Sunday, May 5, 2013

Cities and surplus, take 2

So first of all, thanks for the awesome response to my last post! It even made it on Rustwire thanks to a great couple of friends.

Second, the comments both here and on Facebook posts made me think a little harder about what I was wondering more specifically and I think it was two things. First, if you could separate eds and meds activities into those designated to create additional surplus and those serving a different set of needs, which chunk is driving the "eds and meds" idea? The second, which I want to talk more about here, is how to operate cities and bits of cities with unalienated surplus (where surplus is those resources above and beyond those needed for the reproduction of society and unalienated means those whose labor is directly responsible for generating the surplus are not divorced from the decisions about its use).

This week, the New York Times had two articles that made me think about different aspects of this question. The first one talked about the Occupy movement's efforts during Hurricane Sandy and how tensions had arisen about the use of remaining donations once basic cleanup and recovery had been achieved (as well as discussions about partnering with government agencies), while the second was about Cairo residents' establishing their "right to the city" both literally and figuratively. In one example, the article describes a group of residents, frustrated with their lack of access to a major highway, constructing their own onramp. Similarly, the Occupy Sandy group established their own recovery network to help underserved neighborhoods after Sandy. In their own way, they mobilized unalienated surplus to improve the city.

Now, Occupy Sandy faces some extra surplus, and has continued to utilize it though the mission has changed somewhat. The lack of awareness by some donors as to what their money is now being used for as led to tension, perhaps signalling a level of alienation from the new process. Should Occupy give back the money, or put the use to some sort of vote among the donors, or is the money now theirs and subject to no additional approval? I don't know.

Combined, the two stories had me wondering, how could you mobilize surplus for infrastructure without taxes or bonds? I can't really imagine US drivers being ok with an unregulated onramp, though perhaps I am underselling them. What I came up with was the Kickstarter concept, used most famously by the producers of the Veronica Mars movie but more generally designed to crowdsource funding directly from fans for creative projects. Could we kickstart infrastructure?

Turns out, I'm not the first to have this idea, unsurprisingly. It is what's behind, which started in Kansas City, MO and has expanded to other cities. Currently, it appears to be starting small, and I can see any number of free rider problems, but it also could be the start of something. What if you actually could select where you wanted your tax dollars to go, the way the New York Times infographics let you "solve" the budget problem? Would we end up with more public transit, better healthcare, and less military or just a bunch of uncoordinated special interest projects?