Economics, What's Esthetics Got to Do With It?

In her 1984 book Cities and the Wealth of Nations, the remarkable Jane Jacobs writes not about economics, but about economic life. She observes economies in motion, not in stasis, and argues that city regions are the heart of that economic life – pulsing, changing, and engaging in "exuberant episodes of import-replacing." 
 
She worries that the policies of nation states hold back the individualized development and diversification of cities, leading to stagnation and deterioration. She seeks examples of how cities can counter this generalized tendency to decay under the monoculture of a national economy. She finds hope in the cultivation of differentiated form and style. That is to say, she finds it in esthetics.
 

In the final chapter of Cities and the Wealth of Nations, titled "Drift," she references a Japanese anthropologist,Tadao Umesao, who "observes that historically the Japanese have always done better when they drifted in an empirical, practical fashion than when they attempted to operate by 'resolute purpose' and 'determined will.'" Umesao coins the phrase "an esthetics of drift" to describe this characteristic. Jane Jacobs adapts this concept to describe what is required of cities to remain open to the place-based innovation that will foster creative and appropriate new small businesses.  

"In its very nature, successful economic development has to be open-ended rather than goal-oriented, and has to make itself up expediently and empirically as it goes along."
 
"'Industrial strategies' to meet 'targets' using 'resolute purpose,' 'long-range planning' and 'determined will' express a military kind of thinking.  Behind that thinking lies a conscious or unconscious assumption that economic life can be conquered, mobilized, bullied, as indeed it can be when it is directed toward warfare, but not when it directs itself to development and expansion."
 
"All big things grow from little things, but new little things are destroyed by their environments unless they are cherished for reasons more like esthetic appreciation than practical utility."
 
Wendell Berry made much the same argument in his historic 2012 Jefferson Memorial Lecture, but he would use the word "affection." It is lack of affection for community, for place, for people, for land that has wrought such an ugly economy and degraded the countryside and the lives of country people.  
 
Judy Wicks would call it "Love." Her love for her Philadelphia neighborhood, for her customers and staff, for goats and pigs and chickens, led her to grow the particular business that was the White Dog Cafe, and to shape its particular relations with the farmers who raised the greens and pork served at the restaurant. There will be no chain of White Dog Cafes. There cannot be. It grew from a specific aesthetic, a cultivated affection, and the boundless love of a single woman. But it inspired replication – suggested a form and style – and led to a bubbling up of other "new little" enterprises in the city – a step towards turning Philadelphia into the vibrant, diverse, job generating, import-replacing city Jane Jacobs would wish.
 
This Valentine's Day, the staff of the Schumacher Center sent its love to all those entrepreneurs and their citizen partners who have cultivated an "esthetics of drift" in their business approach, cherishing their place-inspired creations, and encouraging multiple episodes of lively imitation.