Economics

The Big Takeover

Amazon.com has bought Goodreads.

Why do people think blogs are dead (or dying)? As more and more sites are bought by the same big companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.), it’s easy to imagine that many people will want to go back to a format in which they can create their own networks, without targeted ads or annoying algorithms, that won’t be feeding quite so directly into those big companies marketing data operations. Isn’t it?

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This Year’s Model

It’s been interesting seeing stories pop up about projects funded by the 2009 Recovery Act, the so-called “stimulus package.” It’s funded such an odd assortment of things, as I suppose it was designed to do. I was pleasantly surprised to come across this article, detailing a plan to renovate Sausalito, California’s Bay Model, a hydraulic scale model of the San Francisco Bay Area that allows you to see how the tides and currents work from the Sacramento River Delta to the Golden Gate. I used to love visiting this when I was a child, and though the renovation will cost $13.2 million, it strikes me as a better use of government money than the bank bailouts.

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Shuffle Off

It’s not Scranton, but here’s an article from New York magazine about people who have moved from New York City to Buffalo and are trying to make the long-benighted city a better place.

I certainly understand the experiences and motivations of the people profiled in the article. I lived in New York City for around seven years, and decided, along with my wife, to move to Austin, which though not as cheap or rundown as Buffalo, is definitely smaller and less expensive than New York. I don’t regret having lived in New York at all, but I’m definitely happier here in Austin. One of the Buffalo transplants, Jana Eisenberg, said something that comes pretty close to my own feelings about leaving New York:

But when I ask Eisenberg what she misses most about New York, she says, “I don’t miss my old life in New York. I only miss the life in New York I know I never would have had.” What [Eisenberg and her husband have] done instead is construct a life in Buffalo that is, ironically, much closer to the New York life they once imagined for themselves than their actual New York life ever was, or ever would be.

I’m working as a freelance writer and living downtown across the street from a beautiful park and my daughter is in an excellent public school. Such a combination is not impossible to achieve in New York, but it’s certainly more difficult and costly to do there than it is in Austin.

I hope this sort of thing is happening around the country in other neglected towns and cities, and I hope it can bring genuinely positive urban revitalization (rather than just create mini-Williamsburgs surrounded by ghettos). If accompanied by good urban planning and community activism, I think it can. There’s no good reason, especially with modern communications, that one should have to move to one of only a few big cities to have an interesting life. If cities like New York and San Francisco continue to be too expensive for all but the rich (or those willing to live beyond their means), this smaller-scale urbanism will continue and succeed.

(Tip of the hat to Brian C. for sending me the article.)

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M(a)us(ol)eum Cities

(Because it’s fun to make fun of parentheses-heavy academic book titles.) As I wrote about earlier, some cities’ cores seem to be emptying out, or at least becoming more ethnically and economically homogeneous, as high prices make it harder for low- and middle-income people to afford living in them. Paris, San Francisco, Manhattan, Rome, and London are perilously close to becoming “museum cities,” beautiful and rich, but accessible to most by day-pass only. A recent article in Canada’s National Post describes the end point of the trend in an examination of Venice, a city with few permanent residents at all. Venice has become primarily a place where wealthy foreigners buy summer residences and cruise ship tourists take photos and buy souvenirs. Once again, I’m not really sure what can be done about the trend, but when a city’s economy is reduced to taxing foreigners, selling trinkets, and polishing the marble, I can’t help but feel that it has become a mausoleum, a monument to its past but a real city no longer. Density and diversity (of all sorts) are the defining characteristics of cities, and the disproportionate economic clout of the wealthy seems to be reducing both. As the author of the piece, Kelvin Browne, puts it:

In a global economy, only a few cities are the most desirable places to live. They draw their inhabitants from around the world. Locals have to fight for space with these outsiders, who can choose any place they want to call home, even if briefly.

It’s sad to see this happen in cities I love (especially in San Francisco, my birth city and, indeed, my favorite city) but I do hope that it will lead to a revival of urbanism, density, diversity, and local culture in smaller cities and towns. If San Francisco is becoming blander, it’s time to make Scranton more interesting.

(Via TreeHugger)

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Urban Inversion

The New Republic has an interesting article on the way cities in the past twenty years or so have found their central cores filling up with rich people, while the poor displaced by the resulting higher prices are moving out into the suburbs. (The Atlantic had a story on the same theme, “The Next Slum?” in its March 2008 issue.) The phenomenon is a bit frightening to me, as I have always preferred living in cities to living in the suburbs, and have never in my life run the risk of being described as “affluent.” I think it’s certainly a good thing to encourage density, street-level retail, public transportation and all the other New Urbanist recommendations in central cities. But I wonder if there’s not a way to do so that could also allow teachers, nurses, waiters, and artists—important but not (usually) lucrative jobs—to live there, too. (Taxing rich people at a higher rate seems an obvious solution, though my social democratic tendencies are at war with my distrust of government on this issue. I would like to see greater income equality, but I’m not comfortable with giving our federal government such a giant windfall.) All the high-rises going up in Austin, for instance, are luxury high-rises. If rich people live in them rather than in McMansions built on pristine suburban land, I suppose that’s a good thing. But if cities become playgrounds only for the rich, they will lose much of the diversity of population and activity that made them interesting in the first place. Perhaps in thirty years, children who grew up in cities will lament their sterile surroundings and seek out the gritty reality of places like Windy Ridge, North Carolina.

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Supply-side Theology

The Wall Street Journal has an article about a possible uptick in religious observance in Europe as governments reduce their support of established churches. The idea is that “deregulating” churches, like deregulating any other industry, will boost competition, in this case for souls:

“The enemy of faith, say the supply-siders, is not modernity but state-regulated markets that shield big, established churches from competition. In America, where church and state stand apart, more than 50% of the population worships at least once a month. In Europe, where the state has often supported—but also controlled—the church with money and favors, the rate in many countries is 20% or less.”

I wish the activists hell-bent on making the U.S. government more “Christian” would read and absorb the lesson of this article. Trying to make the government more like Old Time Gospel Hour might be more likely to bring a little bit of the spirit of the Department of Motor Vehicles to the house of God. Conversely, really militant atheists might start supporting faith-based initiatives and vouchers for religious schools as a reliable way to reduce religiosity in the country.

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