It ain’t what you “don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Mark Twain(Samuel L. Clemens)
I’ve always maintained that they flowering of any political system within a country can be found in its cities. For me, the healthy products of capitalist, socialist and autocratic governance can be seen in the health of their urban areas. It’s as if the cities act as a kind of barometer, measuring the effectiveness of a political system. Ineffective governments yield cities that are often rife with crime, at times squalid… basically unpleasant places to live. Successful governing systems tend to yield liveable, communal, vibrant city centres. I contend that if I was plonked down into a city, without any knowledge of which country I’m in, I could accurately determine the type of political system that is used in the country within which that city exists.
It has been through my travels that I was first driven to formulate my theory about the dynamic relationship between cities and political systems. And, also came to believe that a city is the flowering of a country’s system of governance. Sir David Adjaye wrote, “The city is civilization’s greatest creation and its most intriguing dilemma.” A dilemma because cities are high density groupings of citizens and if the system is faulty then problems become like infections that quickly spread through your body… soon leading to chaos and dangerous situations. Looking to my neighbouring country, United States of America, I see a political system gone awry. A country ruled by elites and political leaders (essentially, an oligarchy) with fierce belief in Capitalism combined with a streak of libertarianism. This has led to a country that wants to maximize political freedom and personal autonomy (the origins of the U.S. tells a large part of this philosophy as the ‘founding fathers’ were framing their political system in a way that would avoid any whiff of monarchism or autocratic rule that they had left behind in Europe). These founders largely believed in the goodness of citizens. After all, many were influenced by the early settlers of America, the Puritans. These religious people believed that their golden rule of “doing onto others as you’d have them do onto you” would somehow mitigate the negative aspects of selfish economic forces inherent in the theory that the ‘invisible hand’ of the market will fairly determine the access to and division of wealth. Due to a lack of regulations and effective oversight the country has become a bastion of so-called freedom – but only superficially, at least. No one predicted the dominance of the “Me Generation” beginning in the 1970’s and still strong today. As a result there is a mentality of a “stand your ground”, gun-carrying populace, out for themselves, rabidl chasing an increasingly elusive ‘American Dream’… predominately a chase for wealth…thereby rising above one’s economic situation in life. A “me” vs. “we” society where cities are not safe at night, infrastructure crumbles and poverty is common.
My conviction that a city reflects a political system was firmly established by one memorable trip. In 1994 I traveled through Chicago with a tourist guide. We skirted around forty projects (subsidized housing developments) in the south side of the city. My guide said that five of those projects were virtually lawless and run by gangs –police would only enter them if they had substantial back up. These housing projects were built in the 1930’s to replace unliveable parts of the city and also for war veterans by the Chicago Housing Authority. Their history looks like a futile effort yielding the same result : they were originally built to replace slums, only to become new slums. Today they are 69% African-American, 27% Latino, and only 4% white. I saw high-rises with dilapidated structures, broken windows and very little green spaces. What I saw, emotionally, was a failed system. I concluded that the system was at fault. Without changing the form of governance the result would be the same…reminding me of that definition of insanity: doing the same things while expecting different result.
Capitalism vs. Socialism
As I continued my youthful travels in northern Europe and Sweden, I began to see the fruits of countries with strong welfare support systems and Socialist tendencies. The fundamental difference between unfiltered Capitalism and Socialism can be summed up as follows:
‘Capitalism’ allows for capital wealth: money and resources), industry and trade to be controlled by private individuals and companies. It’s a dog eat dog world of fierce competition (where the winner takes all in many cases.) The government has limited involvement in society.
‘Socialism’ tries to ensure that industry and trade are controlled and regulated by, and for, the community as a whole. The simplistic comparison comes down to one system for “me” versus another for “we”.
A former philosophy professor and mentor of mine put the whole comparison in an even simpler picture. First, consider life as a 100 yard race. In a pure capitalist system, everyone starts at the beginning line. Various forms of socialist welfare states move the starting line up a few yards. Canada, as one example, with some socialist tendencies, puts the starting line 20 yards up from the beginning point. More extreme socialist countries push the starting line further and further up the race course. The Nordic countries of Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway have strong socialist policies and their citizens get to start around the 50 yard line… everyone has reasonable housing costs, free education, free health care, etc. Their lives are already heavily subsidized , supported and made easier. Jacob (my mentor) used to joke that the Communists (extreme socialism of sorts) wants everyone to finish the 100 yards at the same time, which of course failed to account for individual efforts and merit (the systems in USSR and China failed – they soon adopted a strange mix of socialism and capitalism tinged with a heavy dose of cronyism between the political and business elites). The governing structure for the Communists was based upon the workers/proletariat uniting under an autocratic ruling party. Their famous slogan, from Karl Marx, “From each according to his/her ability, to each according to his/her needs.” It all sounded good, but proved to be a failed experiment.
Getting back to my ‘me’ versus ‘we’ philosophy of governing, the crux of this essay is to see if we can determine which approach works best? I suggest, that one ‘measure is the health of a country’s cities.’ Another measure is the ‘well-being and happiness of its citizens’. And, perhaps most importantly, how do you ‘get people from opposite ends of the spectrum to see the value of the opposite approach’. How do we find a middle ground, if necessary… or how do we change our system for the benefit of the country? And, adopt a more effective system.
Most Liveable Cities
The Economist Intelligence Unit releases an annual “Global Liveability Index”. It measures the liveability of cities in the world. The judgement is based upon metrics of crime rates, healthcare quality, culture, transportation options, infrastructure, climate and levels of corruption. The highlights of the results for 2018 are as follows:
The number one city was Vienna in Austria. I had dinner with a friend of mine wo has two sons living in Vienna. They both love living there despite paying 50% of their earnings in taxes. Canada has 3 cities in the top 20 – Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto. Australia and New Zealand had 5 cities in the top 20 including, Auckland, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne (a perennial No.1 but placed No.2 this time). The Nordic country capitals all placed in the top 32. Significantly, almost all of the top cities cited above are found in countries with Socialist characteristics – with strong welfare systems in place, and high tax rates.
Also worth noting is the fact that the U.S. did ‘not’ place one city in the top 20. The rich mostly stay out of inner cities in the U.S. and often live in gated communities. I think it’s safe to say that there is a connection between socialist tendencies in a country and the health of its cities.
Speaking of the U.S., and its failure to create liveable cities, it’s important to note the rise of the so-called one percent – those people that control the vast majority of the country’s wealth. This phenomenon started back in the late 1950’s when the concentration of wealth accelerated into a handful of fewer and fewer people and companies. A lot of this was caused by the build-up of military might and the dominance of elite families. In 1961 (in his farewell address to the nation) President Dwight Eisenhower warned about the threat to democratic government posed by the emergence of a powerful military-industrial complex. This combination of defense contractors and the armed forces controlled unimaginable wealth (note: the U.S. spends more on defense than that spent by the next seven countries combined!). Many people have benefited from this huge allocation of federal funds. Over the last sixty years wealth has continued to concentrate into fewer and fewer hands. The result is a country that is dangerously close to becoming an ‘oligarchy’. Just look at the original cabinet of the current President Donald Trump – it was full of non-elected billionaires and some military personnel. In Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address he said, “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.”
This trend wasn’t always so. President John F. Kennedy was aware of a different reality. In a trip to Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1962 he gave a famous speech about liberty he said, in honouring the U.S. Constitution, that it “stressed not only independence but interdependence – not the individual liberty of one but the indivisible liberty of all.” This was a President with an eye on the future, in short, a man with vision. Unfortunately, we never saw the fruits of this man’s ideas. I believe he would have ushered in a far different looking country.
Well-being and Happiness
Another interesting report, published in 2018, was the “World Happiness Report.” This document is designed to consider six key variables in determining its results: 1) income; 2) health and life expectancy; 3) social support; 4) freedom; 5) trust; and 6) generosity. These variables were then combined with the “Gallop World Poll” which measures fourteen areas: 1) business and economy; 2) citizen engagement; 3) communication and technology; 4) diversity (social issues); 5) education; 6) emotions/well-being; 7) environment; 8) food and shelter; 9) government and politics; 10) law and order (safety); 11) health; 12) religion and ethics; 13) transportation; and 14) work.
Here are the results:
1. Finland (had the happiest citizens)
8. New Zealand
Note: U.S.A. #18
Notice anything about the top10? How about the fact that they all have universal health care, strong social and economic “safety nets”, business regulations, and high taxes… all socialist tendencies. Is it a coincidence that their citizens are the happiest on the planet? I don’t think so. My overall thesis that the best countries in the world, where the cities are vibrant and safe, and the citizens are the happiest have all embraced socialism in one form or another. Now the question is, how does a country change its system of governance to a more “we” vs “me” kind of ethic?
Changing Minds, Changing Societies - It’s The Taxes Stupid!
I am often very dismissive of conservative political viewpoints – right wing stances (full disclosure). Looking at the U.S. one sees a faction of the population that wants as little government interference in their life as possible. This belief in limited government involvement in America is almost religious. Whether it’s the right to bear arms, taxes, regulations affecting industry, language correctness, etc. these people resist change and hold onto their traditional values and attitudes… especially when it comes to political parties and taxes. Families that have been Republicans for generations are not uncommon. Convincing them to vote for a left-wing candidate just ain’t going to happen. It’s not stupidity as much as stubbornness and fanatical beliefs… and the persistent mythology of freedom, which includes low taxes. I often quote John Stuart Mill who defended himself for being incorrectly accused of calling conservatives “stupid”. “I never meant to say that all Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid persons are generally Conservative.”
If my thesis about the general effectiveness, and superiority, of Socialistic practices is governing nations is correct, then people who resist it are certainly mistaken in their loyalty to right-wing policies and politicians. But how can you change their minds?
Here’s a quote that helps to understand the general attitude of conservatives that abhor the idea of society helping the less fortunately. “if we are here to help others, I often wonder what the others are here for,” said Tommy Dewar of the fabulously wealthy Dewar Scotch (family) company. People like Tommy Dewar are often self-made folks who believe they can do just fine without any government help (read “interference) and, especially, tax levies. Social justice is anathema in their world. Meanwhile old Tommy actually inherited his money and privilege position thanks to his father John Dewar…so much for a self-made man!
The real problem of changing people like Tommy Dewar lies in an almost intractable tendency of most people called “confirmation bias.” Most people enjoy having their views confirmed, not questioned. We also tend to socialize with like-minded people resulting in our views becoming more extreme. In his book “A Higher Loyalty”, James Comey writes that ‘confirmation bias’ is “one of the most powerful and disconcerting forces in human nature.” Later in the book he goes on to say, “our brains have evolved to crave information consistent with what we already believe. We seek and focus on facts and arguments that support our beliefs. More worrisome, when we are trapped in confirmation bias, we may not consciously perceive facts that challenge us, that are inconsistent with what we already concluded…we simply can’t change our minds.” (the fact that Donald Trump can still get 35% of Americans believing his lies and accepting his worldview is proof enough of the ‘confirmation bias’ phenomenon). Comey presents a pretty sad picture for anyone trying to convince someone that their beliefs are in fact wrong. Where does that leave us in convincing people that their right-wing views, as an example, are wrong-headed…and as a whole, ineffective in creating a healthy, happy society?
Reports like the Global Liveability Index and the World Happiness Report will be mostly dismissed by right-wing pundits and people alike…if they ever even read them.
For me, I increasingly have faith in the youth of tomorrow to make radical changes. After seeing how my generation, the boomers, dealt things like income equality and with climate change*, they will not trust the ruling classes and will vote them out…assuming democracy survives. Let’s hope we heed the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary.”
This essay has been the closest to a polemic as I’ve even written – I strongly hold my views about systems of governance that work. My examples of two reports in this essay prove my thesis. Whether the world moves in a Socialist direction or continues to devolve into strong-man led states is open to question…an enlightened end will only occur when people will open-up to change. This will only happen when people listen to St. Francis, “Let me not seek as much…to be understood as to understand.” Only then will they conclude that, “Taxes are what you pay for a civilized society,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes said.. Yes, it’s the taxes stupid! A recent Globe and Mail Editorial (Sat. Feb. 9/19 – pg. 10) wrote “the core of the Democratic Party, including its major candidates for President in 2020, is embracing the idea of tackling the country’s enormous challenges of poverty, inequality, education and health by raising the governments capacity to spend…it’s not a crazy idea, because the United States has a serious tax problem. The problem is that its taxes are too low.”**
My wish is that my grand-children will have the opportunity to live in a world where the proclamation that “all men/women are created equal” is self-evident and actually yields true equality, and the right to well-being, freedom and the pursuit of happiness for all. An enlightened world that might look like the one described by a mayor of Bogota, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It is where the rich use public transportation.”
*Every person on the planet (children in particular) should watch the Ted Talk by Greta Thunberg. I truly believe that this young woman might galvanize the youth of today to do what my generation failed to do in combatting climate change…i.e. Do something about it.
** There are some reason for optimism - maybe we are seeing some signs of change in the U.S. most candidates for the Democratic nomination for President have adopted some of the platforms of the self-proclaimed Socialist Bernie Sanders. Others are proposing a Green Deal designed to address climate change and economic inequality. Perhaps, even my government will listen to their liberal compatriates in the U.S. and stop buying oil pipelines and leave dirty oil in the ground!