Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Private" Cities and the Concept of "The Public"

Alex Tabarrok offers up some diverting thoughts on cities as hotels--whole cities built on the private provision of "public" goods.  It's an absorbing read but I think it may be worthwhile to think hard about just how novel this phenomenon really is.  Marx, for starters, would have said that any government is just the running dog of the capitalist class.    The Nineteenth-Century coal and steel industries (and others) had their company towns (cf. "Sixteen Tons," infra.*).    California tax enclaves like the cities of Commerce or Industry or Emeryville operate almost as joint-stock companies. Joel adds the example of Indian casinos where you can function in a cradle-to-grave cocoon as long as you keep feeding those coins into the slot (and compare cruise ships?).   I spent my 20s in a postage-stamp sized suburb of Louisville structured deliberately to try to relate costs and  benefits for insiders, while dumping all the onerous burdens on somebody else--a predecessor in name if not in function to the proliferating gated communities of our own time.

So I suspect the real issue here is not the appropriateness of a private entity a provider of a particular service but the very notion of community.  I put the word "public" in quotes above. Two  of the most remarkable examples above come (respectively)  from Russia and the Congo--places where the very idea of "community" emerges as a kind of a cruel joke.    By contrast, it is fairly well accepted that the entities where "the state" plays the largest role are those with a high degree of cultural homogeneity,  where the citizens understand themselves as part of a shared enterprise.    It's the "shared enterprise" part that seems to me crucial--and also elusive,  precisely because when it works best it is more or less invisible.  That's the best segue I can think of into the best thing I read this weekend.  I steal from James Fallows (I'm actually not clear on Fallows' original source):

You're working on your 1972 F150 ..., it needs a new whats-it. You go down to the local auto parts store and say "I need a new whats-it for my F150" 

"What year?" 

"1972" "
Oh, 1972. 
"We're gonna have to order one of those," the parts guy says, his voice apologizing for and conveying a sense of inconvenience. 
"Oh. How long will it take to get one?" 
"Tomorrow morning at the earliest," he'll say gravely. "Maybe tomorrow afternoon." 
People have no idea how convenient their lives are, or how much opportunity cost is not lost and human capital is not lost because we have a socio-economic system that can get you a whats-it for a 1972 F150 in 12-24 hours. And yes, we're pissing it away.
I guess I'm struggling for my point here, but let me try again.  I suppose you could say that a well-run private enterprise would be best equipped to make sure that the 1972 whats-it showed up on time.  My argument is that even the private enterprise depends on a network of relationships and presumptions of which it may be barely conscious and without which it can barely survive. 

*The following is apparently not Merle Travis' "Sixteen Tons," but how would I know:


Ebenezer Scrooge said...

Merle Travis? I thought that the definitive "Sixteen Tons" was Tennessee Ernie Ford. Is my memory playing tricks?

Buce said...

Ol' Ernie recorded it but Ol' Merle wrote it. Wiki has a fascinating and sometimes hilarious list of covers and pop culture references.