Saint Louis as New Rome: the social science of building a catholic city.

[Transcript of a talk I gave at Communio, St. Louis Young Adults. Great crowd and conversation.]

Thank you for the introduction. Events like these are a public service to the community. Those who put them together do not get the rewards of their effects. So any value we get from each other’s company tonight, we have Adam at the bar, Garrison for the mic, and Father Rennier for the invite to thank. One weird way to summarize my talk would be as a call for a lot more creative conviviality.

I spend my time deliberately studying economics, writing philosophy and poetry, and practicing math. I see my role as being as informed as possible about the dismal science of institutions, education, policy, and urban growth as well as literature, arts, and science, so that I can use and share this information with others as a Proud Dilettante.

In addition to running JPII, teaching high school classes, and being a husband and dad, I dream of a St. Louis Renaissance. St. Louis has been called The Rome of the West, and it was once-upon-a-time a first-rate city. It is a good city today, and I love it. It could be even better.

Now a lot of these ideas I am testing out. And so what I offer is not a clear answer: do this and Saint Louis will become great, all problems will disappear, and you will feel happy and fulfilled and no longer have bad breath. I don’t have an answer like that. But I do have several useful tools for thinking about metropolitan life that I think will be most useful to you. And allow us to have a very good discussion afterwards.

To start let’s talk about the city. What is the modern city all about?

You want the simple answer? culture and dating markets. If you are not interested in either of those, then the city isn’t for you. If you win in the dating market and don’t care about culture you will likely leave the city, broadly conceived, when children start coming along.

And maybe that’s your plan. You come to Communio, you go to lots of other events, meet people, eventually a spouse, maybe find a better job, and then you leave for the deepest reaches of Lincoln County. There’s nothing wrong with that. But in this talk I am going to provide an alternative vision for Saint Louis that emphasizes the need for creating a thriving cultural zone across the metropolitan area.

So keeping in mind culture and dating markets, I will present three key ideas from social science, primarily economics, about how to make a culturally vibrant Catholic city.

Those three ideas are Culture First, Agglomeration Effects, and Signaling.

1.  Culture First

 Cities today are about people first and commerce second.

Many people think that cities exist for jobs by which they mean big employers, like Boeing, Barnes, and Mercy. This is a fundamental mistake: successful American cities are places where businesses get made or move to to take advantage of the high skilled people who are already there. Holding skills constant, businesses, especially factories, will move to places where the cost of land and labor is lowest. Most modern American businesses are not huge enterprises that require lots of workers, rather they are small firms that need a reliable supply of skilled workers, like skilled machinists, programmers, mapping experts, nurses, biotech researchers, office organizers, and interinstitution coordinators to name but a few in demand jobs in the Saint Louis area.

In the 19th century cities were built around transportation costs. Saint Louis is on the river, Detroit was on the lakes. But as transportation costs fell, and land and labor costs went up, the businesses left the cities, first moving to the suburbs, then leaving all together… this left cities quite vulnerable.

Ed Glaeser economist at Harvard has this to say in Triumph of the City: “Cities thrive when they have many small firms and skilled citizens. Detroit was once a buzzing beehive of small-scale interconnected inventors—Henry Ford was just one among many gifted entrepreneurs. But the extravagant success of Ford’s big idea destroyed that older, more innovative city. Detroit’s twentieth-century growth brought hundreds of thousands of less-well-educated workers to vast factories, which became fortresses apart from the city and the world. While industrial diversity, entrepreneurship, and education lead to innovation, the Detroit model led to urban decline. The age of the industrial city is over.”

Today, geography counts for very little. To quote Dune, “Place is only place.” People are everything. So the question becomes what induces people to gather in one place? I see it as culture, beauty, fun, weather, desirable social ties, and yes, dating opportunities. Or as Californian poet Robinson Jeffers says, “Music and religion, honor and mirth, // renew life’s lost enchantments.”

If you build these, you attract young, energetic, quirky, intelligent people, yourselves. Firms will follow in your wake. If I am right, then the causal arrow is from culture to economic growth, meaning that the core units that makes for a successful city are community and creativity: economic growth, career opportunities, and, most importantly, more cultural investment follow from them.

Cities are about people first and commerce second. This brings us to the second economic idea:

2.   Agglomeration effects. Agglomeration is a very ugly word; sounds like an ingredient in Jello, but it means the effect of having an increasing amount of something.

The idea of agglomeration effects in economics is that thirty people are not merely thirty times as productive as one person. They are often many more times as productive, because the thirty people learn from and are encouraged by one another. Take the example of prayer from Saint Louis de Montfort in The Secret of the Rosary: “Somebody who says his Rosary alone only gains the merit of one Rosary, but if he says it together with thirty other people, he gains the merit of thirty Rosaries. This is the law of public prayer.”

This idea that grace is greater in public gatherings is a distinctly Catholic one. But it is also found in economics in the guise of agglomeration effects.

Alfred Marshall’s 1890 Principles of Economics describes agglomeration in loving detail:

When a [community] has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same [mode of existence] get from near neighbourhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously. 

The idea is that creative communities beget a creative, community-minded atmosphere, and trying deliberately to improve ourselves and each other through acts of community will make a great and desirable city. I think we could be doing a lot on this front.

Community is the opposite of the atomization and excessive individualization, which plagues modern American society. Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone outlines how American civil institutions and groups of the sort we need have progressively declined since the 1950s. The cities that are doing well today are benefiting from agglomeration effects, and those that will do well in the future will do so because they have found ways to foster the sorts of communities that create these effects.

But it does not take an army to reverse trends or change trajectory. Nassim Taleb, the pugnacious philosopher of economic uncertainty offers this note in his book Skin in the Game: “The entire growth of society, whether economic or moral, comes from a small number of people… Society doesn’t evolve by consensus, voting, majority, committees, verbose meeting, academic conferences, and polling; only a few people suffice to disproportionately move the needle.”

Renaissance Florence had a population of only 50,000 people; it only took a couple of committed workshops to initiate something special.

These people, people who move the needle, will be part of a network stubbornly committed to sharing and building culture and solving problems that arise when trying build a more substantial, beautiful, and creative Saint Louis.

Agglomeration effects create exponential creativity, which brings us to idea three.

3.       Don’t “sell” people on your creative ideas, signal your ideals.

If you are at all like me, selling people on stuff can seem kind of banal, venal, or inauthentic. What could be worse than cold call telemarketing? Trying to convince people who do not want or need what you have to offer is a waste of your time and theirs.  However, everyone wants to be delighted and to find their niche, so the problem is how to connect people to those for whom they have an affinity but don’t know it yet?

The key is signaling and selection effects.

Signaling Theory for economists is all about sacramentals. Those outward signs that ought to positively correlate with inner dispositions. A yellow-banded poison dart frog is jet black with neon yellow stripes; it looks poisonous because it is poisonous. It is sending out nature’s amphibious “Leave me alone” signal. On the other hand, at Urban Chestnut the plain, wooden, distraction-free, mead-hall benches, practically sing out “come, sit down, and have a conversation with friends.”

Groucho Marx once said, “I don’t want to be part of any club that’d have a guy like me as a member.” Groucho’s acceptance into the club would signal low enough club quality that he himself wouldn’t want to join.  Whatever it is you are trying to build, whatever peers you are trying to attract, making sure you are sending out the signals which will attract your people is the first step to overcoming alienation and atomization, and the first step to leveraging the interconnected urban environment to attract the people who will like what you have to offer. So first comes the signal. We fire off the bat-signal into the night sky and see who shows up, having faith that those who arrive are the ones God wanted to show up. 

A selection effect means that the people who are attracted to you and your creative group are not random but rather people who are inclined to what you have to offer, people compatible with your mission who had been stumbling along the edge of your social network, seeking just such an environment before they saw your bat-signal.

There are many ways to signal. The choices of how we construct our physical environment signals community values. A park with filled with children playing games doesn’t exist without local children, a safe neighborhood, and people who devote resources to upkeep. The art in our house, the design of our streets, our choice of public music, and the tabs on our computer, signal our priorities and reveal of our preferences.

The best signals are not loud the way a commercial is, but they are discoverable. Like how a Decemberists album shirt says more about you than if you simply said you liked the Decemberists. Even a shirt can lead to people approaching you because the external signals an interior disposition.

Self-selection requires a discoverable signal.

Discoverability is a technical term in social science, but it is like the “light hidden under a bushel principle.” It is a measure of the possibility for others to discover what you have to offer. If one builds the signals alongside the community, one creates discoverability. By sending off the right signals people will know who we are and what we are about. When they search online or even see St. Louis in the media, the same signals of a rich inner core may start to bleed through.

And that’s idea number three. Good signaling allows for self-selection.

Once a subculture’s signal and substance properly rub together, lightning strikes the frozen mountain of creativity; a cascade of graceful snow begins to descend. Agglomeration effects create an accelerating avalanche, and thus the signal becomes even stronger, so that even from many miles away the sight and sound of this cascade resonates through the valleys.

And those are the first three ideas which I think we can take with us for envisioning St. Louis as New Rome: 1. Culture comes first, 2. Agglomeration effects create exponential productivity, and 3. Signals allow for self-selection. Perhaps, next time, we will discuss where gladiator fights fit in to this New Rome idea.

One last takeaway is that a vibrant, distinctively Catholic culture in Saint Louis requires intentional effort. And we’ll talk more about how to do it in Q&A, though, as you know, I’m working on the school and education front. Thank you very much.

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