Monday, May 02, 2016

The Flat White Economy

There is this lovable term used in England - The Flat White Economy! For the uninitiated, this comes from the variety of coffee the twenty-something geeky youngsters working in the 'creative economy' in London, one of the world's leading. This, an uninspiring vision of placid coffee, seems to capture the great promise of economic renewal of industrial wastelands of North England, as well as the inner city precints of London: It no doubt offers me a catchy term to make my point about the City economies.

But, to clarify, while I like the term, I use it literally. As a lover of good coffee, the term conjures up milky blandness rather than exciting aroma, and regardless of the implicit euphoria behind its coinage, I see it for what it is - the really 'flat' growth in a mix that lacks proportion or equity, obscuring the inevitable disappointment in frothy rhetoric and pricey labeling (I usually order a White Americano!). 

This is not a resentment of a new taste or a doomed effort to cling to old habits, but about the wisdom of the new growth that subverts the very structure that made Cities the economic engine that it is now: Its life-form of close coexistence forstered collaboration and created ecosystems for ideas, and the new, partitioned sharing economy, built around the exclusivism of ideas and people who can fund them, is perhaps designed to make cities gentrified and flat, and lead to its decline at the very moment of our celebration.

Cities is what I love and study, from the past as walled encampments to industrial hubs to attract landless village folks as the fodder for great mills - and, then, from that chaos, powerhouses of ideas that emerged from all that variety, breaking of boundaries, on the cadavars of social convention fuelled by the aspirational burghers and lit up by inspired outcasts. Cities rose from its industrial past, and despite industrial declines - in fact, in our time, because of its decline - as the social order broke down and new ones had space to emerge. That promise is at the very heart of the bright spark that we seek in our youngness and creativity. 'Disruption' and 'Revolution' is what we celebrate in Board Rooms and Bankers' chambers, at this peculiar point in history!

While at the same time we seek to slaughter its life force, the very factors that made it possible. The Flat White Economy is a term that masks zoning laws, redevelopment ambitions to earmark spaces in the cities for the privileged and the prosperous, and zone out the immigrants, the peddlers and the small shops. This may indeed be middle class common sense, as our debt-fuelled eminences worry about little men in the neighbourhoods and would rather settle for impersonal shopping malls which could be locked away at nights: Rising real estate prices make all of us feel rich! 

But it makes us poor, culturally! It drives away variety and robs us our perspectives. It obliterates those chance encounters. Zoned cities with personalised lives put us into quarters of sameness, cushioned away from the uncomrtable, the jarring and the challenging that stood at the heart of creation. And, our reaction: A tighter embrace of the false theory that new ideas come from within, and the gifted few makes us progress, despite all evidences on the contrary. That idea is not a property that arise from within and remains owned, but rather something that we really absorb and develop, as we explore and challenge and converse, is not how lawyers see it: Strangely, our perceptions about how creativity would be encouraged come from these lawyerly visions of creation. 

This, the stealth purge of variety from city life, legal aggradisement of ideas and our obsession with real estate values, may usher us into an era of flat growth, where the words like revolution, disruption, creation lose their meaning. And, as anyone literate in modern economics will know - we are not ready for it! Our financial system revolves around the promise of growth - and thereby, creates credit! Take away that hope irredeemably, and the coffee will spill.




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