Thursday, January 17

Cleveland: Playing Witness to an Economic Malthusian Trap

Just a little thought about Cleveland. The endless butt of late-night TV jokes and the poster-child for the sub-prime mortgage lending crises offers, in my opinion, a fascinating study of the perils of de-industrialization and de-regulation upon the human psyche. The urban Clevelander's generalized apathy towards acquiring education, modern technological tools and, among a certain subset of the population, legitimate remunerative employment can be seen as a predictable response within the framework of Malthus' theory - often referred to as a Malthusian Trap.

When applied in an economic sense, this theory - which states that the peaking of production will limit returns to human beings and, in turn, reduce the quality of living - has already played through most of it's course in the urban center and inner-ring suburbs of Cleveland, the areas most dependant in the past upon unskilled resource-conversion and labor-intensive production work. When the economic returns to workers fall below the costs to acquire the basic trappings of subsidence (which in our day-and-age are warped by a commercially saturated media environment) an interesting psychological break can occur which can lead down many paths, the most dangerous of which delivered the world a German society primed for the hateful rhetoric of Hitler in the waning years of the 1930's.

My own experiences as a wayward slacker in Cleveland, and amongst the people who find themselves staring up from the bottom of Cleveland's proverbial dry well, have shown a direct correlation between belief in the ability to achieve success - and the actuation required to reach such goals. Surviving in some neighborhoods of Cleveland's inner-ring suburbs, the ones that most middle-class suburban (read: privileged white) folks merely drive past on the highway, requires life skills most commonly seen in third-world countries and areas devastated by war. The mere act of survival amongst the predatory thieves, mal-educated dunces and disabled or depressed individuals usurps any energy that remains after the struggle to keep food on the table and a roof over your head. After being failed by the city's corrupted public-education system, swindled by unregulated loan sharks, and left to fight over whatever scraps of employment remain for the city - the incentives to work harder, better or faster become ironic jokes to the hundreds of thousands who've literally been left-behind in the flight to the suburbs and exurbs. Solutions to this problem have inexorably focused on poorly managed re-training or re-education programs (of little use if no foundation of education exists in the first place) which generally just plaster neighborhoods and buses with advertising, serving as an underhanded reminder of the community's failures, as well as an easy buck to fatten the wallets of the advertising company.

My own suggestions for solving these widespread problems are decidedly pie-in-the-sky, and go against many of the basic tenets of liberty in terms of enforcing the rigid structure necessary to break free from the psychological hold of being mired in failure. Mostly, I can only imagine an intensive, incentive-based program of neighborhood revitalization that trains under-employed or never-employed youths in three basic areas - home repair, environmental stewardship and artistic expression. Similar to the Works Progress Administration programs in place during the end of the Great Depression, my dream programs would focus on improving public space (roads, sidewalks, adding parks, public art and public gardens) as well as improving private space (rebuilding porches, landscaping homes, repainting exteriors, repairing gutters and interior areas as well). These programs would come with odious three-strike participation clauses, but re-entry would not be barred, merely delayed, by a failure to uphold the standards of participation. They would have to include a healthy dose of optimism, while instilling the habits of success in each participant. In perhaps the most important and democratic side of the programs, all regional communities would participate in providing post-program support through internships, technology training, business training and scholarships - allowing a dialogue to open between the sidelined and the successful in our community.

By supporting individuals within a framework that allows for a snow-balling of accomplishment, I believe that both the city-at-large, and the people who suffer in hopelessness can achieve what years of pessimistic, politically expedient "solutions" have failed to reach. Urban revitalization, attitude adjustment and a reallocation of will.

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