Sunday, September 4, 2016

Speed Traps, NIMBYs and other Community "Coping" Mechanisms

Often, when we think of economic imbalance, low income individuals and families come to mind. In the 21st century, many lack economic access in part because knowledge use has become such an important component of economic activity. Without the ability to tap into knowledge use for widespread employment, low income groups suffer, and communities suffer as well. How do communities "cope", when a general lack of economic access also means insufficient resource capacity or economic complexity?

Consider the coping mechanism of "speed traps", as an apt example. If the economic rationale isn't taken into account (lack of local resources for municipal needs), speed traps can seem almost ludicrous. Why would local police park in a not so obvious spot by the side of the road, and wait for unsuspecting motorists to speed by?

Sometime ago I wrote about police departments as a "last line of defense", when societies ignore structural economic issues for too long. This last line of defense shows up in multiple ways. At root, there has been a gradual loss of monetary time value (in aggregate), for too many individuals. When people lack sufficient means to make their time count on economic terms, others gradually lose their trust in these folk, and social unrest is just one result. Communities of all sizes respond to this reality, by zoning out the individuals most likely to experience social unrest and related problems. And for communities which are not well positioned to keep the "unwanted" out, sending them to prison often becomes the next option.

Nor does anyone have to be sitting behind bars, to feel imprisoned. Even though we no longer have (literally at least) debtor's prisons, a general lack of local resource capacity in many instances, is nonetheless leading to the same legal traps which poor people experienced centuries earlier, of legal fees for which one had few resources to address. Even though excessive court fees for these folk can appear even more irrational than the aforementioned speed traps, these kinds of problems will only grow until local communities once again have broader means to harness the skills capacity of their own citizens.

However, these issues of economic loss are not easy to discuss at a political level, for their problems are mostly observed among the margins which have little means to resist them. This is Main Street protectionism. One can of course note the winners and the losers, but it has proven more difficult to decipher how - or why - some communities and cities continue to unravel.

In the meantime, there are calls to bring those who have lost out to the places now experiencing success, without adequate understanding as to what communities were trying to protect themselves from in the first place. When David Henderson wrote "The Case For Low-Income Housing" in response to a Strong Towns post,  "Handle" responded (in part) in the comments: an average month, the vast majority of cases of violent crimes involved residents of these complexes...It is a very dramatic and obvious manifestation of the Pareto Principle - "10% of the people cause 90% of the problem," and concomitantly they produce a wildly disproportionate per capita drain on local resources.
"Handle" further explains that there is a race to the bottom competition among localities to avoid these individuals as a result. Again, rural areas which find themselves on the losing end of the race to the bottom, are more likely to resort to longer prison sentences for local safety concerns. Likewise, the War on Drugs continues to serve as a source of local resource capture, for too many communities which have insufficient means to tap knowledge use for local productive wealth formation.

Only recall the earlier debtor's prisons and what finally made it possible for populations to escape them: new horizons in the New World. Today, there is also the possibility of creating new horizons for knowledge use, so that individuals, families and communities alike can escape the coping mechanisms which make so little sense to others. Unfortunately, there were sometimes understandable reasons for communities to put up walls against the individuals who lacked the ability to reciprocate as responsible citizens. The challenge is to make it possible for all people to assist one another with knowledge use, so that coping via exclusion is no longer as necessary, as has proven to be the case in the present.

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