Monday, October 27, 2008

Being good stewards of our resources

I know, it sounds like a headline to launch into some environmentalist rant about how God calls us to be good stewards over creation and therefore we cannot cut down any trees or do anything that might leave a carbon footprint. Rest easy! I have not gone completely eco-insane.

However, there is a proper way to understand our stewardship over God's creation, it it does come into context when discussing our housing crisis. I heard a report on the local radio station last week that got me fuming: a few "experts" were on discussing what to do with the abundance of empty retail stores left around the state and nation due to the downfall in property values. Many people invested heavily in building retail developments (most of which were not needed) in the hopes of taking advantage of urban sprawl and continued economic growth to profit hugely. So in my hometown, for example, every street corner was bought up and developed, even though nothing else but fields were around it. The idea was that soon the fields would be turned into housing, and the retail development on the corner would get the lion's share of all the traffic from these subdivisions.

Now there is an overabundance of these empty retail stores, and along with them a plethora of empty housing developments, many of them in various stages of construction. Take a look of some photos I shot in my home town in just twenty-minutes of one afternoon. See if you see anything in common:

These pictures all have a few things in common: first, they are all vacant. Second, they were all being built even while the housing market was spiraling downward. Third, all of them were not needed: the city already had dozens of other condos for lease, vacant commercial property and other such things. I should have included all of the CVS's, Wal-Green's and Rite-Aid's in the town. It's unbelievable!

Apparently, the nation is cluttered with such empty properties, and the guests on the talk show were debating about what to do with them. Many suggestions were floated, but of course nobody suggested just tearing them down and letting nature grow back.

The thing that irks me worst about our current economic system is that it does not take into account community need at all. An entrepreneur comes into my town with a franchise and says, "I want to build a CVS here." The city and the bank, in granting the requirements to build the CVS, asks many questions, but never the most important one. How much traffic will your store generate? What type of financing do you have? What are the zoning requirements? What is your estimated profit return for the first three years? How about this question: Does our city need a third CVS when we already have two not more than three miles way? Apparently, the local government takes the position that any business is good for the town and everybody has a right to build anywhere they want so long as some zoning requirements are met.

How about a system where every business has to ask the city permission to build a new retail development, and the answer to their petition is based solely on how many of the same types of developments already exist and whether or not we need another one? All the garbage built in the above pictures was unneeded and built only because people were greedy: greedy to profit by either hoping more residential stuff would be built nearby to generate traffic or greedy in hopes of turning over their property for profit in the future. I makes me so irate when I see a huge development go up, only for the property owner to stick a bunch of "For Lease" signs in the windows. I propose a following tweak to our system: If you are going to build commercial sites, you have to have them all leased out before you even start building. No more of this building six unit mini-malls and then putting them up for lease.

When we do such things, we are being incredibly wasteful. Wasteful with financial resources. Wasteful with the land, which is bulldozed and paved just so some "For Lease" signs can go in the empty windows of another useless development. It makes us more and more lazy. I don't need another CVS a mile down the road. Just let me drive to the one two miles away. When did we become a people who need everything at an arm's length? Of course, we all know this kind of stuff drives out local businesses run by local people as well.

Of course, we need businesses in our community. But not this horrid retail glut that we have. What is God's ideal? If we look in Genesis, we see the ideal of Paradise is a Garden. Put a that Garden on a scale, with a parking lot above it and a wilderness below. The wilderness always symbolizes the hostility of nature apart from man, the cruel wrath of the elements and the unknown and savage reality of man's fallen state in nature. Now, if you look at a parking lot, this symbolizes the opposite: man's total, utilitarian dominance over nature for his own ends. This is what our world is becoming. Yet the ideal is between: a Garden. Man taming and cultivating nature, living in harmony with it, neither dominating it for utilitarian reasons, nor living in servile subjection to it in fear, but in harmonious tranquility based on need, not fulfillment of greed.

If only our city planners and everybody on up who ran our economy took this to heart, our cities would not be so ugly and useless. Development ought to be based on need, not profit.

"But Boniface, that's just competition. Your'e not against competition, are you?"

No, not at all. If you have one restaurant on one side of town serving seafood, then someone should be free to open a Chinese place in town, too. If people like the Chinese better than the seafood, they'll go there. Heck, I'd even allow for a second seafood place on the other side of town maybe. But do we need five Chinese restaurants all on the same strip of road? Absolutely not! There is no justifiable reason why this waste needs to exist.

"But where would those people work?"

I don't know, but not in five useless Chinese restaurants! We oughtn't create useless jobs and projects just on the pretext of keeping people busy; that's more akin to the Communist ideal. That mentality is the reason why my local Road Commission tears up a major road in my country every year, even though they are all fine. They have a budget, and they want to blow that budget and keep people employed, and so they are perpetually tearing up roads and repaving them when not a single pothole or crack was to be found on the old one. You don't make up useless jobs just to employ people. Employment and business should revolve around what people need. What if we don't need anything in our town? Then either (a) find some other means of employment that is useful, or (b) get out and go somewhere else.

Sorry...this is kind of a rant.

1 comment:

CO said...

Using the law (government's power to compel) to restrict actions is powerful, but watch out for unintended consequences!

This unsustainable and wasteful housing over-development currently seems bizarre and "unbelievable". The incentive likely was simple: Artificially low interest rates ("cheap" credit). Now we can ask the critical question: Why were interest rates set artificially low? The US interest rate is specified by a centralized bank group rather than continuously adjusted by conditions in the real marketplace. Thus, I see the housing failure as resulting from naive government regulations coupled with incentives intentionally designed to encourage consumption.

As a fellow Catholic, I see the insights of the Austrian school of economics as a powerful echo to the Catholic Church's teachings. It is our personal economic responsibility to work hard, save money, invest, innovate and create jobs; this alone gives us a sustainable and responsible economy. Be skeptical of the claims of omnipotent government. Part of our Catholic responsibility includes not allowing harmful public policy.

I suggest looking at "The Importance of Capital Theory" His playful sushi (yes!) economic model is interesting until the stark ending.

For technical details on consumption versus savings and the economy, see