Friday, August 29, 2014

Tools of power and power over tools

My friends on the left often advocate the use of public powers that have been used (or were originally intended) to suppress causes they would have sympathised with. Examples include occupational licensing, closed shop union legislation, the minimum wage, and urban planning.

The reconstruction of Paris between 1853 and 1869 by Haussmann and Napoleon was designed to control uprisings by breaking up and moving working-class neighbourhoods and facilitating troop movement though the city, but it also aimed to make Paris manageable for bureaucrats, planners, businesses, and tax collectors, and more comfortable for the bourgeoisie.

The intent of city plans is to make a city and its neighbourhoods understandable to those tasked with administering them. Poor neighbourhoods with complex streets, housing arrangements, and social relationships are likely administered by a college-educated planner who, odds are, has very little experience with how the poor live.

Asymmetrical access to power includes the power to create and implement plans, resulting in plans that demolish poor (though, according to their residents, functioning) minority neighbourhoods like Black Bottom in Detroit or Africville in Halifax, far more frequently than the neighbourhoods of better enfranchised residents.

The hope is that tools like urban planning can be used for good, but the ability to turn them back to their original intent shouldn't be ignored given the state's history of structural discrimination in support of the status quo.


This post was inspired by my ongoing reading of Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Declare Independence

It seems like you're supposed to feel old as you leave your twenties, but getting older is actually pretty awesome. If you have the right attitude about your twenties you'll love them but you'll never want to do that again. It's the perfect time to figure out what kind of person you are and the type of person you want to be. The things that happen are important, formative, fun, and exhausting. You make mistakes because you're supposed to make mistakes. Be smart. Learn from them. You'll be fine.

Today I'm 30 years old. I'm an early millennial. We grew up in the dying days of the way things used to be - and everyone's exasperated with us for it.

People develop theories about how the world should work. They don't like randomness, especially when it comes to failure. They want explanations and to be able to point to something that "went wrong." There was, therefore, a formula for a successful life:

        • study hard 
        • extracurriculars
        • get into good school
        • go to good school
        • study useful topic
        • get good, stable job
        • ??? (inserted as the futility became more obvious)
        • grown up!

Millennials attended elementary and high school under the long and fading shadow of what success used to look like, then saw it pass over us completely. We're the generation whose lives ended all illusions that the old model might pull through. Without it nobody seems to know what success should look, but they don't seem happy that they can't recognize what we're doing. We don't conform to old expectations: we don't get married earlywe don't buy carswe don't buy homes. We don't do the things that people think we ought to do when they think we ought to do them to make things the way they think they ought to be because that's they way they've always been! (It's not, but nevermind.)

Those aren't the only expectations we don't fulfill. Governments and banks do not deal well with change, and we're changing things. The forms for the lives we're choosing aren't standard. When you need to provide a permanent address, what do you do if it's on the road, or in a van? Gay marriage has extended legal equality to another type of committed, long-term relationship, but it's not like everyone's covered. Like the flexibility of contract work? (I do!) Get ready to learn about the obscure side of a tax system that's designed to handle one employer with matching employee tax forms using pre-calculated, automatic deductions.

Millennials are figuring out how to set our own course, but it feels like the world is trying harder than ever to entrench standardized systems for interchangeable pieces into which we just. don't. fit. The longer we try to achieve a version of success designed by people who think they know what's best for us better than we do, the longer we'll flounder.

We have different ideas of what life ought to look like - we want things to be the way we think they should be. And, by the way, that's not demanding and obnoxious. That's awesome. It's an attitude that can drive change and make things more responsive. It rejects stagnation. It can make things better. Let's want that. Let's not settle out of fear of seeming spoiled.

Let's stop looking backward and choose to move forward. Let's define success at the individual level. The old convention of a stable, lifelong job is over for nearly everyone. Maybe the key lesson for a generation at which so much negativity has been directed is to worry less about what other people think our success ought to be. Life isn't about control. You don't need all the answers to live it. Life is about figuring them out. The longer you work toward it, the further you'll get.

So I guess it's a good thing I'm 30. Happy birthday to me.