The candidacy of Dave Crockett for mayor of Chattanooga highlights a problem in the idea of local economy and free markets. To what extent does local economy (free, lococentric, decentralized) rely on a mammoth government project (tax funded, centralized)?
By David Tulis / Noogaradio 1240 AM 101.1 FM
Mr. Crockett is a pragmatic and non-ideological booster of free markets who sees in green theory and green design many economies and benefits. But to strengthen local economy and create a unique city-state identity he promises to push for a high-speed rail line between Chattanooga and Atlanta.
The F$15 billion federal public works program would be create train system whose cars would rush somewhere near the 374 mph record set in a test in Japan in October. The fastest operating maglev runs through Shanghai, with top speeds at 268 mph.
A maglev soaks a mug of distance and leaves a teaspoon, making two great American cities neighbors for all who sit in one of its plush seats and spend 30 minutes on a smartphone or reading ever-thinning sections of the Chattanooga Times Free Press on their way south.
Mr. Crockett’s rivals say that his plans “do not add up” (Larry Grohn), or are misfocused because they ignore “low-income affordable housing” (Chris Long), or are mere big talk until “funds become available” (Andy Berke, the Democrat lawyer incumbent). In November Mr. Berke pointed to the necessity for “large-scale federal investment” and said the government in Washington “is not in a position right now to do large-scale infrastructure investments.”
Mr. Crockett says at a news conference at the airport that fast-rail project is “not building a railroad; we’re building a region” and that President Donald Trump favors thinking big, thinking steel.
Mr. Crockett overlooks the bad record for mass transit, of which 98 percent lose money. A loss leader is the Hampton Roads, Va., system that goes into the red F$6.63 per passenger. He argues for a push to start the project on the assumption the U.S. government will issue checks that don’t bounce. Why? He declares a benefit for Chattanooga and “wants to get things done.”
On the back of the maglev train, essentially a wingless jet on the ground, Mr. Crockett proposes to build a decentralized, organic-oriented local economy on what chief rival outside the mayor’s office, Mr. Grohn, calls a “fruit-loops” platform.
The benefits Mr. Crockett sees coming are the raising of airport traffic from about a million passengers a year to about 5 million, with 150 direct flights daily from and to Chattanooga, and bringing “knowledge workers” to the city. Mr. Crockett says the rail would increase convention business in Chattanooga Airport from about 2 percent to 25 percent, as is the case in Charlotte, N.C.
Mr. Crockett is not making his proposals upon thin air. Already F$16 million has been spent studying the proposed rail line along Interstate 75. That’s a pittance, considering the project is 20 years in the making. Mr. Crockett points out at his press conference that it took four mayors to bring Volkswagen to Chattanooga. In some projects a political baton passes from one chief executive to the next, he says, and on this one Mr. Crockett intends to be the one to dart with it across the finish line.
Where is ‘distributed’ economy?
A rail line is a fixed capital investment that is more or less permanent, like a bend in the river, a ridge or a bridge.
The centralized structure would enable, elsewhere in local economy, a continuation of the trend toward distributed, decentralized and digital economy, of which many are already in progress.
➤ Uber is replacing centralized regulated taxi systems.
➤ Airbnb is tearing the heart out of the lodging industry with its capital intensive hotel structures and marketing budgets.
➤ Home education is becoming so common that the initial, courageous impetus of homeschooling pioneers is fading as kitchen-table practices become more generalized.
➤ So poorly do state cartels deliver that Signal Mountain residents are making a step to separate from the Hamilton County school system.
➤ Car dealerships and used car markets have almost entirely decentralized, with sales coming through online networks and not traditional lots with the bored salesman drumming his fingers.
The list could go on.
Centralized or decentralized?
How is Mr. Crockett a genuine lococentrist or Noogacentrist, as he claims, if he favors a federal project spending other people’s money to bring a local benefit? Organic growth is too slow. Population shifts are too slow. Birthrates are too low. High speed rail is the external stimulus, like borrowing lets a family business expand beyond a slower rhythm of growth.
Mr. Crockett’s answer is the benefit comes to Chattanooga. It may be opportunism. It may be taking advantage of a system in which power resides in fiat money, irrational incentives, cartelized capital subsidized by Fed suppression of the real price of credit. But to get the money, the city has to ignore how it got there and the evils of the system.
Mr. Crockett plans for organic local economy and bringing brain- and hand power and populations into Chattanooga, and spreading Chattanoogans southward toward jobs in Atlanta.
But public transit like Amtrak runs at a loss. In the land of the car and the independent American spirit, such systems do not sustain themselves without external props.They do not arise in the marketplace; they are financially irrational. They emerge by sheer willpower and fantasy, by powerplays among well-connected financial and industrial people.
Mr. Crockett admits mass transit usually loses money, but that Chattanooga’s electric bus system is the single exception in the U.S. He is confident a bullet train between Atlanta and Chattanooga is so obviously a “golden opportunity” it will earn money.
A bullet train no doubt would rearrange human activity on a large scale at the two end points. Its effect on ignored parts in the middle — where it seized land by eminent domain — would also be lasting. By rail it takes as much time for a Chattanoogan to get to Atlantan as a Soddy-Daisyian to get to Apison.
Essence of local economy
I would describe the essence of local economy as involving personal economics, small scale and home based businesses, decentralization and localization of markets, agrarian perspectives converting a consumer into one who trades with his neighbors, shopping local vs. shopping national and having a provincial or traditional perspective on life and human institutions that includes family and marriage.
Berne runs a national railroad system in Switzerland, the SBB, yet towns that have a railway station also have regular all-day farmer’s markets, small family run shops, an unwillingness people to relocate and ritualistic mealtimes at home. Swiss villages remain quaint and provincial, despite the Schweizerische Bundesbahnen national network with track and bus line reaching every Alpine village such as Saas Fee.
Mr. Crockett acknowledges that the U.S. interstate system, a wartime public works project, nationalized the states and markets. The interstate delocalized the economy, made it national, its speed of travel enabling vast distances to exist between, say, fields of produce and the table at the end of the line. The interstates cut through mountains over which Indian trails sneaked, and suppressed and made less relevant small local economies.
If not for highways, economies across the 50 states would have remained broken up, more self-sufficient, less vulnerable to the money economy and wonderfully less efficient. The interstate destroys distances, and yet enlarges them at every point, making buyer-seller relationship virtually indifferent to the number of miles (or states) between them.
Smelling smoke, saving the silverware
Pragmatism is the program of pursuing what works or appears to work. But pragmatism really doesn’t work because it neglects underlying questions of morality, equity and the effects of Adam’s fall on human nature. To push for a rail system and hope that it’s built before the collapse comes for the benefit of hometown folk is pragmatic — and perhaps suggestive of leadership that operates not outside the box, but within — within systems so vast, so well reported, so common that we cannot see its malignancy and the threat within to the net worth not just of national government, but every U.S. person.
The rail project seems to be just one more part of the feeding frenzy of Americans, corporations and special-interests upon the body politic that today faces collapse. It faces a seizing up of markets and a collapse of public and international confidence. The F$19 trillion in treasury debt is not going to be paid back. The F$130 trillion that are political and international liabilities are not likely to be honored in the liquidation.
It seems as if Mr. Crockett hopes to get this job done before that happens. He hopes to rush out of front door with the silverware before the burning house collapses across the front porch and steps. The national government’s power to create money is coming almost to a standstill and the unreliably arranged Dow, hitting 20,000 last week, suggest increasing irrationality in the American economy. The irrationality of the national economy is in the casino of credit creation and credit markets that emerged with the rejection of constitutional coin and currency and the reckless interest rate suppression of the Federal Reserve System since 2008.
The push by Mr. Crockett, then, is opportunism with a sense of urgency about to be fiscal condition of the donor. The client, uneasy, ups his game. The urgency is not allayed by a friendly face in Washington, a nationalist and authoritarian chief executive, Mr. Trump, who wants to boost the steel industry, the concrete industry and make America worthy of its claim to empire.
It’s as if Mr. Crockett were saying, “Washington may have us in chains, but it’s willing to pay for our bullet train — and we’re going to make Uncle keep his promise, however much lint lines his pockets.”
The answer to the seeming contradiction in Mr. Crockett’s thinking may lie in the nature of the proposed rail system. It runs on top of the land, atop a rail that it doesn’t touch because of its magnetic levitation. As to land, its construction would require eminent domain action to take land from on uncooperative farmers and holdouts. Like the Internet, maglev or its steel-on-steel alternative try to defeat geography, the slavery of place.
High-speed rail system effectively changes the geography. It is a man-made system as physical as the arrangement of hills, valleys, rivers and plains. High speed rails and interstate highways, speaking hyperbolically, destroy distances, make distances irrelevant. A high-speed rail is a way of taking two dots 15 feet apart and shifting them to the same piece of paper by using the geometric symbol to show that a line between the two points is not being fully drawn, that the line is being foreshortened.
For Atlanta and Chattanooga to be as near as Sale Creek is to downtown Chattanooga effectively eviscerates a real physical distance through miles of hills, forests, fields, towns with their stop signs and speeds traps, flea markets, malls and subdivisions and rhythms in the countryside that define the lives of people who live there.
Geography shapes human affairs more than people realize, according to Robert Kaplan in his book, Revenge of Geography. The rail project pursued by city government seeks to reduce the claims of geography.
Mr. Crockett’s analysis of the future of the country is remarkable among the candidates for its prescience in the nature of the devolution of politics, the dying of the god of the state. He alone takes an interest in the idea of the city-state, a place that would have an “undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity for autonomous self-development,” (to quote Woodrow Wilson, making promises to the Kurds at a conference in Paris). Or, as I call it, a Noogacentric free trade zone that could eventually become an independent city-state, a magnet for industry, talent, home-based 3D printing networks, refugees, driving hard-working people.
To gain scale in the direction Mr. Crockett favors, the city needs to gain population. But a bullet train creates for Chattanooga a nearby twin, Atlanta, already a supercity, a prospective independent region with a southern major center, and a northern. A rail is not organic, but an external, artificial, non-organic stimulus to the human system that is the city of Chattanooga and its people.
— David Tulis hosts a talk show 9 to 11 a.m. each weekday morning at Noogaradio 1240 AM and 101.1 FM, covering local economy and free markets in Chattanooga and beyond.