Human clay: As seen from space, and our choices

n.b I did the hokey pokey on this post, putting it in and taking in out because I figured it was fairly pointless. Now I’m putting it in again (and shaking it all about).

The other day I was idling away some spare time by looking at roads on Google Maps. I looked at roads and ended up ruminating on the experience of policy development.

Specifically I was looking at the  Jesmond bypass in Newcastle which passes the University. At this point there is a roundabout straddling and providing on and off ramps to this short section of freeway. Here’s the image.

You can also see the footpaths, including the one from top right that leads to the University. They disappear under the road way and wind their way in Stygian darkness to allow pedestrians access to houses and shops and human places on the other side.

What is also visible is the path they actually take, worn into the grass by thousands of feet. It leads off the path at the top right down to the roadway. From there, people walk on the edge of the road into the traffic.

This shortcut is rather dramatically shorter (maybe by 80%) than the antagonistically  circuitous underpass, but even more modest examples are visible from above. Here’s one from North Ryde (coincidentally near another university).

In a way this is all rather trivial and obvious. Of course people  like shortcuts, and if a path is worn it merely legitimises more shortcutting, and that keeps the path worn and so on.

But it’s also a cute representation of delightfully stubborn human clay. It tends to do what it already does, and whilst it can and does change, it’s terribly difficult to mould. We occasionally neglect this fact and do silly things like the spaghetti path under that roundabout, thinking we can just tell people to behave properly, regulate poorly or invade Iraq. Largely though it’s a recognised part of life.

But in the history of human thought we’ve chosen to react to it in many different ways.

There’s the age old temptation to vindicate and celebrate whatever humanity is doing and whatever results it brings, ever popular as part of know nothing conservatism.

There’s also an urge to resign ourselves to whatever it is doing and embrace cynicism or misanthropy, Hobbesian pessimism, realpolitik or Randism.

There’s also the decision to mould it anyway, resorting to drastic measure whether in year zero or year one, smashing the four olds or constructing a new man – with distressing results.

But there is the urge to be pragmatically ideal, acknowledging constraints, but ever looking for small steps to a better world.

This might be what underlies the pragmatism of Adam Smith and JM Keynes; or what ties together liberal and social democracy; or what underlies the evolution of urban planning post Jacobs; or market creation (like emissions trading schemes).

It might be common, but gosh it must be hard to honestly maintain.

Small steps are hard taken and rarely celebrated, certainly not compared to the violence which we fetish.  They will never give satisfaction because you’re only slightly closer to a destination you’re unsure of and a horizon which is receding. It takes endless energy just to keep an open mind and vital thought, let alone be ground down by the radical and ideological, the complacent and the cynical.

No wonder there’s a temptation to withdraw back to the safety of the cynical or know nothing apron strings (see Neoconservatism) or just become secure in an ideological niche, confident of the ignorance of outsiders.

No wonder so it’s so easy to degrade into a Very Serious Person where you can be lauded and handsomely remunerated for your inanity.

No wonder people can skip straight to being Tony Blair.

So here’s to all the people working on sincere policy proposals throughout the world, battling the countless spivs, misanthropists and VSPs with reasoned insight and facts, or pursuing astounding but surprisingly little celebrated victories.

And, um, if you build a pedestrian underpass, don’t commit genocide.

Postscript (because I don’t think it’s any longer possible to leave pictures in comments): By Nicholas Gruen. Richard, here’s one of the pictures I often use in presentations about regulation.


About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
This entry was posted in Economics and public policy, Political theory, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Human clay: As seen from space, and our choices

  1. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Well I’m pleased that you did the hokey pokey on this one.

  2. Patrick says:

    Just to be a pest, arguably Iraq makes a slightly different point about human clay than the one you think it does.

  3. Tom N. says:

    Well I’m pleased that you did the hokey pokey on this one.

    Yes, indeed – even if only for the last picture. Priceless!

  4. Alphonse says:

    Speaking of that other university at North Ryde, Macquarie was pretty smart in its early days. It laid few paths, waited for the cattle tracks to develop and then paved them.

  5. derrida derider says:

    If people won’t walk on the path, that means the path is in the wrong place. Its the same with all sorts of systems – if you devise a computer interface and people ignore the cool you-beaut method of doing something in it and instead just muddle through in another way, then it is the cool you-beaut method that’s the problem, not the people.

    Working in a bureaucracy I see this all the time. If employees are disobeying laid-down procedures to get their work done, then blame the procedures not the employees. Man is the measure of all things.

  6. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Agreed DD, and one reason why (in their element) markets work so much better than rule making bureaucracies. There’s very little ‘price discovery’ within a maze of rules which someone has the power – or imagines they have the power, or imagines they should have the power – to compel others to follow.

  7. Tel says:

    There’s very little ‘price discovery’ within a maze of rules which someone has the power – or imagines they have the power, or imagines they should have the power – to compel others to follow.

    I believe that the lack of price discovery actually stems from the fact that the money comes from one place, while the “customers” come from quite a different place.

    Very likely the beautiful-but-useless meandering footpaths looked great when a town planner made them part of her drawing board presentation. I expect all the people who supported this town planner found her very charming, and what they really liked was that she was abstract and dreamy enough not to threaten anyone else’s cushy job.

    Meanwhile, the people who walk those paths never got asked, never had an opportunity to give their feedback, never even knew who had done them over… and that’s the normal situation with projects driven by central planning. Such projects exist for the purpose of supporting the people working on the project.

    And, um, if you build a pedestrian underpass, don’t commit genocide.

    Regular folks see a few wonky footpaths as a small price to pay… when you consider the price we might be paying *SIGH*. The professional bum-sitters do one useful job, which is occupying the space that might be consumed by someone worse.

  8. Tel says:

    Sorry, first paragraph above is a quote, which I seem to have flubbed.

  9. JMB says:

    For about 15 years after Newcastle Uni moved to its present campus at Shortland in 1966, the paths were laid out as has been reported for Macquarie University. The construction teams just concreted over the tracks which were worn in the dirt.

    Sadly, this is no longer true. The designers now adopt a prescriptive approach, rather than an adaptive one.

  10. BruceMcF says:

    And you can tell those original paths, because they are the ones with all the people on them.

    Indeed, as far as I recall there are places in that elevated roundabout to the southwest of Callaghan Campus where you could reduce the walking length along the “get the pedestrians out of the way of the cars” walking path with judicious placement of steps.

    I mostly used the official path when going to the arthouse cinema directly across the expressway from the Uni, since there was an exit that came out right near the back of the cinema. Other than that, I mostly walked on the edge of the road unless I was cycling.

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