concept in the essay linked below, starting with observations about how our public spaces are crippled by attempts to make them less attractive to homeless people:

LA authorities ... built La Sombrita, rather than a proper bus shelter, for the same reason NYC is taking benches out of Port Authority: they don’t want people to sleep there. It’s something you see more and more in American cities: a locking down of public spaces in an attempt to deal with the growth of the homeless population. A removal of resources for the majority, because of concerns over “misuse” by less than 1% of residents.

Everyone, US and abroad, don't want people sleeping and urinating in public spaces. But it's a uniquely US choice, according to Arnade, to confront the scourge of homeless desecrations of public space by making our public spaces worse. We do it this way because we like regulations, we like top-down "solutions," and neither of those favorites of ours tend to produce things that actually work.

Arnade again:

Something like La Sombrita could only happen in a high-regulation/low-trust society like the US. If regulations massively limit both bottom-up and top-down solutions, and if those solutions are expected to protect against all sorts of bad behaviour, you end up building the least to mitigate the worst — building things the majority doesn’t want, or doesn’t find useful.

When our builders make things whose primary purpose is to mitigate against the worst kinds of misuse, we end up with things that don't actually work for anyone else. Such things are "safe", like the soft padding and easy-to-climb structures in a modern playground, but they aren't desirable. In the tension between safety and everything else, safety wins, but no one goes to the playground in order to be safe. Our kids leave the soft padding, climb on the outside of the slide, and attempt to jump from the top of the roof: that's where the fun is.

In most cases, though, Arnade thinks the language of safety is more of an excuse to make things appear clean. We won't put a bench and a shelter at the bus stop because someone may decide to move in or someone else may decide to commit a crime. Those things are messy, as would the DIY bench that may appear at the bus stop in other countries. In the US, according to Arnade, we hate the mess but lack the ability to do anything about it other than sterilize our public spaces:

The high-regulation part of the US is usually couched in the language of safety, but it’s really about not allowing organic growth, which is messy — even though, people being people, it tends to result in things the majority really wants. ... In the US, such solutions would be dismantled within days.

I am not sure what to do about these challenges. If the reason we can't have nice things is because we don't want them and won't work to build them, then there's nothing to complain about: the fault lies with us. Perhaps the solution is in doing something directly to make our places nicer. Not relying on the useless bureaucrats or the regulators, but doing good work ourselves in the smallest possible scale. Hold that thought, I need to shovel the sidewalk.


Why American cities are squalid

Human flourishing is seen as dirty