In response to a followup note on my post on local government, Keith Owens asks:

When you say “a series of self-sustaining societies” what do you mean exactly? I think I may have an idea, but I want to make sure I’m clear on what you’re saying.”

Right now cities are designed for a uniquely mid-twentieth century purpose. They exist as a hub for labor, for manufacturing, for distribution. External capital creates and sustains them. Damn near every significant institution in the city is designed to reproduce this system. Education for example is designed to produce workers/mid-level managers/executives for industry. In a city like Detroit even the churches fit in this model-at least they used to.You could distinguish the powerful churches from the not-so-powerful by how many Ford Motor Co. jobs they could provide.

The strength of this city model is pretty clear. When industry rolls, the city rolls.

But the weakness of the model is not just the flipside of that (when industry fails, so does the city).

The model itself is not sustainable. Not environmentally, as twentieth century industry leaves a pretty toxic footprint. Not economically. Profit margins cannot continue to increase, and even if we take economic cycles into consideration over the long haul the peaks will decrease in size because of diminishing returns, competitors, market saturation, etc.

Finally it is not sustainable politically. As markets free up and capital becomes more and more mobile firms (as a partial result of government action) leave for better economic climates–first outside the city, then later outside of the country. To compete for those firms the best governments can do is reduce the tax burden. Reducing the tax burden means in effect reducing the ability of government to provide services to citizens. This in turn further neuters the citizens.

Now the thing is, at its best the twentieth century model of the city lasted a good 60 years or so. But that’s about it. And while cities like New York may very well last in something like its present form for another 100 years, there are a whole range of rustbelt cities that have not, and will not. Cities like Gary and Detroit are now full of literally thousands of citizens who are trained for jobs that no longer exist, and as a result are unemployable. In Detroit? I’d estimate that about 300,000 citizens in Detroit could easily work on the assembly line if this were 1965, but cannot find meaningful employment now.

So what type of vision can we generate for these cities that put these people to work, and give meaning to their lives?

This is where the idea of self-sustaining societies come from. We’ve got to create a model of living that both generates a life of meaning and purpose for everyone with the physical capacity to work, we’ve got to create a model of living that is not based on the vagaries of global capital, but on local development and modest growth. This means revisiting the idea of community, and perhaps reframing it. This means generating a new more transparent form of politics. This means identifying different means of feeding ourselves. And this definitely means a different way of educating our citizens.

Does this make sense?