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Tempered Capitalism 

Melding market forces and civic engagement

When I say that the capitalist system produces ugliness, squalor and environmental blight if left entirely unchecked, I speak as a supporter of capitalism. But I speak also as someone who takes a critical longterm view of our actions, not a doctrinaire disciple of immediate self-gratification. I see that our personal and public lives in this nation and city can't reach their true potential without the interaction of short-term capitalist thinking and longer-term civic engagement. The two systems need each other. As an architect and town planner, I don't work unless a client needs a building built, or a large development planned, or part of a town redesigned. I serve both public and private sectors and understand their interactions.

Short-term thinking by developers deliberately avoids considering consequences. It produces uncoordinated growth and leaves behind messes that we, the general public, have to pay for one way or another. Either we pay taxes to clean up pollution or fix overloaded infrastructure, or we pay with our physical health by breathing dirty air.

Criticizing capitalism doesn't make me, or anyone else, a socialist, but I often get called one for suggesting that we consider community objectives on a par with private profit in matters of urban growth. This name-calling is a typical right-wing tactic, deflecting attention away from the real issues by demonizing the critic. Being branded a "socialist" is even worse than being labeled a "liberal." In this era of false and flimsy patriotism, the term "socialism" carries sinister overtones of anti-American sentiment, with the hint of murky foreign interests lurking in the shadows, ready to subvert true American values!

All this is nonsense, of course. Tony Blair, for example, America's only ally of consequence in the world today, would be labeled "socialist" by most American standards for his commitment to public transit, health care for every citizen regardless of means, affordable housing, and alternative sources of energy. But Blair leads a country that's evolved a market economy that works hard to balance private profit and community responsibility. Those who read my column regularly know I don't often praise Britain's Prime Minister, but in this case he's earned it.

Here in Charlotte, the issues facing us are very clear:

Our roads are becoming congested faster than we can widen them (we can never build our way out of congestion).

We are driving more than ever, generating air pollution and the demand for more and bigger roads.

We are driving more because the city is growing in an ever more sprawling, low-density way;

Our taxes are rising to pay for all the new schools, police and fire service and other civic needs required and demanded by a growing community.

The doctrinaire capitalist's response to this litany of problems is simply not to care. They're someone else's concern. Longterm thinking is anathema -- and unnecessary. Capitalism is all about reaping the highest profits in the shortest amount of time, and if this can be done by offloading future costs of maintenance or replacement onto others, especially the taxpayer, then so much the better.

This is a very logical and clever tactic. In property development, the profit cycle is getting ever shorter. Investors now demand returns in five years or even less. Not long ago it was 15 years and, before that, 30-year periods of financial return for patient capital were not unusual. This shift radically affects the way we build today -- we typically construct buildings as cheaply as possible and with little regard for the longevity of the structures past a 5 or 10-year span. Developers want to be in and out quickly, make their money, leave before problems arise, and move on to the next project.

On one level I don't blame them for this; they're only responding to changing market forces. There are a few enlightened developers in Charlotte who realize that profit and sound public policy can go hand in hand -- Peter Pappas and Clay Grubb come to mind -- but they're in the minority, and the unregulated capitalism extolled by the majority of their colleagues could easily create a shabby city interspersed with enclaves of wealth in a couple generations. This is what happened in the 19th century industrial revolution in America and Britain, and unless the public sector intervenes to act in the longer-term public interest by reducing future tax liabilities and environmental degradation, history will repeat itself.

Charlotte's future depends on achieving a balance between the restless energy of capitalism and patient growth management by the public sector: this equilibrium is the only way to bring about the longterm fiscal and environmental health of our community. It's not a popular message with those who see government as the problem, not the solution, but to those of us raised in the Keynesian tradition of classic mixed-market economies and public-private partnerships, it's still basic common sense.

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