Reading Christopher Alexander reminded me of Jane Jacobs, so, since I had a copy of her latest, Dark Age Ahead, on the to-read shelf, I decided to read it next.

She’s quite an author. She’s most famous for her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, but she’s hardly a one-trick pony. After that, she moved on to economics, preaching the powers of import replacement as the key mechanism to economic growth. This is when a region becomes able to manufacture items that it had been previously forced to import; this is, obviously, good for that region, since it can get the same level of goods while sending less money (or goods) out of the region in return. (And it may well be able to export the item in question, too.) The interesting thing is that it’s not necessarily bad for the rest of the world, either: while the external region that had previously been supplying that item isn’t likely to be thrilled, the import replacing region will still have money to spend, so it may start importing something else instead, bolstering the growth of some other region.

But she’s not even a two-trick pony: she also wrote Systems of Survival, which is a dialogue on morality, a form and topic that are both decidedly out of fashion. Gave me things to think about; I should reread it at some point.

Her latest book is, as you might suspect, a bit on the dire side. She thinks that there’s a serious possibility that the US and Canada (and possibly more of the world) are about to enter a phase of serious cultural decline. The five problems that most concern her are: “Families Rigged to Fail”, “Credentialing Versus Educating”, “Science Abandoned”, “Dumbed-Down Taxes”, and “Self-Policing Subverted”. Some familiar themes: the first talks about how communities have been destroyed over the course of the century, which we’ve seen both in her first book and in the aforementioned Alexander book. Education’s increasing focus on credentialing is one of my pet peeves, too; it was one of the things I most disliked about teaching, and I wish I knew how to best mute its deleterious effects on Miranda.

The taxes section is interesting. In her books on economics, she says that it’s harmful for regions’ economies to be too closely linked: what is good for one region may not be good for another. (And, as evidence, she claims that nations tend to have one dominant economic region: Paris for France, London for England, etc.) One reason for this is that the natural effects of inflation and deflation are a good form of feedback: for example, economically weakening regions will tend to have their currency drop in value compared to their neighbors, which means that they can export goods at lower prices, which helps them. (And it means that it’s more expensive for them to import goods, which encourages import replacement.) So she doesn’t like shared currencies. (Just what are the arguments in favor of shared currencies, anyways?)

She generalizes this to a feeling that, whenever possible, regions should have control over their own destinies: the closer a government is, the more likely it is to be able to spend money effectively. She also feels that, in general, local governments should be able to keep their own taxes: she’s not a big fan of regions artificially propping up other regions.

Here, my feelings are more mixed. In general, I support the haves sharing with the have nots, so I wouldn’t want to go too far with local control. (For example, I think it’s an awful idea to use property taxes as the primary funding mechanisms for schools.) But I don’t think Jacobs is that heartless, either: I’m fairly sure that she supports, for example, subsidizing cultural programs that can’t always pay for themselves. And, to be sure, I would also tend to support assistance that leads to self-sustaining groups wherever possible. (Though I emphatically do not support assistance programs that declaring by fiat that their recipients’ becoming self-sustaining without supporting evidence, or programs that are actively harmful to their recipients.) I suspect that she has well-thought out positions on these matters that I would end up agreeing with; I just don’t quite understand what it is yet.

Worth reading, as are all of her books. I also recently ran across a good interview with her. She must be a lot of fun to talk to.

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