Two months ago, we announced our second annual writing competition, this year on the topic of cost, metrics, and measurement in urban life. We asked entrants to explore or respond to — through narrative, theory, history, or humor — the increasingly quantitative language that pervades contemporary analysis of behavior, consumption habits, settlement patterns, environmental imperatives, or quality of life.
Today, we are pleased to announce the winner of this year’s competition. In “The City That Never Shouts,” Steven Higashide imagines a near future in New York City, in which a new City agency — the Department of Externalities — monitors and evaluates the social and environmental effects of everyday actions.
In the coming weeks we will publish two runners-up from the Fuzzy Math writing competition. But first, read Higashide’s winning essay below, accompanied by a series of original illustrations by artist and designer Terence Mallon.—V.S.
March 22, 2030:
At 6:30 pm on the E train, I give in to temptation. I open my bag, root around for a warm foil package, and unwrap my lamb and vegetable pita sandwich (with extra white sauce, and just a little hot sauce). I feel the seat shift under me as people adjust their weight and turn away. I look over at the young couple next to me. She’s wrinkled her nose. His eyes have widened a bit.
“You’re making me starve, bro,” he says.
“Don’t let that sauce get on me,” she says.
I take a big bite and stall for time. The next 15 seconds are awkward. All I can think about is how delicious the white sauce is, and how I’ve never been able to figure out what’s in it. And then I’m done chewing. “Sorry,” I say. “I’ll be done soon.” I reach into my pocket for quarters, and hand them one each.
The woman does not look appeased. “I hate lamb,” she says matter-of-factly. Her boyfriend extends his hand to make some kind of calming gesture, but she waves him off. So I’m out another quarter.
Life has changed since they appointed a new commissioner at the Department of Externalities.
I’m sure you remember. Two mayors ago, the City created the Department of Externalities (DOEx, “dee-oh-ex,” for short) to correct urban spillover effects. Its mandate was to find and fix instances where prices were too high or too low because of externalities – situations where social costs or benefits weren’t being reflected in the price of a good.
The first thing DOEx took on was driving. If you can believe this, just 15 years ago many drivers didn’t have to pay tolls to enter Manhattan, even though it was the most congested, least suitable place for cars in America. Drivers paid for gas and parking, of course, but those costs didn’t account for all the congestion and pollution caused by cars in the central city – not to mention the hundreds of annual traffic deaths. In fact, near the turn of the century economists had found that a rush-hour trip into Manhattan imposed more than $150 in costs on other people.* The city didn’t set tolls at $150, of course. But they raised them high enough to cut down on traffic congestion, and the money went to the subways and buses so people had other ways to get around.
Since then, the transportation network has been totally transformed. Well, transformed is a bit much. But we built a new subway line and we’re building another. It seems like there’s a bus lane on every street. Stations might even have air conditioning soon.
This might be why DOEx has started spending time on individual externalities. In the 1990s, Joe might pay $5 for a pack of cigarettes. But if he smoked it in a bar, he wouldn’t have to pay for everyone else’s discomfort, health damage, or dry cleaning bills. These days, as soon as Joe lit up there’d be such a furor he’d have to start handing out $10 bills – or he’d just choose to go outside. (By the way, I know this isn’t the greatest example, since you’re no longer allowed to smoke in pubs, parks, or on even-numbered streets.)
There are positive externalities too. When I get my flu shot, I benefit everyone else by reducing their risk of catching the bug. Now the City gives you 100 points of credit for getting the shot. And I remembered to get it this year, so maybe it’s working.
I should explain that the system mostly works on credit. It’s mostly anonymous, tied to phones and the CityChip everyone carries around. Do something that really bothers people and you’ll get slammed with negative externality credit. Eventually, this translates into real money that you need to pay the City. So sometimes people just settle things up front in cash, like I did with the lamb-haters.
It’s a more civilized city now. Sound used to be a huge externality, especially in neighborhoods with a lot of rowdy drunks (who have never cared much about externalities). But I haven’t been woken up by a house party in the last three months. Bars have put tens of thousands of dollars into soundproofing.
I used to be a habitual train eater – my old girlfriend and I would do takeout on the seats – but now I save it for truly desperate situations. Speaking of which, I’m relieved to finally reach my stop and escape the prevailing anti-lamb sentiment.
As I walk down the station platform, a wild mix of Billy Joel and Latin pop blares from the end car. It’s what we call the “pariah car” – where folks who don’t pay their transit externalities have to ride. It’s all the circles of subway Hell jumbled together: headphone leakers, people who clip their nails on the train, the unwashed, and a few unlucky performers. The young men who dance on subway poles have found that in any ‘hood that starts with “Upper” and ends with “Side” they could lose their entire day’s take.
This homogenizing aspect of the system is receiving more and more criticism. There are four pending lawsuits from residents who claim they’ve gotten negative credit because of their ethnicity. Last month, a Stuyvesant junior posted an anonymous manifesto, “Negative Externalities are the POINT of Adolescence!!!!!” It has over 70,000 Facebook Likes so far. The bad kids brag up their negative points. I was on the M14 bus in October when I heard someone from outside scream, “Neg party!” Seconds later, the windshield went opaque, plastered with four cartons’ worth of eggs.
There’s a truly dark case, as well: The Pariah Vigilante. He (well, the cops believe the perpetrator is male) finds people who have racked up negative credit. And then he kills them – four of them so far. Of course, he’s got an online cheering section of people who say he’s ridding New York of insensitive jerks. The truth is that two of his victims were mentally challenged homeless men. This externality system hasn’t helped them one bit; they’re even more isolated than before. Every time one of them acts out, he or she gets buried under a mountain of negative credit. You’d think that homelessness is a problem the Department should handle at a macro level, but they’ve been in no rush to tackle it. In fact, tomorrow there’s a City Council hearing on this very subject.
As I reach the top of the stairs, a neatly dressed panhandler rattles her cup. I drop in my last quarter and feel good about myself. Not that I get any credit for the action, since all I’ve done is directly benefit her. No spillover effect there. But I think DOEx has spilled over into my way of thinking. I feel more self-reflective, more aware of the consequences of my actions.
And just as there are dark cases, there’s also a new class of the hyper-virtuous. Some people try to rack up the positive points. On my block, volunteers have planted half a dozen new trees, which give me better air, plus some shade and beauty. And the Republican candidate for mayor has thousands of points in positive credit, according to the papers. (He hasn’t touted this in public, since one of his central campaign planks is abolishing DOEx. But it’s obvious someone on his staff leaked the news.)
As for me, I don’t try to do much one way or the other. I’ve always been someone who tries to mind his own business and not disturb others. I mean, eating on the train aside. Count me as a quiet supporter of DOEx – at least the concept, if not necessarily this commissioner. It’s sort of like my parents said: “Do unto others as you want to be done to you.”
Although, I don’t think “Minimize those actions which result in negative societal externalities” has the same ring to it.
* This estimate comes from energy economist Charles Komanoff’s well-regarded Balanced Transportation Analyzer model. See, for example, Felix Salmon’s “The Man Who Could Unsnarl Manhattan Traffic,” Wired, May 24, 2010.