The Strong Towns Podcast
Gabrielle Gurley: For Transit, “The Cuts are Coming”

Gabrielle Gurley: For Transit, “The Cuts are Coming”

January 18, 2021

Most American transit systems were fragile before the pandemic—struggling for revenue, dependent for survival on federal money, inadequate fares, debt, and, in some cases, donations from local businesses. The pandemic has exacerbated these problems and turned existing transit models on their heads.

In late December, Gabrielle Gurley, a deputy editor at The American Prospect, wrote an article about how transit systems have responded to the pandemic. “Most operators have mastered the virus precautions, requiring masks, social distancing, and deep-cleaning and disinfecting,” she wrote. “Some have coped better than others, though, in rethinking how to serve passengers who are no longer living in 9-to-5 worlds, and accepting the new realities about how to retain and secure funding at a time when Republican elected officials have blocked any federal response since last spring.” A survey last fall found the majority of transit agencies plan to cut service to close funding gaps.

Gurley is our guest on this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast. She talks with host Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, about the convulsive effects 2020 had on American transit systems, how the transit experience has changed, and why the politics of transit funding is so challenging. They also discuss the cuts many agencies have planned (or have already implemented), how transit funding reflects what we value as a society, and how the pandemic will change spending priorities from expansion to taking care of basics. As Gurley says, “As nice as it would be to have a spiffy, high-speed train going from DC to New York in two hours…maybe we fix the [leaky] tunnel first.”

Additional Show Notes

Matthew Yglesias: The Case for One Billion Americans (Part 2)

Matthew Yglesias: The Case for One Billion Americans (Part 2)

January 11, 2021

Last week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast featured the first half of the conversation between Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, and Matt Yglesias, the bestselling author of One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking  Bigger. Yglesias is the host of The Weeds podcast and cofounder of Vox Media. He recently launched the blog and newsletter Slow Boring.

In Part 1, Yglesias made the case for tripling the U.S. population, discussing how it would make America stronger at the community level and as a whole. Now in Part 2, Marohn and Yglesias talk about why the concept might be especially good for small towns and depopulated Rust Belt cities, how Yglesias addresses concerns about gentrification, and what needs to change about our economics and development pattern in order for “one billion Americans“ to be a prosperity-generating change rather than a prosperity-killing one. They also discuss Yglesias’s recent article on fixing the mass transit crisis.

Additional Show Notes:

Matthew Yglesias: The Case for One Billion Americans (Part 1)

Matthew Yglesias: The Case for One Billion Americans (Part 1)

January 4, 2021

Does the United States have too few people? It’s a provocative question—but one perhaps not asked often enough. And journalist Matthew Yglesias has an even more provocative answer.

In his new bestselling book, One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, Yglesias makes the case for tripling the American population. The U.S. is not “full,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “Many of its iconic cities—including not just famous cases of collapse like Detroit but also Philadelphia and Chicago and dozens of smaller cities like Rochester and Erie—actually have fewer residents than they had decades ago. And virtually all of our thriving cities easily have room to grow and accommodate more people.” As things stand now, he says, the United States is “staring down the barrel of inevitable relative decline.” The economies of China and India are growing quickly and threaten America’s position as the world’s leading power. And there are compelling domestic reasons for growing the population too.

Matthew Yglesias is the special guest on this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast. (It’s our first podcast of 2021, and the first of a two-part interview.) Yglesias is the host of The Weeds podcast and cofounder of Vox Media, and he recently launched the new blog and newsletter Slow Boring. In this episode, he talks with Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn about why population growth would make the U.S. stronger—not just at the international level but as a “community of communities.” They also discuss why the idea of one billion Americans is actually a centrist one, why it doesn’t have to be an environmental disaster, and how it can get done.

Part 2 of the interview will run next week. But we think by the end of this episode you’ll see why Chuck named One Billion Americans one of the best books he read in 2020.

Additional Show Notes:

John Pattison: From Slow Food to Slow Church

John Pattison: From Slow Food to Slow Church

December 14, 2020

In 1986, the Italian journalist Carlo Petrini organized a protest of the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Holding bowls of penne pasta, the protestors chanted, “We don’t want fast food, we want slow food.”

By one standard, the protest was unsuccessful: the McDonald’s opened as planned. (It was apparently such a big deal that teenagers “nearly stormed the restaurant, stopping traffic and causing havoc in the streets.”) Yet not all was lost, because out of that demonstration was birthed Slow Food, an international movement that now has 150,000 members worldwide. Slow Food helps save endangered foods and food traditions, promotes local food and drink, and re-educates industrialized eaters on how to enjoy real food again. We’re so far removed from where our food comes from that we literally have to re-learn how to taste.

Slow Food has also gone on to inspire other Slow movements, including Slow Money and Slow Cities. While these movements differ in subject, scope, and strategy, what they have in common is their opposition to what the sociologist George Ritzer described as McDonaldization, or “the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society.” Ritzer identified four core values of McDonaldization:

  1. Efficiency
  2. Predictability
  3. Calculability (a focus on countable results)
  4. and Control, which runs through all the others.

Food, money, and cities aren’t, of course, the only areas of life to have ceded ground to the “cult of speed.” According to Strong Towns content manager John Pattison, the North American church has proven just as susceptible as the rest of culture to the promises of McDonaldization. That’s why for the better part of a decade, John and his friend Chris Smith have been exploring and promoting the concept of “Slow Church.” A Slow Church is a faith community deeply rooted in the pace and place of its neighborhood, a church working with neighbors to weave a fabric of care in their particular place. Together, John and Chris wrote the book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.

In this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast—the final episode of 2020—Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn invited John to talk about Slow Church and how the Slow Church and Strong Towns conversations overlap. They discuss what it means to be a “slow church,” the importance of proximity, why human beings are “called to community,” and what a polarized country can learn from the stunning diversity among Jesus’ apostles. They also talk about how churches are working in their neighborhoods, "grocery aisle accountability," and how—led by churches—John’s town has made eating together part of the community fabric.

Additional Show Notes:

Chris Bernardo: Filling the Gaps to Support Local Businesses

Chris Bernardo: Filling the Gaps to Support Local Businesses

December 7, 2020

It happens all the time: there are certain things entrepreneurs and commercial property owners know they need in their business district to really thrive—a relentless approach to maintenance, a high level of cleanliness, increased public safety, splashes of beauty, physical improvements, etc.—yet their town or city can’t afford to provide them.

How to fill those gaps? For an increasing number of places, the answer is to form a business improvement district. Business improvement districts are designed to help close the gaps in communities without the tax base to provide the services and improvements essential for economic development.

Today’s guest on the Strong Towns podcast is an expert on business improvement districts. Chris Bernardo is president and CEO of Commercial District Services, a Jersey City-based firm that manages business improvement districts in New York and Bernardo's native New Jersey. In this episode, Bernardo and Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talk about why many cities don’t have the resources to keep a place looking good and working well, how that hurts businesses, and why business improvement districts are a powerful and flexible solution. They contrast how cities usually approach maintenance with how Disney theme parks approach maintenance. And they talk about why the business improvement district is a pragmatic and practical model more cities should be utilizing.

Additional Show Notes

Just Print the Money

Just Print the Money

November 30, 2020

Back in August, New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) warned of a “doomsday” scenario—including fare hikes and service cuts—if the federal government didn’t come through with $12 billion in aid. Writing about the MTA crisis, Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn said that, if he ran the money printing press, the transit agency would get the money. But he also talked about how preposterous it is that it should ever have gotten to this point. New York City has the most valuable real estate in the nation. Why is the fate of the city, and indeed the whole New York region, being left for non-New Yorkers to decide? How could New Yorkers have let this happen?

In today’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Chuck approaches New York’s financial woes—as well as other crises (insolvent pension funds, student loan debts, crumbling infrastructure, and more)—from a different angle. He discusses why the changes that need to be made to fix our cities won’t come about in a culture whose solution is “Just print the money.”

He also talks about how money has increasingly become an abstraction, the two elements—liquidity and narrative—needed to prop up a system of a financial abstractions, and what happens when even one of those elements falters. For example, what happens when an increasingly polarized country can’t agree on a narrative to justify printing money to solve problems like the MTA crisis, student loans, etc.? How do we say “Just print the money” to pay the bills coming due for the decades-long suburban experiment, when we can’t agree on competing versions of history, morality, and the place of the United States in the world?

Chuck ends with a deceptively simple suggestion for how to push back against encroaching abstraction...and begin building stronger towns in the process.

Additional Shownotes: 

Stacy Mitchell: Fighting for Small Businesses and Strong Local Economies

Stacy Mitchell: Fighting for Small Businesses and Strong Local Economies

November 23, 2020

COVID-19 has been brutal for small businesses. Back in September, data from Yelp showed that nearly 100,000 businesses had closed for good. That was two-and-a-half months ago...and many experts believe the next few months will be even worse for small businesses.

A global pandemic was going to be destructive no matter what, but it’s clear now that small businesses were on a weak footing to start with. Why? That’s the topic on this episode of the Strong Towns podcast...and there’s no guest better able to help us make sense of it than Stacy Mitchell.

Mitchell is the co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the director of its Independent Business Initiative. She’s the author of Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses, and coauthor of “Amazon’s Stranglehold: How the Company’s Tightening Grip on the Economy Is Stifling Competition, Eroding Jobs, and Threatening Communities.” Her writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, The Nation, Bloomberg, and other major outlets. Mitchell has testified before Congress on the monopoly power of dominant tech platforms. In April, she was the subject of a New York Times profile, “As Amazon Rises, So Does the Opposition.”

In this episode, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn welcomes Stacy Mitchell back to the podcast to talk about the concerns she had before the pandemic — corporate consolidation, tech monopolies, how corporate giants were using their size and political clout to muscle out small businesses — and why those concerns are even more acute now. They discuss how small businesses have adapted in extraordinary ways to the challenges of coronavirus, yet still face huge obstacles, including a federal policy response that is printing money for big businesses but has done comparatively little for small businesses. They talk about how Amazon is “fundamentally anti-competitive,” the damage done by Amazon to startups and small businesses, and what it might look like if Congress breaks up the tech behemoth.

Marohn and Mitchell also discuss why it is distorting to think about Americans primarily as “consumers.” Before we are consumers, we are members of a community, citizens in a democracy, and people trying to build a good life for ourselves and our families.

 

Additional Show Notes:

A Time for Local Action

A Time for Local Action

November 16, 2020

Our members volunteer more. They vote more. They get involved more. In a world of political polarization and paralyzed governance, they are the credible advocates out there getting things done. I love these people. All of them.

This is our Member Week. I know that 2020 has been brutal and that many of you are not in a position to support us. That’s okay -- you get yourself strong, do what you can, and support the people in this movement in the ways you are able.

If you are in a position to take that step, become a member of Strong Towns today. Be part of the change that America needs right now. Support others who are doing the work. Help grow this bottom-up revolution by joining a movement that is breaking through and changing the entire narrative of what it means to build a good life in a prosperous place.

Becoming a member of Strong Towns is a key step to taking action. Going to our website and signing up to become a member, joining with thousands of others who are out there taking action, supporting them through this movement, is a gateway to doing great things.

Blake Pagenkopf: Rebooting Our Political Operating System

Blake Pagenkopf: Rebooting Our Political Operating System

November 9, 2020

In many PCs, the first software to run after hitting the power button is called BIOS (Basic Input-Output System). BIOS loads the computer’s operating system and the individual settings that make your personal computer so...personal. A malfunction at this most basic level leads to a cascade of other problems, including error messages, poor performance, or refusing to boot at all.

It’s important to get the foundational things right, and not just in our computers. For too long, says Blake Pagenkopf, author of The Structure of Political Positions, our political discourse has been hobbled by a fundamental error—an error not just in our language but in the structures beneath that language. In particular, we tend to locate ourselves and others as points on a single line, a Left-Right spectrum. But this one-dimensional paradigm is too limiting. There are too many data points that fall outside the conventional Left-Right political modes, says Pagenkopf. We need to reboot our politics with a fuller, richer way to frame our political disagreements. We need to upgrade our political BIOS.

In today’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Pagenkopf about why we must transition from a one-dimensional view of political positions to a two-dimensional view—with a Values Axis (the familiar Left-Right/Liberal-Conservative line) but also a Power Axis, from “centralized” at the top to “citizen-based” below.

Marohn and Pagenkopf talk about how Pagenkopf’s background in architecture helped him think differently about political positions, and why the current approach obscures opportunities to work together...and delegitimizes some people altogether. They talk about why the Strong Towns movement is one part of a larger “meta-movement” that doesn’t fit traditional liberal-conservative modes. And they discuss how a two-dimensional view reveals surprising bright spots in our politics, right when we need them most.

Additional Show Notes:

Denise Hearn: The Myth of Capitalism

Denise Hearn: The Myth of Capitalism

November 2, 2020

Every year, Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn releases a list of the best books he read that year. Past lists have included books that shaped the Strong Towns conversation in profound ways: Chris Arnade’s Dignity (2019), Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (2017), Cognitive Architecture, by Ann Sussmann and Justin Hollander (2017), and Tomas Sedlacek’s Economics of Good and Evil (2016), to name just a few.

Spoiler alert: 2020’s list will include The Myth of Capitalism, coauthored by Denise Hearn, this week’s guest on The Strong Towns Podcast. Hearn is a Senior Fellow at the American Economic Liberties Project and an advisor to organizations, asset managers, and companies who want to use their resources to support a more equitable future.

In the introduction to The Myth of Capitalism, Hearn and her coauthor, Jonathan Tepper, write that capitalism has been “the greatest system in history to lift people out of poverty and create wealth.” Yet the “capitalism” we see in the U.S. today is so misshapen it hardly qualifies. “The battle for competition is being lost. Industries are becoming highly concentrated in the hands of very few players, with little real competition.” Capitalism without competition, they say, is not capitalism.

If you believe in competitive markets, you should be very concerned. If you believe in fair play and hate cronyism, you should be worried. With fake capitalism CEOs cozy up to regulators to get the kind of rules they want and donate to get the laws they desire. Larger companies get larger, while the small disappear, and the consumer and worker are left with no choice.

In this episode, Marohn and Hearn discuss why reduced competition—in the form of monopolies, duopolies, and oligopolies—hurts us not only as consumers and workers but as citizens and community members. They talk about the collusion (both direct and tacit) that consolidates wealth and power into fewer hands. And they discuss what our economic systems must learn from natural systems, including the role of competition and the importance of “habitat maintenance.” (Fans of Jane Jacobs' The Nature of Economies will love this part.)

Ending on a hopeful note, Marohn and Hearn also discuss the convergence, across industries, of new conversations about how to build stronger towns and stronger economies from the bottom-up.

Additional Show Notes:

 

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