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Jane Jacobs, who turned eighty-four this May, has won a large and devoted following since the appearance of The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. There she maintained that, until relatively recently, cities responded to elemental human needs, even as they seemed to evolve aimlessly. Hence her defense of older neighborhoods, which preserved a stability and identity once provided by rural villages and tribal communities. Her targets were professional planners who bulldozed aging streets in the name of space and sanitation. This displacement, she argued, eliminated the complex street life of shops, small businesses, and pedestrian movement that made city neighborhoods both safer and more interesting. It also brought high-rises and suburban tracts, both of which Jacobs condemned as sterile and constricting. (How much more human public housing would be if projects could rent space to shops at their street level.) In effect, she was saying that cities are natural growths, and should be left to evolve spontaneously. If it were not for her warnings and her persuasive advocacy, a new highway might have been ruinously blasted across lower Manhattan. Her work has inspired other campaigns against urban folly from San Francisco to Paris. Jacobs’s influence confirms that books matter. It isn’t easy to cite another writer who has had a comparable impact in our time.

The Nature of Economies extends the arguments of her earlier books to production and trade at national, even international, levels. Her “basic premise,” she writes, is that “human beings exist wholly within nature as part of natural order in every respect.” The belief that nature has an ontological design has a venerable history, and shows no sign of disappearing. Jacobs enjoins us to heed nature’s mandates, especially when using material resources to enhance our lives. Still, her book is not an environmental tract. She doesn’t dwell on saving the dolphins or rain forests, which may reflect her urban disposition. Nor does she object to technologies such as those that genetically modify seeds and hormonally enhance livestock, since she feels that “constant self-correction” will keep them within natural bounds. Rather, she seeks to show that lessons drawn from ecology can improve economic systems and make them more workable and satisfying.

Her book takes the form of a seminar among five participants, all but one of whom are used to voice her own views, and it has an earnest, somewhat didactic tone. Still, the interchanges allow Jacobs to raise and answer objections, even if the character who plays her foil tends to concede too easily. As Jacobs once indicted city planners, she now cautions against policymakers who think that “reason, knowledge, and determination make it possible for human beings to circumvent and outdo the natural order.” Her book recommends humility. At best, we should use our wits to “develop products and production methods learned from nature.” We should ask why spiders can weave fragile webs in variable temperatures, or how plants capture sunlight and turn it into energy. There are also lessons to be learned from preindustrial processes. Some new computer chips, she tells us, use wiring techniques akin to those devised by jewelers in fifteenth-century Spain. These are appealing examples, and they strengthen her analysis.

Jacobs’s central concern is with how economic systems perform. Here too she looks for principles in ecosystems, where she sees “an analogy between seasonal cycles and normal business cycles.” Of course, she understands that seasons adhere to a schedule (allowing for an occasional “late spring” or “early winter”) whereas business fluctuations seldom follow settled patterns. But since she is suggesting that markets also adhere to natural patterns, we need to know in what ways. Analogies are rhetorical devices, intended to stimulate thought, but they do not necessarily correspond to reality. Here Jacobs moves the conversation to other topics, leaving the reader to wonder what is natural—or unnatural—about many of the facts of current economic life, in which very large numbers of people invest year after year in high-tech companies that make little money or none at all.

Other principles Jacobs finds in nature are “differentiation,” “bifurcation,” and “self-refueling.” Discussing the last of these, she suggests that economies would do well to heed trees. Many of them get a large part of their water through their roots, which is akin to economies’ drawing on natural resources. We learn how gigantic redwoods thrive in relatively arid soil: their higher branches capture fog, which they use as an additional nutriment. While resources are embedded in nature, it often takes ingenuity to find them. Aluminum was always latent in bauxite, but the reddish clay could be transmuted into a lightweight metal only by means of generators capable of delivering powerful electric charges. “Economic development,” she writes, “is a matter of using the same universal principles that the rest of nature uses.” Analogous to innovation in nature are “beneficent loops in economies.” Thus firms in Korea and Taiwan have used indigenous resources to design products that fill needs in other countries, which in turn has accelerated their own prosperity. To the extent that this is so, it leaves open what kind of economy best reflects nature’s precepts.

Jacobs takes it as given that the shape of economic growth is best left to decisions by people who hope for private profit. Her aversion to urban planning extends to a skepticism about regulation generally. In her view, public agencies will never have enough information and ability to “tell enterprises what they must do with respect to pollution, waste of resources, and so on.” So she would limit government to setting “goals or standards,” and free businesses to devise their own methods for meeting them. This sounds sensible; but where has it led and where might it lead?

While no one likes long lists of do’s and don’t’s, regulations have been found necessary after companies devise ways to evade vaguely worded standards. Jacobs does not envisage this happening, but examples are not hard to find. To take a flagrant case, current laws simply require that after timber companies have cut down trees they engage in “reforestation,” but it is up to the loggers to decide how to do it. The term clearly implies that there should be plantings intended to replace the lost forest. The lumber companies take another view, one better suited to their profits. Driving across Oregon, one can see hillsides of trees planted in precise grid patterns, spaced to allow ready access for logging trucks. They are in fact plantations, hardly what most of us regard as forests. An effort to restore original growths would require detailed rules, including provisions for encouraging, among other things, the growth of varied plant life; but this would provide fewer commercially usable trees and impede efficient cutting. Thus far the industry has tried to thwart such regulations, although officials concerned with environmental protection have long advocated them. Between businesses and bureaucrats, are the latter really more prone to “circumvent and outdo the natural order”?

So what might Jacobs mean when she says that “natural processes rule human economic life”? It seems unlikely she would want to apply this description to every kind of economy, in view of the number that have floundered or worse. The claim that one or another system is more attuned to nature has engaged philosophers for centuries. In these debates, reliance on doctrine or speculation is seldom seen as sufficient. Hence the recourse to science, since it seeks to reveal the laws and processes of nature. In this vein, classical economists invoked Newtonian mechanics to urge that markets should be freed to reach their natural equilibrium. Later proponents of capitalism used Darwin to contend that interfering with laissez-faire would distort the course of evolution.

Nor surprisingly, thinkers identified with the left have found a different message in nature. Engels drew on Copernicus, Kepler, and Darwin to conclude that history would ultimately culminate in a collective economy. For Marx, the disappearance of classes would bring “the definitive resolution of the antagonism between man and nature, and between man and man.” Peter Kropotkin opened his book Mutual Aid by describing the cooperation common among dragonflies, marmots, and herring gulls. This, he said, is nature’s way, and human beings can rediscover their natural selves by renouncing private ownership and sharing the world’s resources.

It is unlikely we will reach a consensus on whether nature prefers competition or cooperation, or even what kind of synthesis best suits human dispositions. “The whole idea of hierarchy,” Jacobs says, “can be disastrous to economies.”1 That has certainly been shown in the Soviet Union and in other Communist economies. But the global economy is increasingly dominated by large manufacturing, financial, extractive, and information-technology corporations which, despite talk of devolution, remain top-down structures; firms like Time Warner are barely mentioned in The Nature of Economies. Instead, Jane Jacobs sticks to the terrain she knows best: older cities where neighborhood life was based on small shops and local factories. She has much that is interesting to say about Hong Kong jade traders, Turkish rugmakers, and a San Francisco jam canner. What nature might make of Exxon Mobil, DaimlerChrysler, and Georgia-Pacific must await another writer.

Malcolm Gladwell also conducts a conversation, but here it is between the author and reader. He skillfully gives the impression that we are accompanying him in his own inquiries. Much of The Tipping Point consists of interviews with offbeat experts and we are made to feel we are present. As with Jacobs, most of the studies he cites are taken from secondary sources, while the primary ones tend to be classics, some going back twenty or more years.

Gladwell takes his title from a phrase used to describe racial change in neighborhoods. If some white householders are made uneasy when a single black family moves nearby, most don’t start packing right away. They generally stay until new arrivals make up a certain percentage of their neighbors. Once that “tipping point” is reached, whites start moving out en masse and soon the area will be wholly black. (Gladwell says the shift starts at 20 percent. In fact, most studies put it at more like 8 percent.)

The Tipping Point seeks to show that viruses and epidemics, usually regarded as medical phenomena, have counterparts in social behavior. Acknowledging that changes generally occur in gradual increments, he is concerned with sharp or sudden shifts that often come as surprises. We can all recall books that became unexpected overnight best sellers, or toys that at first seemed no different from many others but soon become so popular that children were clamoring for them. Something similar happens occasionally with a political candidate, such as Jesse Ventura. The Tipping Point seeks to explain why “some ideas or behaviors or products start epidemics and others don’t.”

His cases are deftly described, even if some are not exactly earthshaking. Thus he makes much of a brand of shoes that suddenly caught on among teenagers. But should fashions that spread quickly be referred to as epidemics? It would seem to trivialize a word usually reserved for severe illnesses or death. Fads have long been part of life; the tulipomania of seventeenth-century Holland lasted longer than the wearing of AIDS ribbons in the mid-1990s. Still, if Jacobs relies on analogies, Gladwell makes much of metaphors and there is no great harm in that.

A more consequential event was an upsurge in syphilis among newborn babies in Baltimore. Within a single year, Gladwell writes, the number of infected infants rose fivefold, which meant that many more women were contracting the virus. Since venereal diseases are transmitted by a different kind of contact than, say, insect bites or polluted water, finding causes is more difficult. This is Gladwell’s only account of a contagious disease, and it makes chilling reading. He quotes several experts, each of whom has a pet theory. One cited a rise in promiscuity caused by the spread of crack cocaine. Another emphasized cutbacks in clinic funding. A third said the razing of older housing sent men with syphilis into new parts of the city. Gladwell should not be faulted for failing to locate a single source; events seldom have a sole determinant. But since he doesn’t give any factor greater weight than others in this case, it isn’t clear how it can help us understand other unexpected occurrences.

The book’s subtitle is “How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.” Most of us find something persuasive in the parable of chaos theory: a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan might conceivably cause a tidal wave in Texas. Gladwell tries to show how small changes can apply to public policy; in particular, how to get people to change their conduct. He proposes that the ways people behave are very malleable. Instead of concentrating on genes, or even parental influences, he invokes “the power of context,” writing that “epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.” Small alterations in a setting, he suggests, can bring about substantial shifts in people’s behavior.

During the 1980s, for example, American cities had become depressingly dangerous. Even though reducing poverty might have cut back the number of violent crimes, there was little support for broadly conceived solutions. More modest programs were tried, in particular a strategy, described in detail by Gladwell, of concentrating on the behavior of young men who were committing small as well as serious crimes. Some of the most effective steps were taken in New York City’s subways, where practically all cars and stations were defaced with graffiti. Drawing the graffiti was a minor misdemeanor, but their ubiquity showed that the defacers had triumphed over the police, emboldening others to commit more serious offenses. So a campaign against crime began with brushes and detergents. Constant scrubbing was intended not just to clean up the cars but to show a low tolerance for lawbreaking and to publicize the aim of restoring the subways to their riders. A companion strategy was to increase the number of arrests for jumping over turnstiles. This was done not because of the fines collected but because the officials in charge found that many farebeaters had been evading warrants for their arrest. Once they were caught for minor cheating, they could be sent away for longer stretches. Crime rates declined soon thereafter.

The Tipping Point’s premise is that modest measures can have a multiplier effect. What Gladwell doesn’t mention is that monitoring turnstiles worked in part because New York’s legislators, like those in other states, were beginning to build new prisons. Since 1980, the number of New Yorkers behind bars has increased almost fourfold, close to the national figure. That so many new cells were available may have made budding felons think twice, since they would no longer be able to rely on plea bargains or suspended sentences. Little things sometimes ride on crests of larger waves.

In a chapter called “The Law of the Few,” Gladwell identifies people who get epidemics started. He calls them “mavens” and “connectors.” The connectors are men and women who have many acquaintances, and serve as major links in the degrees of separation. In a beguiling exercise, he once drew up a random list of 250 surnames with varied ethnic connotations, and asked people to check the names that happened to be those of persons with whom they were personally acquainted. The range of responses was striking, from a low of two to a high of 118. As it turned out, of the several hundred persons who took his test, only 3 percent reached ninety names. There is no reason to doubt that these are “connectors.” But Gladwell does not establish that people who are inordinately sociable are also influential. So he turns to “mavens,” who know, or claim to know, a lot about one or another subject, and can offer advice on anything from buying champagne to the different brands of power mowers. Once they are acknowledged as experts, such people may tend to impress a good many others. But are they the ones who get things moving in new directions?

This question was addressed almost a half-century ago, in a book called Personal Influence.2 The authors, Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld, first showed that advertising, public relations, and other means of spreading messages had less impact than is often thought. True, we may recall the more vivid images, but by themselves few of them impel us to buy a product, mail a check, or vote for a candidate. Nor should it be assumed that repeated messages have a cumulative weight. Campaigns succeed best when their messages come, or seem to come, from persons whose evaluations are respected by members of the intended audience. Katz and Lazarsfeld called these people “influentials,” not because they are widely known, but because they have authority in local circles. What gives them their influence, the study found, was their avidity for new experiences.

A classic example came with the Volkswagen Beetle. In 1953, the first year it became available, only 379 Americans bought the car. By 1966, there were 2,233,305 of them on the road. Even so, it should not be assumed that the first 379 sought to proselytize. Nor were they necessarily sociable, although they were probably willing to talk about their purchase if someone asked. Perhaps the Beetle was destined to succeed, but its success couldn’t have happened without a group of people who were willing to do something a little different and make the new car visible on the streets.

A similar process occurs in some political campaigns. There is no way a candidate can shake every hand, or meet face-to-face with more than a small fraction of voters. So they settle for small gatherings, sometimes only a dozen people on folding chairs. But those who do attend are more curious than most, and if the candidates are lucky, the ones who came will be listened to by others who are not as politically active. This is essentially how Patty Murray of Washington, Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, and Charles Schumer of New York got to the United States Senate. They originally became known by impressing fairly small groups of unknown people who were drawn to politics and were linked to networks of other people who were, at least, willing to vote.

On March 26, The Tipping Point arrived in twenty-eighth place on the New York Times’s expanded best-seller list. During the next three weeks, it rose from seventeenth to thirteenth to tenth place. Was an epidemic underway? Apparently not. By May 7, it had dropped to eighteenth place.

  1. 1

    Quoted in an interview with Paul Wilson, “Urban Legend,” Saturday Night (March 2000), p. 40.

  2. 2

    Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in Mass Communications (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1955).