TRACKING THE FUTURE OF CITIES
“Talent, as opposed to what we are currently taught, is not a ticket to self-interested greed and wealth. It is a gift which entails responsibility towards the rest of society.”
By: Pierre Herman
Cities around the world are becoming increasingly unequal. Post-war changes which saw broad improvements to the quality of life of many are now being reversed and the city is ground-zero for these reversals. Cuts to social spending, stagnant salaries, and catastrophic increases in the cost of living are combining to create a perfect storm, and the result is becoming all too apparent: rising homelessness, hunger and suicides and a spike in violent crime, especially in the US.
Those factors mentioned are hardly coincidences but are a direct result of the policies that guide neoliberal cities today. The property market is thrown unregulated into the ruthless supply-and-demand machine, regardless of where that demand comes from, leaving even the professional class unable to afford decent accommodation. Neoliberal economic policies are designed to pinch wherever possible in an effort to stay “competitive” and reduce the burden on the highest earners and corporate class, leaving local jurisdictions with no choice but to cut in turn. In the UK, these cuts have left many of London’s boroughs unable to afford programmes to help at-risk youth, expand affordable housing, and even keep up basic recycling services. Sustainability is now a luxury concept which many dare not even pay lip service to.
That doing good comes at ones own expense is an idea that continues to display surprising acceptance even among the well-educated
Why do we tolerate this situation? Perhaps it’s because we are all victims of an insidious philosophy that has clouded the minds of many in the capitalist world – the idea that greed and selfishness should be encouraged. You might call it Trickle-down economics or Reaganomics. We all benefit from the fruits of greed’s hard work, so the theory goes. Or you might remember the thoughts of Milton Freedman, who proposed in the 1970s that the only social responsibility of business was to focus all of its activities and efforts on increasing profits.
That doing good comes at one’s own expense is an idea that continues to display surprising acceptance among even the well-educated, and can be seen in action in any competitive city, corporate office or street corner. We may not think about it much, but most of us see no harm in ignoring injustice, poverty or inequality. By default we view our own self-interested actions as correct, and by extension, the self-interested actions of corporations and the wealthy (who many of the middle class admire and would like to join) are seen as correct as well.
With the rise of the 1%, the long-term consequences of this kind of philosophy are becoming clear. Self-interest has become global-scale fraud, where corporations can claim to be unprofitable and therefore avoid taxes even though its chief-executives have paid themselves multi-million dollar or pound salaries and pensions. In many cases, profits are simply undeclared and siphoned off to private off-shore banks. Bankers themselves earn enough to pay some smaller countries national debts simply by playing with money which never existed or by trading stock of companies whose earnings come from the pillage and sale of natural resources, the true cost of which is “externalized” onto the environment and future generations, or by exploiting its workforce and even using slave labour.
Greed can only be good for so long. Corporate profits and private wealth are now so concentrated that what’s trickling down is inadequate to maintain a sustainable, socially equitable population. What is perhaps needed are not only laws to reverse the concentration of wealth now being witnessed, but a change in the cultural acceptance of greed.
Japan might not be the haven of equality it once was, but corporate heads and CEOs there still earn only one-sixth of their peers in the US, where the average CEO earns 319 times as much as the average worker.
And we might do well to look East. Japan might not be the haven of equality it once was, but corporate heads and CEOs there still earn only one-sixth of their peers in the US, where the average CEO earns 319 times as much as the average worker. It comes down to a single word: shame. To the Japanese, it would simply be shameful, immodest or too individualist to take home an inflated salary compared to one’s fellow company workers. It’s this very shame that has been lost in our acceptance of greed and it is perhaps a good dose of shame that we need to reintroduce into Western culture as well. If we cannot overcome our greed because we truly believe in equality, the way Scandinavians might, then we can at least begin by calling out shameless greed and exploitation for what it is, and announcing that it will no longer be tolerated.
What we also need is to nurture a culture of what we might call moral leadership. We have become a society of aspiring megalomaniacs where wealth at almost any cost to society (or the environment) is justified. This must be reversed. There are good corporate (and political) leaders out there, we must find them and highlight them as models. For example, those who take pay cuts to avoid lay-offs or who manage a company in ways which prolong and improve employment for those who work for it.
Talent, as opposed to what we are currently taught, is not a ticket to self-interested greed and wealth. It is a gift which entails responsibility towards the rest of society. This responsibility is being shunned but it must reinvigorated, promoted and rewarded, because only a monumental shift in our collective moral compass can bring about a socially and environmentally sustainable future.
Pierre Herman is a teacher, thinker, writer and recent graduate of the MA Sustainable Cities programme at King’s College London. He currently lives in south London.