On RadicalxChange

Posted on March 31, 2019

On the weekend on the 22nd to the 24th this March, I had the pleasure to travel to Detroit to the RadicalxChange conference, based on the ideas that Princeton professor Glen Weyl had in his book Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society.

While there were many panels and talks one could attend at the event, there were a couple that were particularly interesting to me.

Alisha Holland, an economics professor at Princeton, gave an excellent talk on property rights and economic development. She noted that while property rights are good, they have to be armed with a more nuanced understanding of property. The example given is often times in Latin America, the result of a infrastructure project is many people immediately rush the land the government wants to develop, and then seek payment for the land the government is taking. This is despite the actual infrastructure being ramshackle as the housing is solely to get money from governments trying to build.

In contrast, in countries such as Hong Kong or Singapore, when land value goes up because of new infrastructure, the government is allowed to benefit from the value the commons accrued because of land value taxation on the newly valuable property that became valuable because of the infrastructure improvement. The money earned from the land value taxation then sustains a virtuous cycle as this money can then be further invested into infrastructure improvements.

Out of all the talks that I had the privilege of hearing, the most interesting to me due to my research interests in open source was Devon Zuegel’s talk on how maintaining open source software is very similar to the struggles that urban planners have in expanding and maintaining public infrastructure. The trouble in both cases being that, as public goods, it is difficult for public or private actors to have a incentive to spend time maintaining these public goods, when they could be extracting value without giving back, or be working on a new project.

This ties into a idea I will expand in another article on the relation between open source and 
public choice theory. Open source, much like a government, is often not a 
neutral space, and various actors use the ecosystem to advance their own agenda. 
This ties into questions on why certain projects, even if better, do not get funded
or how regulatory capture can be used as a concept to explain certain types
of open source projects in how they dominate an ecosystem. 

In a optimal world, it would be possible to use some of the value gained from the open source commons to reward the people who make it possible to have such a commons. If this value was capture, projects like PostgreSQL or Vue.js would be much more effective pieces of software, as money would be virtuously reinvested to make them more effective tools.

There was also a talk on Charter cities earlier led by Alex Tabarrok and the folks at The Center for Innovative Governance Research. While the rhetoric sometimes can be a bit too libertarian for my tastes, I do admit that more innovation in governance is needed. Efforts are needed to experiment in government, mainly to find more optimal solutions to our current problems, like housing. I do admit the aesthetic of building a new Singapore is a very neat one.

The last day also had the folks at the Neoliberal project do a podcast titled Against Moderation, which chatted with Glenn on the pros versus cons of radicalism in political and economic movements.

A Note on Detroit

Detroit is a fascinating city quite honestly. While the region I stayed in, Midtown was safe enough, it was pretty easy to see the city suffered from massive trauma as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, and it is only now dragging itself out of that hole. It is pretty safe to walk around during the day, but at night it’s best to Uber or walk with a friend.

The events of 2008 are still pretty noticeable across the city, while the downtown and midtown are pleasant to walk around it, outside those somewhat gentrified regions things are not as rosy. It is common to see stores that have not been open since the 2008 financial crisis, along with seeing residential buildings that are clearly uninhabited or used for less than optimal uses.

Amusingly, a parade known as the Marche Du Nain Rouge coincided with the last day of the conference. To give a rough explanation, it is a march to drive out the previous years failures, withe Nain Rouge being symbolized as the bad guy representing the year’s failures. It also has recently taken a mild anti-capitalist stance in that the Nain Rouge represents some of the negative aspects of the growth of Detroit, from worries of gentrification to the erasure of local Detroit culture.

As a side note, it is a decent example of the philosopher René Girard’s theory on scapegoats. 
This in that the Nain Rouge is sacrificed as an attempt to get rid of all the negative event that 
have occurred in the city and drive out any other evils. 

I have to thank all the fascinating folks I meet this weekend for making this a great weekend. It was a pleasure hangout with some of the folks at Palladium Magazine (strongly recommend the writing there), to while I disagree a bit politically, the folks at the Neoliberal Project . This also includes all the people who made this conference possible, such as Glen who wrote the book that inspired this whole event.

It’s not radical to critique our current society. It’s radical to build a better one.