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Big Thinkers and Charter Cities ft. Thomas De Quincey: When Urban Consumption Opportunities are a Bad Thing?

Join our research team on an exploration of the key ideas from notable thinkers in political philosophy, economics, political science, urban planning, and other traditions as they relate to charter cities in our Big Thinkers blog series.

Modern scholars agree that urban consumption costs are high, some scholars acknowledge that there are wider consumption benefits for urban dwellers. Thomas de Quincey in 1821, through an opium-addicted fog, urges us to think carefully more carefully about these two statements. We can distill that urge into a number of simple statements, what do we consume, where do we consume, and how do we consume? There is more to consumption than unleashing consumer sovereignty.

Urban scholars have widely agreed on the benefits of density, when people and firms live, work, socialize, and play close to each other, they create mutually beneficial agglomeration effects. Firms learn from collaborators and competitors, workers learn from each other, and these interactions generate a virtuous circle of rising productivity. While scholars are widely agreed on the production benefits of urban dwelling, they also tend to highlight the consumption costs of urban dwelling. In cities, workers pay higher rents for housing, they spend longer commuting to work, and pay higher prices in shops.

There is ample evidence for these consumption costs, using here the case study of Sub-Saharan Africa. A World Bank study in the mid-2000s found that the cost of travel by the ubiquitous informal minibuses of Sub-Saharan African cities were expensive and unaffordable even for an average household. As a consequence, people couldn’t afford to commute at a distance by minibus or else were compelled to live close to work (often in slums). In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania for example, 70% of trips are made by walking. Data from international price comparisons show that housing is also costly in urban Africa. Relative to their income levels urban residents pay 55% more for housing in Africa than they do in other global regions. Household surveys show that households in Africa pay about 35% more for food. Overall, data from 2015 show that after controlling for income levels, African cities are about 30% more expensive than comparable cities elsewhere. Higher costs force African firms to pay 50% more in labor costs than equivalent firms elsewhere. Unit labor costs are three-times higher in Djiboutiville, Djibouti, than in Mumbai, India and 20% higher in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania than in Dhaka, Bangladesh. A study using data from World Bank Enterprise Surveys, of 5,467 firms and 25 countries found that industrial labor costs in Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, and Ethiopia were double or more those in Bangladesh.

Someone once said of economists, that they are ‘people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing’. This is true about urban economists. Economists have clearly established the price disadvantages of cities; economists have neglected the wider consumption advantages of city-living.

The world outside economics is replete with examples of these wider consumption advantages; to take two from literature and biography. In the novel Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, published in 1860, the hero Pip, bids “farewell, monotonous acquaintances of my childhood, henceforth I was for London and greatness”. Pip then finds pleasure to glorious excess in London, joining clubs, keeping late hours, late company, and, “I soon contracted expensive habits and began to spend an amount of money that within a few short months I should have thought absolutely fabulous”. In the autobiographical trilogy that begins with Cider with Rosie, by the second volume As I Walked Out One Morning, published in 1969, the 19-year old author Laurie Lee, leaves the village of his birth and childhood and finds glorious opportunities in London. London offers sumptuous nutrition, “once pricked with the fork is exploded magnificently with a rich lava of beefy juices” and resplendent choice, “After paying for my lodgings, I had £1 to spend, which could be broken up in a hundred ways. A tot of whisky cost sixpence, a pint of beer fourpence-half penny, cigarettes were eleven pence for twenty. The best seats in the cinema cost ninepence to a shilling, or I should climb to the gallery for threepence. Then there were fairs and music halls, Russian ballet at the Alhambra, Queen’s Hall concerts – seldom more than a shilling, Suits made to measure for fifty bob, sixpenny dances, ninepenny suppers.” Later, in Spain, there was more urban consumption extravagance, “By now I was gorged with stew and warmed to idiocy by wine; I was the stranger, but felt at home.” And in Madrid, Spain there were, “banquets of seafood: craggy oysters, crabs, calamares heaped in golden rings, fresh lobsters twitching on beds of palm-leaves, bowls of mussels and feathery shrimps.”.

There are some exceptions among economists, urban dwelling Harvard economics Professor and noted city enthusiast Ed Glaeser offers us four non-price benefits to urban dwelling, or what he calls ‘critical urban amenities’. Firstly, while the earlier generation of catalogue sales in the 1980s and the rise of Amazon more recently mean that manufactured goods can be consumed anywhere in a country with almost equal ease, cities offer a much richer variety of services and consumer goods. Restaurants, theaters, and an attractive mix of social partners are hard to transport, and so remain locally produced and consumed goods.

Love and food are not always local goods. Some ten years ago Melissa Noble flew around the world to resume a relationship with ex-boyfriend Sam. As Melissa wisely notes, “That real love is not always rainbows and butterflies – you have to work at it”. Sometimes hard work involves long-distance flights to consume urban romance. In 2015 whilst at the Football World Cup (Soccer for my American friends) in Brazil, curry loving Mustafa Azim paid $7,117.25 to have a takeaway curry delivered from his local restaurant in England to Brazil.

The second amenity is the aesthetic physical setting of cities. There is little empirical evidence connecting the beauty of cities and how successful are those cities. The third amenity is good public services, which globally, tend to be better provided in urban than in rural areas. Public services such as schooling, health, and sanitation are subject to economies of scale and specialization, so are cheaper to provide for a dense rather than a dispersed population. Estimates of the cost of proving urban infrastructure indicate that doubling urban density reduces the per capita cost of a package of infrastructure improvements by about 25%. The fourth amenity is speed. The range of services (and jobs) available in a city is a function of the ease with which residents can travel. Areas close to the central business district (CBD) have succeeded while outer areas of cities have done less well. In New York since 1980 for example, areas close to Wall Street have done extremely well, in terms of inward migration of residents, income of those residents, and the growth of urban amenities such as restaurants, entertainment, and retail.  

Ed Glaeser argues that the future of cities depends on the net effect of these two trends. When increasing incomes, technological change (Amazon) and reduced transport costs turn more consumption into national goods and remote working reduces the reliance on face-to-face contact to experience agglomeration externalities, this will reduce the advantages of cities and cities will decline. When the consumption advantages of cities become more important, then cities will grow. Glaeser is clear, “Our advice for local leaders is to pay attention to creating consumer cities”.

It is a surprising source that we seek further enlightenment on the question of cities and consumption. 

Thomas de Quincey was born in 1785, and was an outstanding scholar as a child. The early death of his father from tuberculosis, later emerged as a theme of his recurrent dreams, which proved to be an enduring influence. Though he had friends and good relations with the teachers, he found the conformity of family and school life overbearing. De Quincey passed through three schools, in Bath, Wiltshire, and finally, the famous Manchester Grammar School, in quick succession. From the latter school, he fled and spent months during the winter of 1802-03 wandering through Wales, much of the time in near starvation. These privations created a susceptibility to a painful gastric condition, for which, ten years later he began to administer an easily available medicine. De Quincey hauled himself back into respectability during the four years (1804-08) he studied at Worcester College, in the University of Oxford. De Quincey failed to take his degree and in 1808 returned to his wanderings, this time through London and the English countryside, now studying philosophy. After getting married, and being driven to earn a living by the financial demands of a burgeoning family life, De Quincey made a precarious living as a journalist in Edinburgh, writing articles and reviews, mostly in the journals, Blackwood’s and Tait’s, and spent 16 months as editor of the Westmorland Gazette.

Dreams and a bad stomach, these childhood influences proved a formative influence. What finally brought them together was opium. Lots of opium. Lots of opium consumed over five decades. Between 1804 and 1812 de Quincey took opium at regular intervals, but only for controlled, recreational use. In 1813 suffering from an “appalling irritation of the stomach” he began to take opium daily, became addicted, and despite frequent attempts to control the dosage remained an addict until his death in 1859.

De Quincey published ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ in 1821 as a serial in the London Magazine, and in 1822 in book form. It formed a shocking, thrilling, and fascinating disclosure to the wider public about the effects of opium. The serial had a huge impact and became a national obsession over dinner party gossip, revelations in magazines, and discussion in serious journals. Originally published anonymously, the true identity of de Quincey soon became known and people thereafter clamored to meet him. The Confessions was a seminal influence on later writers such as Branwell Bronte and Edgar Allan Poe. More than the salacious tales of opium addiction, de Quincey was most interested in how opium induced dreams. Long before Sigmund Freud, The Confessions explored the influence of childhood on the subconscious mind. Opium could induce dreams but it was the totality of character and life history that gave meaning and content to those dreams. As de Quincey put it,

If a man ‘whose talk is of oxen should become an opium-eater, the probability is (if he is not too dull to dream at all) – he will dream about oxen

Thomas de Quincey experienced all those urban benefits that Ed Glaeser noted 180 years later. In The Confessions, he notes the easy availability of a “reviving glass of port wine and spices” and the easy access to networks of friends and acquaintances (those agglomeration externalities), including a “gentleman in Albermarle Street”, an old family friend, who offers relief from his current hardship. De Quincey offers us more nuance than the mechanistic assumption that urban areas offer only consumption benefits. While economists focus on the opportunities offered by a large number of fellow workers or firms, de Quincey records how crowds could create anonymity and hinder the ability to make connections. “I walked in London, a solitary and contemplative man”. De Quincey loses a friend who misses a rendezvous in Oxford Street, knowing only her first name, he never finds her again, and the loss haunts him for the rest of his life.

Above all, city life for de Quincey is about the greater consumption opportunities on offer. In late 1804 de Quincey woke with excruciating rhematic pains of the head and face”, after twenty more days of suffering, a college acquaintance recommended opium to ease the pain. Even though it was Sunday afternoon, opium was easily, legally, and cheaply available (de Quincey received ample change from a shilling) across the counter at any pharmacy. His rheumatic pains vanished; the pains became a “trifle” in an “abyss of divine enjoyment”.

Glaeser emphasizes the importance of consumer sovereignty. As the best judge of their own preferences, adult individuals are able to make informed choices, and liberating choices through urbanization increases individual and so social welfare. In contrast to the benefits of consumer sovereignty Glaeser offers crime as a downside of urban density. The contrast is clear, legal consumption good, crime bad. The Confessions offers a very different and more nuanced perspective about the implications of legal consumption.  

The introduction by Alethea Hayter to a 1971 edition of The Confessions noted that in purchasing and consuming opium in prodigious quantities for half a century, “de Quincey was breaking no law, public opinion was not against him or focused on him, supplies of the drug were cheap and easy to buy, and its dangers – though nearly as great then as now – were not understood.” As de Quincey himself noted in The Confessions, “the number of amateur opium eaters was, at this time, immense” and “on a Saturday afternoon the counters of the druggists were strewn with pills’. In 1821 opium was commonly prescribed by the doctor, given by nurses to fretful children, and had a vogue among painters and writers. The Confessions highlight the damage inflicted by legal consumption, where once opium was introduced to the mind, “the most exquisite order, legislation, and harmony.” But over time, “opium had long ceased to found its empire on spells of pleasure, it was solely by the tortures connected with the attempt to abjure it, that it kept its hold.

Since the publication of his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida has placed discussion of the creative class at the center of urban debates. The creative class comprises the intrinsically creative such as scientists, writers, engineers, architects, artists, and musicians, and those who use creativity as a key factor in their work in education, health care, law or some other profession. The creative class, argues Florida is building an entire infrastructure around the knowledge and information-based economy. In 1821, The Confessions describes how opium use, initially induced a “remarkable glow of animal spirits” but prolonged use created a torpor and stagnation. Over a two-year period, the journalist de Quincey found both reading and writing to be impossible. Opium induced “indolence and despair, the detested cravings, the reproach of vital tasks unperformed, the disgusts and indignities and withdrawal periods, he lived with chaotic rooms, disordered clothes, hunger, homelessness, and dirt.” Consumption can destroy creativity.

The policy recommendation in Glaeser that urbanists should seek to “promote consumer cities” is not enough. What de Quincey brings to our attention is to think beyond the simple assumption that consumption is good unless it is associated with crime. Cities offer expanded opportunities for all manner of consumption. We have to think carefully, about the consumption of what, how, and when? This more nuanced view of consumption gives us an important insight into big contemporary debates associated discussions about the role of cities and urban policy.

Across Africa, incomes being earned from natural resource exports (such as copper and oil) are being used to stimulate urban consumption in non-tradeable services such as luxury accommodation and retail outlets for imported consumer goods. Sustainable economic growth would be better served by re-orientating African cities away from consumption towards manufacturing production. China seeks to boost consumption to reduce the dependence of the economy on exports, to slow growing US and European markets. The US needs to rebalance its economy away from debt-driven consumption to make more space for investment, exports, and savings. There is a current debate in the UK about the implications of taxing calorie, sugar and salt laden food to tackle obesity. The recent Cop 28 conference on global warming prompted a debate about a global carbon tax to reduce carbon emissions and slow global warming.

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