Nations were designed for war, not trade: it's time for cities to rule the world

Hobbes' Leviathan is dead. Image: public domain.

Just as with Brexit, the US Presidential election result will have the pundits writing about a mass rejection of globalisation. The far right is on the rise, and immigration and tax avoidance are the popular targets.

The benefits of globalisation, especially for alleviating poverty, are quickly forgotten. The public demands that national leaders answer their fears. This has presented social democrats with a staggering challenge, a challenge that remains unanswered. How can social democratic politicians in a national government bring balance to an international market?

The Donald Trumps of this world have thrived on talk of closing borders – but in fact, it is the competitive nature of nation states that makes it hard to address the balance. For example, instead of co-operating together on tax, countries compete to have a tax system that is seen as the most attractive to business. In 2013, developing countries lost $1.1trn in tax evasion and illicit finance. The rate of those losses increases at double the rate of global GDP.

The free flow of capital led, in part, to the 2008 financial crisis. The obvious solution is international capital controls – yet this isn't even debated by social democrats.

Then take migration, the far right's favourite stick to beat social democrats with. With the possible exception of North Korea, what nation state hasn't had migration throughout its existence? 

This is social democracy’s Gordian Knot. We believe government should bring balance to the market. Meanwhile, those who feel powerless by globalisation demand protection through strengthened nations, which can lead to culturism and worse, racism. They point at “them” and demand borders and walls to protect “us”. Such a stance leaves us institutionally divided at a time when humanity needs to co-operate globally to address the world's financial challenges. 


In fact, the modern concept of nation state is a 17th century institution designed for war, not regulating trade. Hobbes' Leviathan rooted the social contract in security. As European monarchs realised that embracing capitalism and scientific exploration could expand their power, the need to separate “us” from “them” became pertinent. Only three years of the 17th century were without war between European nations: indeed, as the oldest among us remember first hand, war ravaged Europe until 1945. Nationalism became a useful means for colonial subjects to resist imperial rule. 

Today, the founding purpose of the nation state has never been less relevant. Since 1945, no UN recognised nation state has been conquered and ceased to exist. Even prior to 1945, the last serious international war in South America ended in 1941. Today conflict is mostly within nations (think Syria's civil war) or limited to border skirmishes and armed interventions. Only Africa provides more numerous exceptions to this trend.

This is an achievement of globalisation. War has become too expensive. We possess the technology to kill the powerful as they sit in the Kremlin or the White House far behind enemy lines. Meanwhile, peace has never been so profitable. The growth of long distance trade and foreign investment means that international peace brings much more wealth than international war used to. As globalisation continues, the raison d'être of nations will move towards irrelevance.

And the public are beginning to realise this. The Remainers demanding Calexit and Londependece are not just having a strop. It is illuminating that their reaction to electoral loss is not to protest the result, but to seek to replace a nation state with a smaller state rooted in a common humanity. Such states would be interdependent upon other power centres in order to survive. The Londepenence meeting I attended last weekend confirmed this.

As the global population grows and becomes increasingly urbanised, it seems more and more likely that such interdependent power centres will be based on cities or group of cities. The social justice challenge for progressives in the 21st century is how to ensure that, in a world of interdependent metropolitans, no one outside of these clusters gets left behind. 

Mark Rowney tweets at @markrowney. This article was previously published on our sister site, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.