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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Learning to Love the Low Road

Economic theory teaches us to see beauty where others see only ugliness

FEE has taught me to see beauty in the trash and filth at the edge of the city.

There are two main roads out of my neighborhood. One goes uphill and is lined with tended gardens, large front lawns (and, as I’ve learned from the satellite views of Google Maps, much, much larger backyards), and million-dollar houses. The other road descends to the riverside, where the construction companies and warehouses are still allowed to set up shop. There aren't a lot of industrial zones left within Charlottesville city limits, although I’m confident the city is originally the product of industry and trade along the river, well before Thomas Jefferson turned this area into a university town.

When I first bought a house at this convergence of high and low, I always drove in and out of the neighborhood along the attractive, residential avenue. Eventually, I started taking the low road, so to speak, if urgency or practicality required it — but I averted my eyes and regretted living so close to the bulldozers and 18-wheelers.

These days, I enjoy driving along the riverside route, alternating views of fenced yards and newly tiled roofs with the parking lots full of vehicles that had to be towed there. (A new sign reads, “We Buy Junk Cars!”)

For most of my life, I’ve hated industrial areas. That aversion presented itself as an ideological stance (accepting unquestioningly the conservative and socialist propaganda against the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath), but really the antipathy was aesthetic. Factories are ugly. Warehouses are bleak. Construction equipment is dingy at its best and decrepit at its worst. It tends to be surrounded by derelict structures, rusted scrap, and the scattered trash of beer cans, soda bottles, and food wrappers. They also tend to be surrounded by the poor and unwashed — sometimes workers, sometimes tramps.

I’m trying to remember a sentiment that I no longer feel, an attitude I’ve not only abandoned but practically reversed myself on.

I do still know that the flowers and lawns and the older, less utilitarian architecture of the high road can be beautiful. I don’t love the river road enough to prefer it for family walks. But I will take solo walks there, and when I drive alone, I sometimes go slowly and admire what I see.

It was a quick transition between my older attitude and my current one, and I was aware of the shift when it happened. It was when I had just started reading up on economics and was first exposed to the Austrian school and its business-cycle theory. Suddenly, I stopped seeing filthy bulldozers and started seeing capital equipment. Distaste for paved lots full of construction vehicles transformed into an awareness of idle capital during one of the business cycle’s lows. The Austrians emphasize that the damage is done to the economy during the heady boom times, while the apparent crisis is actually the opportunity for recovery (absent more intervention). From this perspective, idle capital doesn’t look like waste; it looks like healing. Our river road now looks like the road to recovery.

This view isn’t limited to the bust period of the cycle. When you become aware of the critical importance of capital equipment to the creation of wealth — by which I mean the greater wealth we all share, compared with other parts of history and other parts of the world — the industrial zones can become beautiful. You just need to see them through the eyes of understanding.

That doesn’t mean we should all start entering our favorite restaurants through the kitchen. I’m not insisting that our admiration for the plumbing should require us to spend more time in the sewers. But in general, ignorance of the most important parts of our world can make them uglier to us than they have to be. And while I’m still glad to have the residential route, I find it beneficial to live on the margin between how we as a society express our wealth and how we create it in the first place.