20080819

Care and Repair

It seems that Chip Johnson reads V Smoothe; we know the reverse is true. And while I agree with the general thrust of their arguments, it is important to note the research on the relationship between crime and economics is inconclusive, perhaps leaning slightly toward some sort of relationship, though of course it depends on how and what you measure.

Now it's true that Dellums words in this situation were, at best, tone deaf:

"The desperation of these crimes speaks to the broader issue of where we are in terms of this economy. When people become this desperate, they take desperate acts and we have to do everything we can to get to the root causes of crime and violence."

But it's not as if Johnson's source in the article, Frank Zimring, a professor at UC-Berkeley, smacks him down:

"I would be enormously doubtful if that were the case. Robbery is a dreadful way of making money and suggests things that are clearly not cyclical to employment opportunities."

Robbery is a dreadful way of making money, if you are a professor at UC-Berkeley. If, on the other hand, you have few job skills and are surrounded by lots of disorder, well, maybe not so much. Sure the pay is low and the working conditions are difficult, but the hours are pretty good.

And while Zimring cites national crime statistics as not corresponding to the economy, we aren't talking about national crime, we are talking about crime in Oakland. Frankly, I don't care about crime in Kalamazoo. I would think a professor at UC-Berkeley could get his hands on some crime data from Oakland and compare it to economic data in Oakland.

To me, intuitively, it makes sense that crime increases during a recession. Zimring also says, "robbery makes no economic sense, but there is an emotional and recreational reward of dominating people. It's about power." And while the later is likely true, the former is simply silly.

The proper way to think about this, I think, is that right now, in Oakland, the costs of robbery are low relative to the benefits - there are not enough police and the likelihood of getting caught and punished is small, and in addition to getting cash and other fabulous prizes, you get the respect of your peers and the sympathy of the mayor.

This calculus must be changed. But the problem, as I see it and have said before, is that Dellums simply doesn't get cities. He thinks the same sorts of policies that might work at a state and national level will work at the level of a city, and he is wrong. Cities are not just governmental units that are smaller than counties, states, and nations, they are distinctly different. Cities are, much more so than even counties, physical objects, and as such they require care and repair. And because of the way we've organized metropolitan governance in our country, they are also in direct competition with nearby cities. And so, for example, many of the benefits of any jobs created in Oakland would accrue to nearby cities like Alameda, Berkeley, or San Leandro.

Now some of the ways you care for and repair a city is by keeping your streets and parks clean, your infrastructure in good working condition, and by having responsible adults like the police (and, though they freak me out too, the Guardian Angels) around regularly.

And thus you change the calculus. The costs of crime increase, and if you have a mayor that understands that cities are physical objects in addition to collections of people, and demands people treat the city with respect, the benefits will decrease. Behavior once considered acceptable will become less so.

Now mostly this will push the problem into another city. But unfortunately, that is the best a mayor can do. If I could change the way our metro governments are set up I would - heck I'd prefer something closer to city-states, or more precisely, region-states. Certainly I'd like there to be less income inequality, more education and skills training, and more affordable housing options. And I think government can and should play a role in all these goals, and it is currently failing us big time. But if you want to address them go to Sacramento or Washington. Cities need the attitude of an artisan and the embodied knowledge of a craftsman. Cities such as Oakland, need care and repair.

1 comment:

David said...

Actually, we do know for sure that Chip Johnson reads A Better Oakland.