The Silicon Valley Mindset

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The tech industry is one of the most powerful entities affecting our world. But who are these people? And what do they believe and how do they think about the world? A couple of recent articles provide a window into this.

Rationalist Demographics

The first is a set of demographics from the reader survey (unscientific, but with 5500 respondents) of the popular blog Slate Star Codex.  SSC is the web site of Scott Alexander, pen name of a Midwest psychiatrist. It’s explicitly associated with the Rationalist movement and especially the Less Wrong community.  If you’d like to get a feel for the Rationalist way of life, see the New York Times Magazine profile of them.  One site says of them:

…typical rationalist philosophical positions include reductionism, materialism, moral non-realism, utilitarianism, anti-deathism and transhumanism. Rationalists across all three groups tend to have high opinions of the Sequences and Slate Star Codex and cite both in arguments; rationalist discourse norms were shaped by How To Actually Change Your Mind and 37 Ways Words Can Be Wrong, among others.

They analyze the world in terms of Bayesianism, game theory, trying to become aware of personal biases, etc. They are trying to improve themselves and the world through a clearer sense of reality as informed by their philosophical worldview above. Their heartland is Silicon Valley, though there’s a group of them NYC too of course.

Alexander is a psychiatrist, but this community, and the Rationalists generally, is highly tech centric. Alexander himself is a defender of Silicon Valley. His readership is predominantly in computer science and other related tech professions, and overlaps heavily with Silicon Valley.

His readers are 90% male, 89% white (Asians under-represented vs the Valley), and 81% atheist or agnostic. They skew significantly left in their politics. 55% of them are explicitly politically left, with another 24% libertarian. A higher percentage actually describe themselves as neoreactionary or alt-right (6.3%) than conservative (5.7%).

The following table shows their responses on various topics:

Item Left/Globalist Position Right/Populist Positions
Immigration 55.8% more permissive 20.3% more restrictive
Feminism 48.1% favorable 28.4% unfavorable
Donald Trump 82.3% unfavorable 6.6% favorable
Basic Income 60.1% favor 18.6% oppose
Global Warming 72.8% requires action 13.7% does not require action
Weightlifting 64.4% no/rarely 22.5% yes/often

Silicon Valley Founders Survey

A second source comes from a recent City Journal article by former Tech Crunch reporter Gregory Ferenstein. He used the Crunchbase database to survey 147 tech founders, including a few billionaires and other influentials, to get a sense of their belief system.

One of his core findings is that Silicon Valley founder are strong believers in income inequality.

The most common answer I received in Silicon Valley was this: over the (very) long run, an increasingly greater share of economic wealth will be generated by a smaller slice of very talented or original people. Everyone else will increasingly subsist on some combination of part-time entrepreneurial “gig work” and government aid. The way the Valley elite see it, everyone can try to be an entrepreneur; some small percentage will achieve wild success and create enough wealth that others can live comfortably. Many tech leaders appear optimistic that this type of economy will provide the vast majority of people with unprecedented prosperity and leisure, though no one quite knows when.

The founders he surveyed (a tiny subset so beware of error margins) 2/3 believed that the top 10% of people would collect 50% or more of all the income in a meritocracy (the system they endorse).

Y Combinator Paul Graham got in trouble for openly talking about inequality as inevitable. Not because other Valley execs thought he was wrong, but because the optics are bad. It’s similar to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. His real crime was being so gauche as to put a picture of Ayn Rand as his Twitter avatar. He should have known that he was supposed to spout politically palatable bromides while running his company in a Rand-like mode, which seems to be how many of these firms in fact operate.

Speaking of which, the politics of Silicon Valley are an odd mix of leftism and hyper-market economics. Overwhelmingly, Silicon Valley donates money to the Democrats and to progressive causes. (They also largely hate Donald Trump with a passion). What’s more, they have a communitarian streak and don’t think of themselves as hard core individualists:

Indeed, in my survey, founders displayed a strong orientation toward collectivism. Fifty-nine percent believed in a health-care mandate, compared with just 21 percent of self-identified libertarians. They also believed that the government should coerce people into making wise personal decisions, such as whether to eat healthier foods. Sixty-two percent said that individual decisions had an impact on many other people, justifying government intervention.

But they also support a neoliberal vision of the economy.

Silicon Valley’s reputation as a haven for small-government activists isn’t entirely off base: the Valley does support some staunchly libertarian ideas, and the tech elite are not typical Democrats. They don’t like regulations or labor unions. For instance, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have both given hundreds of millions of dollars to charter schools and supported policies that would allow public schools to fire teachers more readily and dodge union membership. Big tech lobbyists are also strong supporters of free trade. According to Maplight, several telecommunications companies have lobbied for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal that union groups and many Democrats oppose.

Theirs is a move to make public schools more like charters—a different focus from a libertarian vision of simply privatizing the education system. The tech elite want to bring the essence of free markets to all things public and private. Using traditional American political categories, this would land them in the Republican camp.

This is most evident in their techno-utopianism and belief that unbridled creative destruction always brings long run benefits:

On the capitalistic side, tech founders were extraordinarily optimistic about the nature of change, especially the kind of unpredictable “creative destruction” associated with free markets. Philosophically, most tech founders believe that “change over the long run is inherently positive.” Or, as Hillary Clinton supporter and billionaire Reid Hoffman told me: “I tend to believe that most Silicon Valley people are very much long-term optimists. . . . Could we have a bad 20 years? Absolutely. But if you’re working toward progress, your future will be better than your present.”

They in part reconcile all these through a belief in high taxation and redistribution, especially in the form of a basic income. This policy idea, nowhere fully implemented, is probably completely unknown to most Americans, yet has strong majority support in Silicon Valley (60% of SSC’s readers).

The Silicon Valley State of Mind

Combining these, what we see is that Silicon Valley is made up overwhelmingly of men, who are highly intelligent and with extreme faith in their intelligence and rationality, largely atheist, and largely leftist in their thinking, but who believe in an aristocracy of talent.

They exhibit extreme faith in the goodness of technical progress and seem to believe that human problems can be resolved almost entirely through the realm of technology and engineering. They believe in policy, but a technocratic vision of it in which their rationalist designs, powered by technology, inform government decisions.

One might say they are naive, but their track record of success gives them reasons for confidence. Consider Uber. Uber is effectively a technological workaround to dysfunctional politics and regulation. It has revolutionized transportation in many cities were taxis were before almost not available. Where almost all other reform efforts failed, Uber was a spectacular success. Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc. have all been extremely successful at what they do. And in any case, Silicon Valley’s “fail false” mentality means that they don’t necessarily see their failures – say, Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million schools fiasco in Newark – as a reflection on their capabilities. Many failures and a handful of grand slams is how their system is designed to function.

What’s more, it’s not just them who thinks they can fix things. Much of the rest of society seems to believe it too. For example, Alon Levy just put up a post examining the composition of NY Gov. Cuomo’s “MTA Genius Grant” panel, and how it is heavily slanted towards tech people vs. transportation people. Of course, the politicians and transport people have failed with the MTA to date. So they lose credibility by failures as Silicon Valley gains it with successes.

However, their techno-optimistic view perhaps leads them to underestimate second and third order consequences and overestimate their ability to deal with them. For example, perhaps more than anyone else, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey made Donald Trump’s presidency possible. Without his social media impact, and the ability of his troll army to drive news cycles, I very much doubt he would have gotten over the top.  That’s a second order effect they never anticipated.

Also, Trump himself is a classic example of creative destruction. He disrupted the politics business in the same way Netflix disrupted the video rental one. Yet they despise him and don’t think this is a positive change. It seems that they only like disruption when they are the ones controlling it, and don’t really believe in creative destruction per se. Instead it’s just another term of art for their taking over one industry after another.

They themselves have no problem at all radically reordering society with unproven policies at levels far beyond what almost any political figure would do. Their blasé acceptance of massive job destruction and embrace of a speculative basic income scheme to compensate illustrate that. It’s no surprise to me that Mencius Moldbug, the founder of neoreaction (one of the sub-tribes commonly grouped with the alt-right that believes in absolute monarchy or the state as a publicly traded sovereign corporation), is a Silicon Valley techie and startup founder who reportedly started out in the Rationalist movement.

They are also comfortable with an almost feudal distribution of wealth, so long as it’s based on an aristocracy of talent rather than heredity. And it’s an aristocracy that believes it should rule as well as profit. When they talk about a communitarian ethos in which the government needs to compel people to act properly, it’s pretty clear who the determinant of that is. It will of course be intelligent “rationalists” like them, who know what is right, have the technology to bring it into being, and whose motivations are beyond question (at least in their own mind).

It’s a stunningly grandiose vision. Much like the EU, I suspect the public’s tolerance for it will be directly proportional to benefits continuously delivered. To the extent that Silicon Valley is able to deliver benefits to the common good, few will stand in their way. If the benefits slow, or the costs (including second and third order costs) start exceeding the benefits, we’ll see how it turns out for them.

from Aaron M. Renn

Providence Shows the Limits of Metropolitan Governance

Regionalism and metropolitan government are urban planning orthodoxy. The idea is that we need to have region-wide planning to meet the actual regional needs, which transcend boundaries. And also to have an equitable financing structure.

So entities like Portland’s Metro (a directly elected layer of regional government on the Oregon side of that metro area) and the Twin Cities’ Metropolitan Council and region-wide tax sharing system are lauded.

Because these regions have been fairly successful and seem to function well, their regional government structures are seen as beneficial.

However, there’s a much stronger case of metropolitan government that shows the other side of the coin: Providence, Rhode Island.

Providence is a metro area of 1.6 million people, of which a million live in the state of Rhode Island and the remainder in Massachusetts.

Because all of Rhode Island is part of the metro area, the state of Rhode Island itself is a functional metropolitan government layer for Providence, similar to Portland’s Metro.

The difference is that Rhode Island is a state, making it a sovereign entity. It has unlimited taxing and legislating power, making it not only a metropolitan regional government, but also the ultimate case of local control in a metro area context.

Now Rhode Island does still have 39 cities and towns. (Counties exist as lines on a map but don’t have governments). However, this is not unlike the other examples I have. Portland’s Metro covers 24 cities and three counties.  It appears that the Twin Cities’ Met Council sits over 187 municipalities.

So Providence has a comparable regional government but one with all the powers accruing to a state. This should in theory be an even better case for regional governance, right?

Also, no. There are a lot of good things about Providence, but good governance isn’t one of them. Quite the opposite in fact. The state is famous for corruption, fragmentation, high taxes, concentrated poverty, and fiscal distress.

In other states, urban core dwellers love to rail at the state legislature. In Providence, they love to do the same.

That’s not to say there are no positives. Uber is regulated at the state level, and so was permitted to operate statewide with a single regulatory scheme. This wasn’t a case of local pre-emption, but how things were set up originally. It’s similar with the statewide transit system RIPTA.

But on the whole, being “the city-state” hasn’t seemed to have had much benefit to Providence, although it’s the holy grail for many “if mayors ruled the world” types.

One might argue that a true regional government would consolidate all municipalities. That hasn’t been viewed as a panacea for Toronto. In fact, many blame amalgamation there for the rise of Rob Ford. (In the long run, we’ll see. NYC’s five borough consolidation turned out all right).

I’m not arguing that Providence’s government structure made things worse. But it does indicate that lines on a map and forms of governance may be less influential than we think. You can’t solve political divisions or social and economic changes with just new org charts. You actually have to do the hard work of dealing with them.

from Aaron M. Renn

Seattle Booms in Latest Census City-Level Estimates

Seattle. Photo Credit: Rattlhed at Wikipedia – Public Domain

Seattle tops the growth charts among the top 25 cities in the Census Bureau’s latest release of 2016 city and town population estimates.

Seattle, a land-locked (no annexation) city in the Pacific Northwest with a limited history of high density, managed to add 20,847 people last year, a growth rate of over 3% – tops among the 25 largest cities.  Seattle has added about 94,000 people just since 2010. That’s over 15% growth. The total population growth in Seattle last year was about the same as that in New York City. Even if you rank by total change instead of percentage, Seattle would still be 5th out of the top 25 – ahead of some much larger places and some much sprawlier places.

Seattle’s urban and regional population growth are strong.  It is a national bright spot for transit growth. Its tech economy is nova hot. I haven’t been there in a while, but it seems to me that Seattle is a city undergoing a significant transformation to the next level.

All but three of the top 25 cities posted growth in population, showing that there’s definitely central city growth happening in many places, even if the preponderance of national growth is suburban. The older cores of NYC, SF, DC, Boston, and Philly are all growing. Even the cities of Dallas and Ft. Worth grew nicely. Only Chicago, Detroit, and Memphis lost population. Houston, a geographically gigantic central city, posted fairly weak growth compared to what one might have expected.

In the Midwest, Columbus passed Indianapolis to become the 14th largest city in the country. Detroit, despite enormous population loss, is still about the same population as Boston and Washington, DC.

Here are the 25 largest cities in the country in 2016, ranked by year over year population growth rate:

Rank City 2015 2016 Total Change Pct Change
1 Seattle city, WA 683,505 704,352 20,847 3.05%
2 Fort Worth city, TX 834,171 854,113 19,942 2.39%
3 Phoenix city, AZ 1,582,904 1,615,017 32,113 2.03%
4 Denver city, CO 680,032 693,060 13,028 1.92%
5 Austin city, TX 930,152 947,890 17,738 1.91%
6 Charlotte city, NC 826,395 842,051 15,656 1.89%
7 San Antonio city, TX 1,468,037 1,492,510 24,473 1.67%
8 Washington city, DC 670,377 681,170 10,793 1.61%
9 Dallas city, TX 1,297,327 1,317,929 20,602 1.59%
10 Jacksonville city, FL 867,164 880,619 13,455 1.55%
11 Columbus city, OH 850,044 860,090 10,046 1.18%
12 San Diego city, CA 1,390,915 1,406,630 15,715 1.13%
13 Boston city, MA 665,984 673,184 7,200 1.08%
14 San Francisco city, CA 862,004 870,887 8,883 1.03%
15 Nashville-Davidson metropolitan government (balance), TN 654,078 660,388 6,310 0.96%
16 Houston city, TX 2,284,816 2,303,482 18,666 0.82%
17 Los Angeles city, CA 3,949,149 3,976,322 27,173 0.69%
18 El Paso city, TX 678,570 683,080 4,510 0.66%
19 Indianapolis city (balance), IN 852,295 855,164 2,869 0.34%
20 San Jose city, CA 1,022,627 1,025,350 2,723 0.27%
21 New York city, NY 8,516,502 8,537,673 21,171 0.25%
22 Philadelphia city, PA 1,564,964 1,567,872 2,908 0.19%
23 Memphis city, TN 654,454 652,717 -1,737 -0.27%
24 Chicago city, IL 2,713,596 2,704,958 -8,638 -0.32%
25 Detroit city, MI 676,336 672,795 -3,541 -0.52%

And here are the top 25 ranked by the 2010-2016 growth rate.

Rank City 2010 2016 Total Change Pct Change
1 Austin city, TX 815,587 947,890 132,303 16.22%
2 Seattle city, WA 610,403 704,352 93,949 15.39%
3 Denver city, CO 603,329 693,060 89,731 14.87%
4 Fort Worth city, TX 748,719 854,113 105,394 14.08%
5 Charlotte city, NC 738,561 842,051 103,490 14.01%
6 Washington city, DC 605,183 681,170 75,987 12.56%
7 San Antonio city, TX 1,333,952 1,492,510 158,558 11.89%
8 Phoenix city, AZ 1,450,629 1,615,017 164,388 11.33%
9 Dallas city, TX 1,200,711 1,317,929 117,218 9.76%
10 Houston city, TX 2,105,625 2,303,482 197,857 9.40%
11 Nashville-Davidson metropolitan government (balance), TN 604,893 660,388 55,495 9.17%
12 Columbus city, OH 790,864 860,090 69,226 8.75%
13 Boston city, MA 620,701 673,184 52,483 8.46%
14 San Francisco city, CA 805,766 870,887 65,121 8.08%
15 San Diego city, CA 1,306,153 1,406,630 100,477 7.69%
16 San Jose city, CA 955,290 1,025,350 70,060 7.33%
17 Jacksonville city, FL 823,318 880,619 57,301 6.96%
18 El Paso city, TX 650,604 683,080 32,476 4.99%
19 Los Angeles city, CA 3,796,292 3,976,322 180,030 4.74%
20 New York city, NY 8,192,026 8,537,673 345,647 4.22%
21 Indianapolis city (balance), IN 821,659 855,164 33,505 4.08%
22 Philadelphia city, PA 1,528,427 1,567,872 39,445 2.58%
23 Chicago city, IL 2,697,736 2,704,958 7,222 0.27%
24 Memphis city, TN 652,456 652,717 261 0.04%
25 Detroit city, MI 711,088 672,795 -38,293 -5.39%

And the top 25 ranked by total 2016 population:

Rank City 2016
1 New York city, NY 8,537,673
2 Los Angeles city, CA 3,976,322
3 Chicago city, IL 2,704,958
4 Houston city, TX 2,303,482
5 Phoenix city, AZ 1,615,017
6 Philadelphia city, PA 1,567,872
7 San Antonio city, TX 1,492,510
8 San Diego city, CA 1,406,630
9 Dallas city, TX 1,317,929
10 San Jose city, CA 1,025,350
11 Austin city, TX 947,890
12 Jacksonville city, FL 880,619
13 San Francisco city, CA 870,887
14 Columbus city, OH 860,090
15 Indianapolis city (balance), IN 855,164
16 Fort Worth city, TX 854,113
17 Charlotte city, NC 842,051
18 Seattle city, WA 704,352
19 Denver city, CO 693,060
20 El Paso city, TX 683,080
21 Washington city, DC 681,170
22 Boston city, MA 673,184
23 Detroit city, MI 672,795
24 Nashville-Davidson metropolitan government (balance), TN 660,388
25 Memphis city, TN 652,717

from Aaron M. Renn

Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure

Boston Subway Line. Photo Credit: Pi.1415926535 CC BY-SA 3.0

President Trump promised a $1 trillion infrastructure plan during his campaign. Spending more money on infrastructure is something that has broad support among people of all political persuasions.

But as the case of Louisville’s $2.4 billion bridge debacle shows, not all infrastructure spending is good spending.

And as a judge’s ruling halting the Maryland Purple Line project to require more environmental study shows, many of our infrastructure problems have nothing to do with money.

I tackle these problems and more in a major essay on the rebuilding America’s infrastructure in the new issue of American Affairs. Some key themes include:

  • America’s infrastructure needs are overwhelmingly for maintenance, not expansion.
  • Infrastructure means much more than surface transport (highways, transit), but includes underfunded items like dams and sewers.
  • There is a mismatch between funding structures and infrastructure needs that must be fixed.
  • Politics and regulatory barriers are often a greater problem than money, and until we improve this, progress on fixing infrastructure will be limited.
  • Private capital alone will not solve the funding challenge and comes with big problems of its own. There’s no such thing as free money.
  • An initial sketch of what an infrastructure program should look like.

Here is an excerpt:

Yet there clearly are major infrastructure repair needs in America. We have not been properly maintaining the assets we have built. Levee failures notoriously caused much of the flooding in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but America has yet to address the neglect of its dam and levee systems. For example, the recent possibility of an overflow or collapse at the Oroville Dam in California forced 180,000 people to be evacuated. Many dams, levees, and locks on our inland waterway system are in need of repair, often at significant cost. Examples include Locks 52 and 53 on the Ohio River. Built in 1929, their replacement cost is $2.9 billion. As the New York Times reported, this replacement has been botched, and it was originally supposed to cost only $775 million—still a lot of money.

Tens of billions of dollars are also needed simply to renovate America’s legacy transit infrastructure. The District of Columbia’s own Metro subway system has suffered several accidents that require emergency repairs to improve safety. It lost 14 percent of its riders last year, as they lost faith in the system. San Francisco’s BART rail system needs at least $10 billion in repairs. Boston’s transit system needs over $7 billion in repairs. New York’s subway signals still mostly rely on 1930s-era technology.

Similar maintenance backlogs affect other infrastructure types. America’s older urban regions need to spend vast sums of money on sewer system environmental retrofit—$2.7 billion in Cleveland and $4.7 billion in Saint Louis. The state of Rhode Island had to pay $163 million to replace its Sakonnet River Bridge because it had failed to perform routine maintenance on the old one. This is just a sampling of America’s infrastructure gaps.

But the poster child for American infrastructure problems is Flint, Michigan, where a water treatment error caused lead to leach into the water supply, rendering it unfit for human consumption. This caused then candidate Trump to say, “It used to be cars were made in Flint, and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico. Now, the cars are made in Mexico and you can’t drink the water in Flint.” To be clear, Flint’s water crisis was caused by human error, but that was only possible because of the city’s old lead-pipe infrastructure. America’s water lines, in many cases, haven’t been touched since they were originally installed many decades ago. Some cities still have wooden water pipes in service. Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner once said that if her city received the same $1 billion commitment from the state that Buffalo did, she would spend three quarters of it just to fix the city’s water lines.

While things are not uniformly dire, it is clear that there is a need to repair and upgrade America’s existing infrastructure. It is this rebuilding, not building—making America’s infrastructure great again—that the Trump administration should focus on.

Click through to read the whole thing.

from Aaron M. Renn

Understanding Midwest Cities

It was great to get to meet the fantastic urban blogger Pete Saunders last week, when we were both together in Cleveland for a forum on the future of the American heartland. Pete’s post about the nine reasons why Detroit failed has been read over 40,000 times just since mid-2014 when I installed a new sitemeter (the post was originally put up in early 2012!) This is a good example of how compelling his insights on Midwest cities are.

Naturally I grabbed him for some conversation about cities and used part of it to record a podcast about Midwest cities and their future. Pete grew up in the city of Detroit, lived and went to school in Muncie, Indiana, and has lived and worked as a planner in the Chicago area for many years, doing work on projects around the country. If the audio player doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

Subscribe to podcast via iTunes | Soundcloud.

from Aaron M. Renn

Louisville Spent $2.4 Billion on New Bridges While Traffic Fell Sharply

The initial figures are in and the new Louisville bridges are on track to be as big a failure as predicted.

I’ve written a lot about this $2.4 billion project to build two new bridges across the Ohio River. They are now open to traffic and collecting tolls.

You may recall that Indiana and Kentucky’s’ own traffic projections predicted that the old downtown I-65 bridge + the new downtown bridge + the new east end bridge combined would carry less traffic in 2030 than just the existing downtown bridge I-65 bridge did in 2007.

Source: Louisville-Southern Indiana Ohio River Bridges Traffic & Revenue Study, Table 6.4, Page 87 (page 107 in PDF) and Table ES-2, Page ii (Page 6 in PDF)

The new downtown bridge was supposed to work in tandem with the old downtown bridge as one way pairs carrying I-65 across the river. Traffic on the combined bridges was projected to never again equal the 2012 traffic on just the original downtown bridge – at least not until the end of the forecast in 2054.

Source: Louisville-Southern Indiana Ohio River Bridges Traffic & Revenue Study, Table 6.4, Page 87 (page 107 in PDF); Table ES-2, Page ii (Page 6 in PDF); Table 6.7, Page 91 (page 111 in PDF); and Table 5.17, Page 79 (page 99 in PDF)

The data released last month by RiverLink is consistent with these projections. They have average weekday traffic on the combined downtown spans at 72,872, a bit below the 2018 projected level. So it’s in the ballpark of projected levels (albeit radically lower projections than the inflated ones originally used to sell the project).

Traffic is still ramping up on these bridges so may actually somewhat exceed those forecasts, but the most important thing to note is that the combined old+new downtown bridge is carrying 63,000 fewer cars than just the old downtown bridge did in 2007 – that’s twice as much  bridge capacity but a 46% decline in traffic.

Adding in the East End bridge, where there was previously no way to cross the river, gives you another 16,616 cars for a total of 89,488 weekday vehicles. This is 46,500 fewer cars than just the old Kennedy Bridge alone carried in 2007 – a 34% decline.

Even the local media, historically cheerleaders for this project, have noticed that traffic has yet to return to pre-construction levels, despite a massive increase in capacity.

To get a sense for what this looks like, City Observatory screencapped some traffic camera images of the bridges at rush hour:

I-65 traffic (north and southbound feed to and from downtown bridges) at 5:07pm on a Tuesday.

Massive expense, big tolls, fewer cars than ever. Even if way down the road these bridges fill up, this project is a financial boondoggle of epic proportions.


from Aaron M. Renn

“What Makes You Think You’re Better Than Anyone Else?”

Downtown Covington, Indiana. Photo Credit: J. Stephen Conn, CC BY-NC 2.0

Some experiences of life are so universally known that they’ve become cliches. Yet when they happen to us we still can’t avoid thinking of them as something remarkable, about which we must tell others as if we’ve made some new discovery about the human condition.

For example, “you can never go home again.” Conservative writer Rod Dreher surely knew this to be true, but he didn’t let it stop him from trying anyway. After leaving rural Louisiana for a writing career in DC and New York, he returned home after being moved by the community that surrounded his sister Ruthie when she died of cancer.

It did not go well.

A recent New Yorker profile of Dreher says:

Over dinner—Dreher, who was observing Lent, confined himself to oysters and crab cakes—I learned what happened when he moved back to St. Francisville. “The thing that I dreamed of and hoped for didn’t work out,” he said. “They just wouldn’t accept me—not my sister’s kids, and not my dad and mom. They just could not accept that I was so different from them. I worshipped my dad—he was the strongest and wisest man I knew—but he was a country man, a Southern country man, and I just wasn’t. All that mattered was that I wasn’t like them. It just broke me.” He fell into a depression and was diagnosed with chronic mono, then went into therapy and read Dante. When Dreher speaks, his emotions flow across his face with complete transparency, changing phrase by phrase. (His glasses, I realized, provide him with some emotional privacy.) As he told his story, he looked freshly wounded, as if it had all happened that morning.

Dreher is the classic misfit dreaming of greater things who leaves and ultimately finds them – but in the process discovers that he’s lost something important he can never regain. And that the things he achieved after leaving did not fully resolve the sense of disconnectness he’d felt growing up.

On the opposite site of the political spectrum, Millennial writer Caity Cronkhite wrote a lengthy polemic two years ago inveighing against the suppression of her educational ambitions that she’d been forced to fight through while growing up in the small Indiana town of Covington:

I returned to Covington Middle School that fall with a pit in my stomach. No one talked about AP classes anymore, because no one in my hometown knew what AP classes were. No one discussed their plans for college, because most of my friends’ parents had never earned any kind of degree past their high school diploma. No one encouraged me to take harder classes or do extra homework that would challenge me, because my teachers didn’t have time or resources to devote to a student who needed extra help. My teachers told me to stop raising my hand in class, because I was an annoyance to them and a distraction to the other students. No one wanted to hear what I had to say anymore.

My dad and I chattered over our dinner for several minutes before I noticed that my mother had said nothing. Her eyes were cast down as she pushed a pile of mashed potatoes around her plate, sitting in stony silence. I fell silent.

“You’re not going,” she said simply.

I didn’t understand, not right away. I looked at her, perplexed. “What do you mean?” I finally asked. I looked over at my dad, his mouth agape, staring across the table at my furious mother.

Her voice rose to a fever pitch. “You’re not going! No other kid does this—goes off and leaves when everyone else goes to a normal school and does normal things. It’s only you! You’re the only one who does this. You’ve only thought of yourself and you are not going.” Her face was red, and her tone was murderous. “You. Are. Not. Going.

Cronkhite eventually made it to Carnegie Mellon, and now lives in San Francisco. Her childhood experiences clearly left a bitter taste in her mouth. These are only two examples, but there are a large number of people with a high degree of alienation from the place they grew up. Luckily for me I never experienced any of this, but I know people who did.  These are particularly good stories to use as examples because they are already published in depth, Cronkhite’s the first person.

The easiest and most natural thing to do when reading stories like these is to critique the people telling them. Usually those who air these types of stories have their own quirks, as most of us do. But there’s no need to do that here, because you can read them for yourselves and draw your own conclusions. I’m more interested in what this pattern tells us about these smaller working class communities.

There’s been a lot written about the plight of working class towns, and how that fueled the rise of Trump. Many of their complaints about economic malaise, and how public policy has been explicitly set to benefit the already successful are true. But that doesn’t mean that these communities themselves don’t need to change. If they want things to be different, then they have to be part of the solution too.

I wrote last week about how pragmatism had helped undermine the Rust Belt and hosted a podcast with Dwight Gibson to explore the matter further.

Today I want to isolate one attitude that seems to underlie many of the experiences of people like Dreher and Cronkhite. It’s something that Cronkhite heard over and over: “What makes you think you’re better than anyone else?”

These small towns have a high degree of social order and social solidarity. Because they are small, the institutions that exist by and large are shared by the whole community. Almost everyone goes to the same school (save perhaps some in religious schools), shops in the same stores, attends the same festivals, etc.

Membership in the community thus becomes defined in terms of memberships in these institutions, rituals, and shared patterns of life. To opt for a different choice is seen as a rejection of the community, and also as a statement that a person thinks he’s better than the rest of the people in the community.

In short, these communities have a limited sense of multiple life tracks, diversity of social networks, etc. In bigger communities, one assumes there are overlapping communities, institutions, etc. and that the community as a whole is really a network of these formed by the overlaps. That’s much less the case in a small town or rural area.

I interviewed someone who was involved in attempting to start a charter school in a small town. There are some legitimate challenges with rural charter schools, but the key rationale of the broad based opposition they faced was that by seeking to start a charter school, they were perceived as declaring themselves better than the rest of the community. This was true even though most folks knew at some level the local public school was terrible and ill equipped to deal with any students outside the norm, like Cronkhite or Dreher.

Even just pursuing higher education can put you into the same category in some cases. That’s one reason there’s so much skepticism about college in these places. (And some parents also surely fear, and rightly so, that college means their kids will move away and rarely be seen again).

These towns need to find a way to move beyond that. Because people want different things out of life.  They also have different skills, aptitudes, personalities, etc.  So they need to be able to respond to those in building their life without being seen as a Judas.  A one size fits all model is just not going to work in the modern economy.

This has consequences because especially the people who go to college and leave are the ones who can be sources of intellectual capital, leadership talent, even future investments back into their hometown. They can also help connect and orient that community to the broader world, even if they don’t move back. There has to be something of value in Covington having a person from there who is now based in San Francisco. Unfortunately, given how things went down, they aren’t likely to be able to take advantage of it.

from Aaron M. Renn