A weekly conversation on the Strong Towns movement hosted by Charles Marohn. The podcast blends fiscal prudence with good urban design to highlight how America can financially strengthen its cities, towns and neighborhoods and, in the process, make them better places to live.
You can support the podcast and become a member of Strong Towns at www.StrongTowns.org.
Just Print the Money
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.
Charles Marohn (Twitter)
“New York transit is facing ‘Doomsday’ cuts. Should non-New Yorkers bail it out?” by Charles Marohn
“Pandemic Fallout: Will New York City Experience Long-term Decline?” (Podcast)
Check out other recent episodes of the Strong Towns podcast, as well as Upzoned and The Bottom-Up Revolution.
Stacy Mitchell: Fighting for Small Businesses and Strong Local Economies
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:
Stacy Mitchell (Twitter)
Institute for Local Self-Reliance (Website)
Institute for Local Self-Reliance (Twitter)
Sign up for the ILSR Hometown Advantage newsletter
Charles Marohn (Twitter)
Other Strong Towns content featuring Stacy Mitchell and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance“Amid COVID-19, Local Governments Are Coming Through for Local Businesses,” by Daniel Herriges
“Why Local Banks Are Crucial to Your Community's Coronavirus Recovery,” by Daniel Herriges
Ask Strong Towns Webcast: Celebrity Edition (featuring Stacy Mitchell)
“Stacy Mitchell on the Big-Box Swindle” (Podcast)
“How a Local Bookstore Can Make Your Town Richer—In More Than One Way,” by Kea Wilson
A Time for Local Action
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
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:
The Structure of Political Positions, by Blake Pagenkopf
The Great Conflation, by Blake Pagenkopf
Blake Pagenkopf (Blog)
Blake Pagenkopf on James Howard Kunstler’s Kunstlercast
Further reading from Strong Towns on politics:
“It’s All Local Now,” by Charles Marohn
“We Don’t Live in a World of Cartoon Villains,” by Daniel Herriges
“What Are We Waiting For?” (Podcast)
“Dignity In an Alienated America,” by Charles Marohn
“The Dignity of Local Community: A Conversation with Chris Arnade” (Podcast)
Denise Hearn: The Myth of Capitalism
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:
The Myth of Capitalism: Monopolies and the Death of Competition, by Jonathan Tepper with Denise Hearn
Denise Hearn (Twitter)
Denise Hearn (Website)
“My Journey from Free Market Ideologue to Strong Towns Advocate,” by Charles Marohn
The Ultimate Strong Towns Reading List
Ben Hunt: We're Not Going to Fix This from the Top Down
What do we call a society that—from Wall Street to Main Street, from Washington, D.C. to your local city council chambers—seems to have been uprooted from facts and time-tested fundamentals, and is being driven instead by whatever stories can be sold as truth? Ben Hunt calls it “Fiat World,” a world declared into existence.
A former hedge fund manager, in 2013 Ben Hunt created Epsilon Theory, a newsletter and website that has become essential reading for more than 100,000 professional investors and allocators across 180 countries. He’s also our very special guest on this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast.
Ben tells Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn that massive debt and dislocation, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle (among other forces) have helped shape a world in which everything is presented by declaration. We have to be in this world, Ben says, but “we don’t have to give them our heart. We can maintain a distance of mind, an autonomy of mind, so that we see clearly what’s happening...We’re not going to be the suckers at the table.”
Ben and Chuck discuss some of the new rules—in the economy, media, and beyond—that must be understood, challenged, and changed. They talk about why capital markets and housing markets are too important to be left to the investors.
They talk too about the “zombification” of cities, in which towns and cities are all unwittingly doing the same self-destructive things. Ben and Chuck discuss why this won’t be fixed from the top down and how local leaders can make the right decisions in a Fiat World. We also get an update from Ben on how Epsilon Theory readers have helped distribute N95 and N95-equivalent masks to healthcare professionals and emergency responders through a kind of “underground” PPE pipeline.
Listen to this wide-ranging conversation and you’ll start to see why, back in May, Chuck recommended Ben Hunt and Epsilon Theory to help make sense of our new reality. Chuck wrote: “No matter how badly we want to believe it—and even I, at times, want to believe it—seeing beyond the narrative, realizing its inherent falsehoods, is the most important and empowering first step we can take.”
Additional Show Notes
“Fiat World,” by Ben Hunt
Epsilon PPE Requests
Ben Hunt (Twitter)
Chuck Marohn (Twitter)
Customer ReviewsSee All
The most important podcast of a generation!!!
Stay Strong Chuck!
Empowering, insightful and actionable! 🔥
Whether you’re well established as someone who can translate creative energy into the impact you want to have on the resilience of your local community, or just getting started as a catalyst for change - this is a must-listen podcast for you! Charles does an incredible job leading conversations that cover a huge breadth of topics related to the ins and outs of building a thriving public infrastructure - with leaders who’ve actually walked the path. Highly recommend listening and subscribing!
Amazing resource and ideas
I consider myself very leftwing and I tend to be duped into breathlessly following the national news of the day. This podcast is therefore an extremely refreshing break from the bubble I usually inhabit, as Chuck is a much more conservative voice—without any of the baggage that has come to be associated with that word. Smart, evidence based, respectfully subversive, he does a fantastic job picking topics and guests. His book is a great overview if you’re just getting into the Strong Towns movement. This podcast gets me thinking in a way most others do not, and frequently I have to re-listen because my mind goes to so many interesting places. If you’re like me—getting interested in local issues, responsible/sustainable development, and alternative viewpoints—Chuck is truly a modern day prophet.