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The 2011 Mayoral contests represent a unique opportunity to make American cities work again. Cities have already begun an inexorable return to relevance as refuges from crushing commutes, and as havens of culture and innovation. Our economy is increasingly hitched to our ability to develop and capitalize on innovative ideas, and that innovation can’t happen when folks are trapped in their cars and isolated in the matrix of suburban sprawl. Cities are the American future.
But in the early 1970’s, they were left for dead: victims of race and class warfare, they became abandoned places – a place where people work or would go to the symphony, but not places to build a life or raise children. Formerly walkable, livable cities degraded into a-la-carte destinations you could get into and out of quickly as 1950’s visions of suburbia gained dominance.
With this shift, cities’ political influence waned, and city politics evolved into a top-down enterprise. Power brokers, political clubs, and church groups conferred power on those who would play the game and wait their turn. In Baltimore, city politics became either a launching pad for state office, or a refuge of scoundrels whose city fiefdoms became ends in and of themselves. Instead of working for Baltimore, all too often our politicians have tried to enrich themselves at its expense. With minimal popular interest and the atrophy of the press, there has been increasingly less oversight. So the machine has lumbered on – unencumbered by the tempering force of investigation, new blood, or real political imagination.
In other contexts, leaders are judged on their ability to lead and deliver tangible improvements. But in our cities, it has become enough for our politicians to just not screw things up even worse than they found them. Enough. It’s time to move forward again.
In 2010 we saw some new trends: long-term incumbents who fit the old standard – of merely not being demonstrably corrupt or incompetent – were booted out. And not because of typical anti-incumbent anger, but because people saw something else: that maybe we could demand better.
In Baltimore, 27 year-old newcomer Bill Ferguson delivered a decisive blow to 27-year incumbent State Senator George Della. Gregg Bernstein defeated long-time incumbent Baltimore City States Attorney Patricia Jessamy. These races shared two things in common: no one thought they could upset the machine, and they used the Internet to organize financial and ideological support.
The simultaneous rise in the demand for urban living along with the use of the Internet for political and community organizing will usher in an era of unprecedented change in American cities. With the 2010 races, the old system was put on notice; in 2011 it will begin to be dismantled.
I support Otis Rolley in his candidacy for Mayor of Baltimore in 2011. At 36, Otis is part of the new guard. He’s qualified – he has a masters’ degree in City Planning from MIT. He has been in Baltimore since 1998. He served 10 years in the public sector and two in the private sector. As an executive, he led the Baltimore City Department of Planning and – shockingly – produced the city’s first actual master plan in 39 years.
In his time at Planning and as a Chief of Staff, Otis was struck with one question: can’t we do better than this?
Indeed we can. Leadership is about creating a culture based on shared values. We need a leader who is willing to stand up for his values and the values of people who care and work hard, and not allow entrenched career “slugs” to dilute those efforts. He proved he could do this at the Department of Planning, empowering those who had a vision for the city, pushing out those that did not.
But while Otis was able to turn around a non-performing department and produce a workable plan for the city, he ultimately realized that the only way to see its recommendations executed was as Mayor. We should give him this opportunity.
Otis can turn around our city the same way he turned around a department: by creating a new culture. Frankly, there are a lot of people in city government who should be looking for other kinds of work. We can start there.
Otis understands that we need to start allocating our resources differently. Economic development has for too long been about big projects, like the currently proposed $900 Million Baltimore Arena redevelopment. While this plan would assuredly enrich some developers and provide ample future backing for political operators looking to entrench themselves for a lifetime in Maryland politics, we should instead be thinking about new ways to capitalize on Baltimore’s biggest economic development assets: its people and its fortunate geography.
If instead we were to invest $900 Million in the infrastructure to support entrepreneurial enterprises and startups, we could potentially create tens of thousands of jobs across a wide range of income levels. A new startup-friendly Baltimore could outperform other regions in terms of standard and cost of living as well as access to a world-class workforce. A strategic focus on manufacturing, both large and small using the latest technologies, could restore what was once a thriving middle class. Arenas, convention centers, stadiums and hotel subsidies just deliver more jobs that don’t even pay a living wage. Otis knows we can do better.
In 2011, we have a choice: do we want to be a good city, or a great city? Otis has a vision that he will articulate over the coming months as part of what should be an open and healthy debate around the future of our city, and not about personal politics. As I have come to know Otis over the past 14 months, I am confident that he is the right leader for Baltimore’s future. If you give him an opportunity to serve, you will not be disappointed.
Baltimore is Otis’ first priority. He has no aspirations for higher office. He wants to work for Baltimore and for all of you. In 2011, we have the wind at our backs – cities are on the upswing, and the Internet is connecting us in unprecedented ways. It’s time to take back our cities and make them the vital, beautiful, functional, and inclusive places we all know they can be. Otis Rolley can help us do that. This is Baltimore’s moment; let’s seize it together.
When I was about four years old, my parents asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. My response? A cashier. Why? They were the ones who got handed all the money.
Today, when people cite crime and education as the two major problems facing America’s cities, the knee-jerk response is to “protect city education budgets” and “put more cops on the street.” This is the same kind of simplistic logic I used as a child, and it’s just as wrong.
If this was how things worked, the safest cities in the world would be populated entirely by police, and the highest levels of education would be attained by those countries who spent the most on teachers and schools. This also is not true. Excluding repressive regimes, the areas with the least crime and most educated populations tend to be places where all citizens have access to the same opportunities.
Access to Opportunity
The new film by Davis Guggenheim, “Waiting for Superman,” chronicles a year or so in the life of a handful of students of different backgrounds as they struggle to get access to the educational resources they need to thrive. The heart-wrenching conclusion shows these kids – all but one – get denied that opportunity by a system that is clearly broken and unfair. 720 applicants, 15 spots. You get the picture.
If America is going to have a public school system, this kind of unfairness should not be tolerated. What happens to the kids that don’t get into the schools that can help them thrive? Should people have equal opportunity? Most people would say “yes.”
How We Got Here
Economic vitality is a kind of spotlight: it shines a light on things that need fixing, and provides the funds and political power to do so. Since our cities were torn apart by race riots and the global consolidation of manufacturing, the resulting precipitous decline in economic health has meant that cities have operated substantially in the dark. Watchdogs have been absent, and grassroots efforts have been underpowered.
American cities have reached a kind of feudal equilibrium. Politicians in power have little incentive to promote the kind of broad-based economic growth that could ultimately result in their ouster, but they can’t let things deteriorate so badly that everyone leaves – also stripping them of their power. And so American cities walk the line: with crime, schools, drug use and taxes locked at levels that are tolerable to just enough people that they are still worth milking, all while politicians hand out favors to power-brokers and childhood friends. Enough.
Ending the Abuse, from the Bottom Up
I wrote in my previous post that cities are now prime locations for idea-based industries. Over time this will mean an influx of wealth into cities as well as an increase in poorer populations in the suburbs.
Economic vitality in our cities borne from idea-based industries will result in a demand for accountable leadership and provide new levels of participation. In short, the feudalism will end when creative people begin to use their economic power to demand real change. The 40 year free ride is over.
Too many people in cities have resigned themselves to the idea that politics is a top-down enterprise — that it’s primarily influenced by the machine, by power-brokers, by community leaders, or by churches. Or that there’s a “turn based system,” where everyone who serves is given an equal shot unless they do something wrong.
That’s just wrong. American city politics from now on will be a bottom-up grassroots affair dictated not by the economics of writing checks to campaigns, but by the interdependent economics of jobs and a shared vision for the future of places that people care about.
To be workable, all power relationships must be a compact founded on shared values. Kids trust teachers that have their best interests at heart. Citizens trust cops who behave consistently and fairly. People trust politicians who put the civic interest ahead of their own.
There is nothing that ails us that cannot be fixed by restoring these trust relationships.
In “Superman,” Guggenheim asserts that bad teachers are kept around out of a “desire to maintain harmony amongst adults.” It’s difficult to stand up and fight to end someone’s teaching career, but it’s what’s required. To fail to do so is immoral.
It’s easier to keep getting a paycheck than to make enemies. And certainly there are dozens of systemic problems that make firing teachers very difficult. But that’s all that’s wrong with our schools, our police and our politicians: a simple failure to defend our core values.
And if we cannot agree on those core values – if a desire for personal gain exceeds a willingness or ability to serve the public – then those people deserve to be called out.
The Game Is Up
To be an old-school politician in a major American city today is to be in the way of a major cultural shift. Idealistic, intelligent, educated millennials armed with 21st century political weapons are coming, and they are going to ask why?
Why is the city so screwed up? Why are these jokers in power? Why are these incompetent teachers shuttled between schools? Why is more money spent on development deals for cronies than on parks? And why the hell can’t we clean up the blight that makes any trust or pride impossible?
Should we spend more money on schools or police? More than likely, all we need to do is let smart young people start asking questions. Crime and education take care of themselves if those that have violated the public trust can be removed from power. And with a little attention and common sense, we can ensure that more kids have a shot at the same opportunities.
Because in the end, crime, education, and blight are really just one problem, and it can be cured at least as quickly as it developed.
Some have predicted that high energy costs, either due to decreasing supply of oil or costs associated with carbon emission mitigation, will soon push people out of their cars and onto public transportation.
But there’s something else happening: people are getting sick of spending time in transit at all, making city living increasingly attractive. We are now increasingly able to infill “scrap-time” during our days with useful activity, and location-based social networks make it possible to maximize personal connections as we move about. We are engineering our own serendipity to generate real value from every moment. Why would we squander that potential by spending time in transit of any kind?
In the future, I predict:
Air travel will be reserved for trips greater than 500 miles
Bicycles, walking, and local transit will be used within cities
Any local trip longer than 20 minutes will be seen as burdensome
Cars will be seen as a luxury to be used for road-trips + utility hauling
And again, this will not happen due to fuel scarcity alone – it will happen because people demand it; and I’m not talking about you – but your kids and grandkids.
Regardless of what happens with fuel prices, we know that roads do fill to their available capacity. And then that’s it. Expansion does not help for long, because roads then fill to whatever capacity is available and development occurs until roads are too broken to use.
Roads are also increasingly expensive to build. A major construction project such as the popular-but-doomed Intercounty Connector in Maryland will cost over $2.6Bn to build. Is this a good long-term use of resources? Seems to me we’re throwing a bone to some 55 year-old commuters who have been annoyed with the state of the Washington Beltway since it was built, and this is the only solution they thought could fix it. Enough with the reductionist, idiotic causal thinking already: it’s a dumb idea. I don’t begrudge it, but in the long term, who cares?
The idea-driven creative industries that America has hung its hat on can only thrive in cities, where people can get together and trade ideas freely. Any barrier to that exchange lowers the potential net economic value. Put simply, all of this kind of creative work will happen in cities. Period. Because if we don’t do it in cities, we won’t be able to compete with our peers around the world who will be doing this work in cities.
So, what of the suburbs? In many European cities, the urban centers have been long reserved for the upper-class elites; poorer immigrants, often Turks and other Islamic communities, tend to inhabit the outer rings of the city – denying them crucial access to economic opportunity. This kind of social injustice is baked into many European cultures; in France, you are simply French or not French, and no amount of economic mobility will allow someone who is not of that world to sublimate into it.
This is not the case in America. We are all Americans, and even marginalized citizens are able to fully participate in all levels of our culture – though certainly there is social injustice that must be overcome.
Over the next 50-75 years, there will be a net gain of wealthier people in America’s cities and also a net gain of poorer people in our suburbs. This will be a natural byproduct of an increasing demand to be in cities, and an increasing (and aging) suburban housing stock coupled with roads that no longer function.
To fulfill our challenge as Americans, we must use these dual gradients in our cities – the inflow of the rich and the outflow of the poor – as an opportunity to maximize social justice. By avoiding flash-gentrification and fixing education as we go, we can in a span of 20-40 years (1-2 generations) offer millions of people a pathway into new opportunities that stem from real, sustainable economic growth; all the while realizing this is going to mean more color blindness all around – and that suburbs will generally be poorer than the cities.
In my home state of Maryland, the only foreseeable damper on this force is the federal government and the massive amount of money it injects into industries like cybersecurity and other behemoth agencies like the Social Security Agency.
Because these agencies and the companies that service them generally do not have to compete globally to survive, they can locate in the suburbs and employ people that live in the suburbs – and subsidize all of the inefficiency, waste and boredom that comes with that.
This is nothing but a giant make-work program and its benefactors are little more than sucklings on the federal government’s teat, which is spending money that will likely come straight out of your grandchildren’s standard of living. Right on.
Cybersecurity, for all its usefulness in possibly maybe not getting us blown up by wackos (bored wackos from the European Islamic suburbs, I’ll point out), is nothing more than a tax on bad protocol design. For the most part it doesn’t create any new value. In the end, we’ve got suburban overpaid internet engineers fighting an imaginary, boundless war with disenfranchised suburban Islamic radicals. Who’s crazier?
Lastly, for all of you who think I’m wrong or resist these predictions because you personally “wouldn’t do that” or can produce one counterexample, I ask you: Are you over 35? If so, your visceral opinion may not matter much. I fail this test myself, but I believe my argument is logically sound and is based in the emerging attitudes of young people.
The future will be made by people younger than we, and based on everything I can see, we are on the cusp of a major realignment of attitudes and economics in America.
It won’t be too much longer til active, entrepreneurial creative professionals (black and white) in our cities look at the suburbs (black and white) and decry the entitlement culture of the suburban welfare state.
The American educational system deadens the soul and fuels suburban sprawl. It is designed as a linear progression, which means most people’s experience runs something like this:
Proceed through grades K-12; which is mostly boring and a waste of time.
Attend four years of college; optionally attend graduate/law/med school.
Get a job; live in the city; party.
Marry someone you met in college or at your job.
Have a kid; promptly freak out about safety and schools.
Move to a soulless place in the suburbs; send your kids to a shitty public school.
Live a life of quiet desperation, commuting at least 45 minutes/day to a job you hate, in expectation of advancement.
Retire; dispose of any remaining savings.
Die — expensively.
Hate to put it so starkly, but this is what we’ve got going on, and it’s time we address it head-on.
This pattern, which if you are honest with yourself, you will recognize as entirely accurate, is a byproduct of the design of our educational system.
The unrelenting message is, “If you don’t go to college, you won’t be successful.” Sometimes this is offered as the empirical argument, “College graduates earn more.” Check out this bogus piece of propaganda:
But what if those earnings are not caused by being a college graduate, but are merely a symptom of being the sort of person (socioeconomically speaking) who went to college? People who come from successful socioeconomic backgrounds are simply more likely to earn more in life than those who do not.
There’s no doubt that everyone is different; not everyone is suited for the same kind of work — thankfully. But western society has perverted that simple beautiful fact — and the questions it prompts about college education — into “Not everyone is cut out for college,” as though college was the pinnacle of achievement, and everybody else has to work on Diesel engines or be a blacksmith. Because mechanics and artists are valuable too.
That line of thinking is the most cynical, evil load of horse-shit to ever fall out of our educational system. Real-life learning is not linear. It can be cyclical and progressive and it takes side-trips, U-turns, mistakes, and apprenticeships to experience everything our humanity offers us.
The notion that a college education is a safety net that people must have in order to avoid a life of destitution, that “it makes it more likely that you will always have a job” is also utterly cynical, and uses fear to scare people into not relying on themselves. Young people should be confident and self-reliant, not told that they will fail.
And for far too many students, college is actually spent doing work that should have been done in high school — remedial math and writing. So, the dire warnings about the need for college actually become self-fulfilling: Johnny and Daniqua truly can’t get a job if they can’t read and write and do math. See? You need college.
An Education Thought Experiment
I do not pretend to have “solutions” for all that ails our educational system. But as a design thinker, I do believe that if our current educational system produces the pattern of living I noted above, then a different educational system could produce very different patterns of living — ones which are more likely to lead to individual happiness and self-actualization.
If we had an educational system based on apprenticeship, then more people could learn skills and ideas from actual practitioners in the real world. If we gave educational credit to people who start businesses or non-profit organizations, and connected them to mentors who could help them make those businesses successful, then we would spread real-world knowledge about how to affect the world through entrepreneurship.
If more people were comfortable with entrepreneurship, then they would be more apt to find market opportunities, which can effect social change and generate wealth. If education was more about empowering people with ideas and best practices, instead of giving them the paper credentials needed to appear qualified for a particular job, it would celebrate sharing ideas, rather than minimizing the effort required to get the degree. (My least favorite question: “Will that be on the test?”)
Ideally, the whole idea of “the degree” should fade into the background. Self-actualized people are defined by their accomplishments. A degree should be nothing more than an indication that you have earned a certain number credits in a particular area of study.
If the educational system were to be re-made along these lines, the whole focus on“job” as the endgame would shift.
“A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance, 1841
And so if the focus comes to be on living, as Emerson suggested it should be, and not simply on obtaining the job (on the back of the dubious credential of the degree), then the single family home in the suburb becomes unworkable, for the mortgage and the routine of the car commute go hand-in-hand with the job. They are isolating and brittle, and do not offer the self-actualized entrepreneur the opportunity to meet people, try new ideas, and affect the world around them.
The job holder becomes accustomed to the idea that the world is static and cannot be changed through their own action; their stance is reactive. The city is broken, therefore I will live in the suburbs. The property taxes in the suburbs are lower, so I will choose the less expensive option.
Entrepreneurial people believe the world is plastic and can be changed — creating wealth in the process. But our current system does not produce entrepreneurial people.
Break Out of What’s “Normal”
It may be a while before we can develop new educational systems that produce new kinds of life patterns.
But you can break out now. You’ve had that power all along. I’m not suggesting you drop out.
But I will say this: in my own case, I grew up in the suburbs, went to an expensive suburban private high-school — which I hated — where I got good grades and was voted most likely to succeed.
I started a retail computer store and mail order company in eleventh grade. I went to Johns Hopkins at 17, while still operating my retail business. Again, I did well in classes, but had to struggle to succeed. And no one in the entire Hopkins universe could make sense of my entrepreneurial aspirations. It was an aberration.
I dropped out of college as a sophomore, focused on my business, pivoted to become an Internet service provider in 1995, and managed to attend enough night liberal arts classes at Hopkins to graduate with a liberal arts degree in 1996. This shut my parents up and checked off a box.
I also learned a lot. About science. About math. About philosophy, literature, and art. And I cherish that knowledge to this day.
But I ask: why did it have to be so painful and waste so much of my time? Why was there no way to incorporate that kind of learning into my development as an entrepreneur? Why was there no way to combine classical learning with an entrepreneurial worldview?
Because university culture is not entrepreneurial. And I’m sorry, universities can talk about entrepreneurship and changing the world all they like, but it is incoherent to have a tenured professor teaching someone about entrepreneurship. Sorry, just doesn’t add up for me. Dress it up in a rabbit suit and make it part of any kind of MBA program you like; it’s a farce. Entrepreneurship education is experiential.
I had kids in my mid-twenties and now have moved from the suburbs to the city because it’s bike-able and time efficient. And I want to show my kids, now ten and twelve, that change is possible in cities. I believe deeply in the competitive advantage our cities provide, and I intend, with your help, to make Baltimore a shining example of that advantage.
I don’t suggest that I did everything right or recommend you do the same things. But I did choose to break out of the pattern. And you can too.
Maybe if enough people do, we can build the new educational approaches that we most certainly need in the 21st century. This world requires that we unlock all available genius.