On Pointy Hair

For anyone who’s read Dilbert, or knew someone who did, there’s the general concept of a “pointy-haired boss” (sometimes also called a “bogon”, or just “a suit”). Pointy-haired bosses are not just managers, but managers who seem to operate on a level totally disconnected from reality. Recently I read a post that reminded me of them, and, relatedly, why traditional interviews for software companies are unusually stressful.

Ben Hoffman’s The Quaker and the Parselmouth uses a metaphor of “Quakers”, who never lie and treat promises very solemnly, and “Parselmouths”, who lie freely, but never to each other.

Are there advantages of being a Quaker over being a Parselmouth? I’ve already argued that in particular cases there can be advantages in being trusted by the untrustworthy. A Quaker bank might not be happy to lend money to [people who lie freely], but it should be happy to have them as depositors.

But I don’t automatically get credited for my attempts to say what I mean and no more. If the people around me have no idea that this might even be a thing, then what incentive do I have to keep doing it? And yet, I don’t find myself smoothly adjusting to my circumstances – I find myself awkwardly trying to say only and exactly what I mean, even in circumstances when people are expected to exaggerate, so I’ll be taken to mean much less than I do. I suspect that it’s not quite possible for humans to completely fine-tune their honesty case by case. I suspect that it’s hard to learn that words have meanings here but not there, that justice is a virtue in this place but a vice in that one.

Instead, I suspect that for the health of the souls of those who are dispositionally inclined towards treating words not as mere reports of current inclinations, but as things designed to stand enduringly, monumental inscriptions meant to be true long after the time in which they were written passes away, these people need an environment where this is in fact globally the case.

There are purposes where being neither of the two is a good decision; politics, whether national or office, is one, and acting is another; let’s call people who use this style Actors. All are – most likely – durable inclinations. If you learn to keep your words close to the truth to avoid dangerous miscommunications about precise topics, it is harder to let your words move fluidly to persuade. If you learn to adapt your words to the situations at hand for effectiveness, and not worry too much about how long or how precisely they describe the truth as you see it, it is hard to switch to careful precision even when it’s critically important. It’s most likely possible to learn the “Parselmouth” style, with difficulty; the Marranos of Spain, or similar groups who must scrupulously present one face in private and another in public, may manage it. But it’s certainly harder. (There’s at least one more approach worth gesturing at, where words are treated as distractions and actions and physical presence are the accepted signs of truth, but I don’t know it personally.)

But communication between the two styles is difficult; with the very different approach to words and the truth, for many purposes you need as much translation effort as from two different languages. (Lullaby words create a similar problem.) Generally with a good working relationship and experience, most people in mixed environments of Quaker-ishness and Actor-ishness learn this translation. But it’s unnatural and frustrating, and so the Quakers call the managers pointy-haired bosses and the Actors call the engineers… actually, I’m not sure. “Autistic pedants”?

And if you’re a software engineer, this tension gets acute during the traditional-format on-site interview. There are technical questions, where precision and holding tight to the truth is critical and the ideal mindset is Quaker. But there are also ‘soft’ questions, whose goal is to see a frankly unrealistic level of enthusiasm for this specific company, description of your work on past projects framed to maximize your contribution and the scope, and generally presenting an image of yourself and your work that conforms to expectations. This is a very Actor-y mode, and frequently you’ll be asked to transition between the two in the course of answering a single question. There may be people for whom this is natural, but they’re a small segment of the population.

In short: interviews suck, and communication across the boundaries of truth norms suck hard.

Points Deepen Valence: Ideas for Seasonal Celebrations in the Rationalist Community

I have been thinking again about the Eight-Point Year in the context of designing community celebrations for the rationalist community. Almost all knowledge of traditional pagan religion was totally lost before modern pagans even started constructing their ritual calendar, so they effectively built their celebratory calendar from scratch. And they’ve had a lot of success, so it seems to me that we should use their example to build our calendar out from the winter Secular Solstice.

The basic formula for a seasonal celebration in this template is to embody the attributes of the opposite season, in a celebratory way. Celebrate light in the darkness on the darkest night of the year; celebrate the fading of the light on the sunset of the longest day. Creative destruction, making room for the new, at the beginning of spring growth; show what you have made, built, and beautified at harvest time. These themes show up not just in pagan ritual, but also in many seasonal religious holidays and traditional practices; harvest festivals with art are traditional across Europe and beyond, and festivals of light in the early winter are common worldwide. So how can we build our own practices to fit? Let’s walk around the calendar.

Winter: Brighter Night

We’ve got this one covered already, with many variations. Personally, I think that the SF version, with a choir and speeches, is most appropriate to the time of year, but I prefer the aesthetics of the Catholic Midnight Mass to the singalong style envisioned by Ray Arnold for the original and many of the splinters. In any case, the lighting, snuffing, and relighting of candles, to symbolize the darkness of the world and how we can bring light to it, is genius and the core of this celebration’s resonance. If you have that, you can probably tailor a lot without losing much.

Note on naming: As we expand the calendar, ‘Secular Solstice’ may cease to be a distinguishing name for the winter celebration. I’d suggest ‘Secular Solstice: Brighter Night’; Secular Solstice to distinguish it from pagan Solstice and Brighter Night to distinguish it from other times of year.

Winter/Spring: Day of Warmth

Around February 4th, this is the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. It is the coldest part of the year, and should be a celebration of literal and metaphorical warmth. The most natural expression, in my opinion, is a explicitly community-focused event. Baking together, huddling in a cuddlepile, enjoying each other’s company and celebrating that we have found people to share the time with. This may be a more intimate gathering by nature than the larger Winter Solstices, but that doesn’t seem necessary; possibly a larger gathering on a Saturday or a Friday night, and a tradition of smaller intimate gatherings across the rest of the weekend, would be most fitting. Excellent venues for this would be a cabin or hall in the mountains, or a gathering outside in chill air near a warm building to return to. Broader ideas for variations might replace baking with cooking in general, and given the tendencies of our community some intimate gatherings could celebrate physical intimacy in the form of orgies.

Assuming there is a large gathering, this might be some resolution to some recent debates about children at Solstice; Solstice/Brighter Night could be more solemn and ‘keep your children from interrupting’, like a Mass or Jewish High Holidays, and the Day of Warmth could be very explicitly inclusive and accepting of children and their energy and noise. (Note: I strongly discourage inviting children to an orgy.)

Spring: Tarski Day

Spring is marked by spring cleaning, by Christians the celebration of the perfection of the world through a symbolic death, and by Jews the growth of the Jewish people to cover Israel from the destruction and pain in Egypt. For the rationalist community, a great celebration is growth through being wrong and correcting our mistakes. Thus, Tarski Day, from the Litany of Tarski:

If the sky is blue,
I desire to believe that the sky is blue;
If the sky is not blue,
I desire to believe that the sky is not blue;
Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want.

This is a time to gather and celebrate the errors you have corrected and ones you can correct now. Recalculate cached thoughts, search for crony beliefs to evict, and socially reward people who do. A good celebration might involve a hat full of slips of paper with topics to think about, and the group picking out random topics to find beliefs they haven’t checked recently. If you think you should undergo Jeffreysai’s Ritual of the Empty Room, well, you should probably do it immediately, but if you want to schedule a Schelling time to do it, this would be appropriate.

Spring/Summer: Hedonism?

May 4th, the midpoint between the spring equinox and summer solstice, is Star Wars Day, and also the wettest time of the year… in some climates. It’s the driest in others, though, so I depart from Sonata Green’s axes to describe this one. I would describe this distinction as, for lack of a better word, optimism vs. pessimism; at the spring-summer cross-point, things are growing and looking up; at the fall-winter point, they are headed toward the lean times. So the spring/summer celebration should perhaps be described “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.” Have a raucous party (or as raucous as you get; frankly I might pass on this particular party). Recognize that sometimes, life is short, and we should fill it with life while we can. (If you enjoy exotic altered states, this would be a good time for it.)

Summer: Sunset of Civilization

Almost all midsummer celebrations take place the night before the day in question, whether that is the actual solstice, St. John’s Day, or another day around that time. (The closest Jewish analogue, Lag Ba’Omer, usually falls 30-60 days early.) Traditional celebrations tend to be joyous but also to commemorate the delicacy of the world, thankfulness that it has been preserved through another year, and hope that it will be protected from dragons, demons, witches, etc. A good theme might be the celebration of society humanity has built, but with awareness of all the times it could have been easily destroyed, and the ways it still could be. Bonfires and evoking ghost stories seem like excellent ways for this to manifest. The natural progression would seem to be starting the celebration before sunset with a focus on celebration of civilization, and letting the Sunset of Civilization proceed to the scary stories portion of the evening as the sun falls and the air gets colder.

Summer/Fall: ???

This day, around August 4th, ought to be a memorial for cold during a hot time. I’m not sure what this ought to do. My personal inclination might be to scale mountains or visit the roofs of tall buildings and stand in the wind, marveling at the magnificence and scale of the world and what we’ve built in it. I don’t think that makes a great community celebration, but maybe there is a place for a shared but solitary celebration. (Also I found that climbing high places is a somewhat traditional celebration of Lughnasadh, the August 1st holiday in the Celtic Pagan tradition.)

Fall: Day of Achievement

Fall celebrations are harvest festivals and parties of crafts. From Halloween to Sukkot to Vendimia, creating and decorating are common. This would be an excellent time to teach, create, share skills and demonstrate them, and generally celebrate excellence and foster it in our friends. If you want to test how well you can explain a useful new mental move or share the understanding you have gained over a new mathematical field, if you have greatly improved as a dancer or want to take up watercolors, if you want to practice improv or show off a well-carved jack-o-lantern, this is the day to do it. Specific traditions for this day: Over the course of the year, make notes of times people express that they don’t have a skill yet (growth mindset); when the Day of Achievement comes around, remind them that ‘yet’ may mean today, and encourage them to learn. This is an excellent celebration to open to anyone from any community; skills are for sharing, and if we believe truth and skill support us, then sharing them is “[offering them] a part of [our] own power, gambling that [they] couldn’t use it without becoming more like [us]” (in the words of Methods).

Fall/Winter: Prepper’s Day

This cross-point falls around November 4th, and in balance to the optimism I suggested is characteristic of the spring/summer point, this is a pessimistic season. To properly honor it, Prepper’s Day should be using the bounty of our lives to prepare for lean times and tail risks. If the infrastructure gives out, a storm or earthquake blocks the roads that bring the bounty of trade to our doors, or a new Depression hits our wallets and communities, it would be good to have prepared. To remember the things we have built and could lose, I suggest listening to Landsailor. Other preparation might include sharing security tools and building a web of trust to guard against losing the bounty of trustworthy open internet.

 

And that brings us back around to Winter again. This doesn’t include other specific days; Petrov Day just after the Fall Equinox, July 4th, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day. I might also include holidays for regular intervals in the count of seconds since the beginning of the Unix Epoch, in the spirit that we will not remain Earthbound forever and so neither should our marking of time.

Small thought: Diet, Intelligence, and Ashkenazim

Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally much healthier than people eating a contemporary Western diet. This goes for the Japanese and other Asian diets as well as the traditional diets of Mexico, India, and the Mediterranean region, including France, Italy, and Greece. There may be exceptions to this rule—you do have to wonder about the Eastern European Jewish diet of my ancestors. Though who knows?

-Michael Pollan, In Defense Of Food

But a mutation load/purifying selection balance was one of the more elegant theories for why intelligence variants haven’t reached fixation given their apparent obvious utility, so this raises that question even more. Why are there genetic intelligence differences? Especially when the phenome studies (only some of which Yvain cited) show pervasive genetic overlap between genes which increase intelligence and genes which increase all sorts of other desirable traits like less schizophrenia risk? Right now I think probably the best theory is a resources or developmental one: a high quality brain, and body, are extremely metabolically demanding (did you know that in childhood, your brain and body have to take turns growing, because it’s metabolically impossible to do both?), and so any pro-intelligence variants runs into the risk of increasing vulnerability to famine and infection and injury; so you get selection for intelligence variants only up to the point where diminishing returns kick in hard, and then it’s better to have a more robust immune system or to stop growing early on and adopt more of a r-selected strategy, and then in the modern context where calories are abundant, education & intellectual pursuits apparently have been consistently dysgenic, so that eliminates any recent chance for driving pro-intelligence variants to fixation or even increasing their frequencies noticeably.

-Gwern, here

Unsourced but commonly known fact: We observe higher IQ consistently in Ashkenazi Jews (just Ashkenazim, not Sephardim or any other strain, nor their non-Jewish neighbors).

Crackpot theory: the traditional diet of Ashkenazi Jews is very rich because it reflects higher caloric needs than gentiles. Probably wrong; it’s not that different from the traditional diet of my Catholic ancestors from the same general area, and the ‘blubber’ theory probably explains this better.

(I’ll be back to Jane Jacobs soonish; I have a couple posts drafted but may read through the whole book before posting this time, since I’m chunking chapters together.)

The Economy of Cities: Plainly-Delivered Verdict

And with that last post, I’ve reached the end of The Economy of Cities. It’s not Jacobs’s last word on economics – by the time you read this I’ll have started Cities and the Wealth of Nations, which she published 16 years later (1984) – but it outlined the first thoughts she had, and before I move on I want to summarize my impressions and what takeaways I found valuable.

The basic Jacobsean framework of city growth is interesting, consistent with common sense judgments about which towns and cities are energetic and which ones are depressed, and seems to have a fair amount of predictive power. It provides pretty clear prescriptions about how to best encourage growth; get out of the way of new businesses and strive to keep the government on the side of enabling change and the regulatory environment open. Regulatory capture has become even more of a concern since the first writing here, which seems to bear this out.

When she extrapolates, her thoughts get more fragmented, and hit-or-miss in value. Her theory of very early city development blatantly contradicted the best evidence at the time, and other than a speculative, headline-grabbing, and therefore probably incorrect finding of a drowned city from early on, there has been no support for her theories found since. When she extrapolated forward, her general sense of trends was not bad, but nearly all the specific examples were outright wrong, and only some of them because she missed specific technological developments that were coming.

The general trend prediction was quite good. Both her explanation of why their is higher demand for products from rural areas whenever a country grows and her suggestions about the stagnation of cities were good retrodictions. Her predictions about the trend of manufacturing toward diversified production, and the trend of control shifting from manufacturers toward service-providers were ahead of her time and spot-on. (She missed the possibility of software, but then it was 1968.)

However, her examples and trends both suffered for being parochial. This was somewhat affected by missing the rise of containerization, but even still, not grasping that cities outside the Western world could take work formerly done by the most advanced cities, rather than it moving to rural areas, was a serious error not justified by her position in time. Many other predictions she made, like the decline of New York City, show the same parochialism and political bias. This emphasized that, even a decade after she’d begun her urban development research, she still lacked skill in academic methods.

Additionally, she seemed fuzzy on some terms. City/’city region’ was used in contrasting ways in different places, and coupled with the general parochialism I have misgivings about her conceptual structure. If this fairly central term is in conflict in her own usage, what else has more subtle flaws?

Overall: The theory is good and worthy of further study, which I’m disappointed mostly hasn’t happened. It makes some neat predictions and provides a lot of food for thought, but has big shortcomings in rigor. Some directed data-gathering to test her specific assertions would go a long way toward giving me confidence that it is actually a general theory. Especially to check that it has still applied as we’ve moved to an information economy.

Outside Context Economics

The Economy of Cities, chapter 8: Observations about the natural progressions of the economy with (decently accurate) extrapolation to the future. Focused on manufacturing, because the non-manufacturing-based economies we’ve had since the late 80s are a historical anomaly she didn’t see coming.

The first trend she observes is that there has been a progression in manufacturing from craft production (small run, by hand) to mass production (factories turning out many of the same thing) to differentiated production. By differentiated production she means things made using the factory line style, but in smaller runs configured for more variety of products. Her main example of differentiated production in action is the diversity of clothing available, in contrast to all previous eras. (I hadn’t even noticed this was a 20th century development, though it seems obvious in retrospect.)

Other things she notices had started to be differentiated included newspapers (weekly local papers over mass-market dailies), farming equipment, and (in a dig at New York’s urban planners) trees planted in large cities. As far as these go, they seem accurate. She also notices that electronics production inherently cannot be mass-produced and was stuck in the craft paradigm until jumping straight to differentiated; this goes double for computers and became massively more true of software. In general, this prediction of a trend is insightful and correct.

However, when she tries to add specific predictions, she misses entirely. She projected that transportation would soon start to be replace by differentiated, specialized vehicles including water-based transport. None of this has materialized. She specifically suggests that the replacement for the car will not be mass-produced; since to the extent it appears likely to happen it will be the Tesla, this is also wrong. And I don’t think she’d really consider that a successful prediction. I suppose the Hyperloop might qualify, if that happens? (Good job Elon, you’ve single-handedly made her only 90% wrong instead of 100%.)

Then there are the predictions I’m not sure whether to judge as true or false. Her view of economic development stayed pretty firmly parochial; after early civilizations, it covered very little outside of the United States and Europe. With that in mind, how should we evaluate her prediction that mass production manufacturing would leave cities and differentiated manufacturing would remain? In practice, manufacturing of both kinds has moved to cities in less developed countries like China and Thailand; cities in the US today produce software and services and design products, and export teaching and techniques, but do not manufacture beyond the prototype scale. However, in developing countries this is still a city activity.

I would say overall that her picture of the progression is broadly correct. However, she failed to anticipate the rise of containerization or the development of the information economy,  and so her picture of where things could move and how much this would flow through to distant cities was wildly off. Standard prognostication expeects that in time, Chinese cities will move on from manufacturing and look more like American cities as the manufacturing moves to other parts of Asia and eventually Africa. The idea that when this process has shaken out the manufacturing will be in rural areas seems plausible, except that I doubt it will run to completion before the next big economic restructuring.

Another long-term trend she outlines is which companies dominate economic decisions. In medieval times, merchants called the shots. They decided what would be made and handled distribution. In the industrial era, manufacturers were in charge. (Jacobs points out that no Detroit car manufacturer would want to become a dealer, but the medieval equivalents absolutely would.) She predicts that in the future the providers of services would be running the show.

And that is exactly what we see. Software, even before the ‘SaaS’ web businesses, is a useful tool provided to accomplish a service. Microsoft did not sell hardware; it specified the types of hardware it’s tool could use and shipped it packaged with those tools. Apple does not sell hardware so much as a user experience; they commission the hardware to fit. Google provides a service and then sells access to it. Amazon initially took their cut out of the convenience their shopping service provides; more recently they sell the service of server space properly managed, and then commission the hardware to support it.

I give her serious prediction points for this in particular.

The last prediction she makes is more an observation about the natural process of economies when not modified. It is this: The basic struggle for power is between those who benefit from the current structure of the economy and those who benefit from new things happening. Inherently, the older faction is more powerful; for a country to thrive, it must set up its government so that it is always counterbalancing established interests and pushing for the young faction. The old faction’s excess of power can be used to influence the government, though, so this is hard to implement.

Regulatory capture is a recurring problem, and as The Economist observed recently, it’s a bigger one now than ever. So good prediction points for Jane Jacobs here as well. As far as how to solve it, localizing government further so that the economic and political units coincide seems helpful. Worldwide profits are good at bribing smaller governments, but many more small governments seem better at resisting capture than fewer larger ones. One company’s lobbied exception is less likely to help other companies keep their hold, and it’s less likely that a single industry will sit in the same regulatory environment for long enough to take it over completely. But honestly this seems like wishful thinking.

In any case: Jacobs gets bogged down in parochialism, politics, and wishful thinking when it comes to specifics, but her high-level predictions and insights continue to be pretty damn good.

Invest In Something Modern, Maybe?

The Economy of Cities, chapter 7: Thoughts Jane Jacobs Has About Capital.

Did I say that Chapter 6 was the least relevant to today? This one might beat it. Because this is about how capital moves and assists (or doesn’t) in city economies and their growth. And while it highlights the operations of American Research and Development, now known as the first modern venture capital firm, it did not predict the massive shift toward VC-fueled creation of new work that characterizes the modern small business ecosystem.

And because it doesn’t touch on that, it doesn’t address in any way the main problems of the small business ecosystem today, which are all about the failure and shrinkage of the  humdrum and repetitive. Small businesses that aren’t intending to become big businesses have a hard time, so American small business numbers have been dropping despite the growth of venture capital. I don’t see how any ideas here can be extended to address that problem, either.

Instead, it talks about the problems of government and institutional investment, and how they want only sure things with solid returns, exactly the wrong emphasis if you want to encourage economic diversity and proliferate new work. They also are usually very bad at finding speculative investments that are likely to succeed. Notably, in the wake of the 2008 crisis, part of the Obama stimulus package tried to do exactly that, mimicking Silicon Valley’s model, and… he got yelled at because some of them failed. Yeah, I think there are reasons why big organizations are risk-averse.

She also asserts that anywhere a city is generating capital and exporting it, that city is systematically neglecting local opportunities. The examples of anti-black and anti-immigrant (Irish) prejudice are illustrative, but not particularly suggestive of a broader pattern. As in some earlier pieces of the work, there is a strong sense of Jacobs’s politics leaking through into her theory in a way that suggests that these things are self-evident. I find it to be a pretty strong claim, so I’m not satisfied with this treatment. From an economic standpoint it’s obvious that racism/sexism/general prejudice are dumb and counterproductive, but that’s the converse of the claim she’s making.

Anyway, it’s a short and lackluster chapter.

Definitely Not the Jungle

The Economy of Cities, chapter 6: How new export work was created in 1968.

This is maybe the least relevant chapter of the book to the modern economy, because the internet (mainly Amazon and Google) have made it almost totally obsolete. It’s divided into two parts: how and why export work gets started in cities de novo, and how and why intraport work  expands into export work.

New Export Work

The discussion about why a new business might start up in a city is extremely dated. There were perfectly good reasons at the time; cities contain many useful goods, like various parts you can use for prototyping and supplies of them in bulk when you want to start production, and many useful services like traveling salesmen who will find you markets, people who will print catalogs for you, and temps to help when your work takes off.

Other than the temps, those are all services available easily and cheaply on the internet; if I was starting up an artisanal widget distribution company in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, I could still get my catalog and website created by a contractor in Topeka whose manager is in Boston and whose software suite is hosted on a server in Mountain View and principally maintained by a programmer in Dubai. You can sell them on Amazon or Etsy! You can find customers through Google Adwords! Why bother being in a city for this?

(Well, I prefer to live in a city, as do many others, and if you think you’ll want more staff soon you might want to start it somewhere that appeals. But that’s not even everyone.)

She provides a list of technical parts, purchased from various suppliers in New York City by a physicist of her acquaintance over the course of a month-long contract project. Then, it looked like this:

From an electronics supply store: one voltage reference diode, five precision  resistors of three different sizes, ten alligator clips, one ordinary resistor, a published collection of electronic industrial circuits, a quantity of insulated copper wire, a dry cell, a small potentiometer,

From a store selling surplus electronics equipment: two precision resistors of still other sizes and a double-pole, double-throw switch,

From a laboratory supplier: a quantity of aluminum sulphate, a specimen jar for crystal growing, glass rod, glass capillary tubing, vacuum grease, epoxy glue,

From a surplus tool store: a screw-threading die,

From a hardware store: two drill bits, a quantity of braided steel wire, silicone sealing cement, screw eyes, two dry cells,

From another hardware store: brass bolts and turn-buckles,

From an industrial hardware store: a drill bit, a hacksaw blade, two fine-threaded large steel bolts and a stainless-steel machinist’s rule,

From a plastics supply house: plexiglass sheets of two different thicknesses,

From the factory of a small manufacturer of specialty wire: a two-foot length of extra-fine stainless-steel wire,

From a machine shop: a soft-iron cone, made to order,

And from outside the city, apparently at great expense in time and effort:

From a scientific supply house: two first-surface mirrors and a special lens,

From an aircraft supply house: rubber O rings of three different sizes

Today? It’s a matter of whether I can get these all on Amazon and how many I need to get from McMaster-Carr instead. In either case, I can have all of these, with the possible exception of the soft-iron cone, delivered to my door within 48 hours if I’m willing to pay for rush shipping. If you have a 3D model of what you want, the cone could be 3D printed and shipped to you in about a week.

So a lot of this is thoroughly outdated. Other parts are not, though. For example, Jacobs observes that the mere fact of local work growing, when the market is big enough, results in extremely thorough specialization. The bigger the market, the better every useful enterprise can subdivide and become uniquely suited to its specific niche.

We see today with the ‘gig economy’ that services are specializing more than previously imaginable; remote food ordering and delivery is spun out into Eat24 and the various competitors, point-to-point driving is spun out into Uber, previously universal chores become TaskRabbit, etc. This is viable only because there are large city populations that can supply work of these kinds pretty much constantly.

Expanding Work to Exports

There are two ways intraports can lead to exports presented; either intraport work can be used as a base to diversify into other work which is exported, or the same goods being sold locally could begin to be sold elsewhere. In the former case, it could be inspired as a logical extension (like the invention of the bra) or just happen to use some of the same expertise or organization; in the latter, it might be a deliberate action by the business or just be customers coming from further afield and buying from them. In either case local intraport work is needed.

Together, these specify three ways of creating export work in a large, diverse city. Jacobs is keen to point out that all depend on existing local work and therefore export growth must necessarily grow from a thriving local economy. This seems true, but doesn’t entirely make the case that it must grow from import replacement, which she seemed to imply earlier. It does suggest by itself that export growth will be sluggish when not preceded by import replacement bursts, which seems to describe reality well.

Sterile Growth

She introduces the caveat that while all import replacement leads to growth,  some is not lastingly useful. As an example, the period of San Francisco’s growth that created Oakland was almost all existing companies bringing branch plants to SF or Oakland, and this was sterile. It created no new local work besides that which had been imported, and because it was all things which were provided to the global economy from elsewhere, it did not provide the capacity for expanding exports in the future and enabled no future bursts of import replacement.

This explains some of the problems with Oakland’s economic history, but seems tailored to fit the evidence a bit. Also, it raises questions in my mind about what, exactly, makes up a ‘city region’. Clearly San Francisco has a city region, but if it does not stretch to Oakland, where does it stretch? Is the Peninsula ‘rural’? Is there a fuzzy dividing line between where SF’s region ends and San Jose’s begins? Near Boston, which is surrounded by a succession of independent cities, are there dozens of very small city regions, or does Boston’s region stretch to New Hampshire, as mentioned earlier in the book? How is this different from Oakland and San Francisco? I am confused. [EDIT: It was pointed out to me that commuting was rarer at this time, and for around half of Oakland’s history up to 1968 the Bay Bridge didn’t exist. (It was completed in 1936.) This goes about halfway to explaining why Oakland should be considered separate; perhaps the next import replacement incident in San Francisco unified them into a single city region, and none had yet happened. I am less confused but still confused. ]

 

Projecting To Today

For the most part, these descriptions aren’t terribly relevant. These days, other than legal boundaries at the state/country level, there’s rarely a reason to move anywhere for proximity to suppliers. Anyone who matters ships nationally and probably globally, and most new work in the modern economy is more dependent on availability of skilled workers than any specific resources.

You will still want to be physically near people you’ll consult with regularly, and near a pool of skilled workers you can hire later on. But desirable locations in the information economy are determined by where people want to be, and people are portable. If you can attract workers to your location, for many purposes it is better to be outside a city. Cities do have a larger existing population of people, and Paul Graham’s article about the ambitions valued by various cities could have been written as a 50-years-on follow-up about why cities are important.

So at a very high level, this isn’t obsolete. But in terms of the specifics? Pretty much all of it is. These will not be insights I’m sharing at a cocktail party any time soon.