Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Review of Jane Jacobs' Dark Age Ahead

New York: Random House, 2004, 241 pp., $23.95 hardbound

Jane Jacobs’s book Dark Age Ahead, published last year, is a major disappointment. In her most famous book, Life and Death of Great American Cities, Jacobs’s arguments are close to those of the Austrians and other free marketeers. She argues that communities need to evolve spontaneously, and that large scale planning schemes such as the urban renewal of the 1950s had been a failure.

Dark Age Ahead shows that without an underlying theoretical grasp, even the most brilliant authors with the most brilliant insights, such as those evinced in Life and Death of Great American Cities, are likely to falter. In Dark Age Ahead Jacobs claims that Western civilization is teetering on a Dark Age because our culture cannot cope with technological change and interest group pressure on public policy. Ms. Jacobs defines a Dark Age to be a state of cultural amnesia, a “horrible ordeal” where a previous way of life slides into “an abyss of forgetfulness” (pp.6-7). She claims that five trends interactively evidence an incipient Dark Age. These include: (i) The decline of the suburban family and community, (ii) credentialing in higher education, (iii) second-rate science in fields like traffic engineering, (iv) incompetently managed public finance systems and (v) the decline of ethics in the accounting profession.

With respect to the decline of the family and community, Ms. Jacobs points out that the spirit of community characteristic of the urban neighborhoods of the 1950s is missing in twenty-first century suburban communities. Her point that modern urban planning has resulted in the deterioration of community spirit and family relationships is similar to arguments in Death and Life of Great American Cities.

In the second chapter, Ms. Jacobs argues that credentialing, or an emphasis on obtaining a degree regardless of the quality of the underlying education, has become the primary business of North American universities. Complaints about the rituals of higher education date back at least to Thorstein Veblen’s (1993) Higher Learning in America, and in light of this tradition Ms. Jacobs does a credible job of depicting higher education’s transformation into an employment signal. In her view credentialing has served the narrow economic interests of universities as well as employers.

With respect to second-rate science, Ms. Jacobs criticizes the lack of scientific imagination of traffic engineers, public health experts at the Centers for Disease Control, and Canadian economists.

In a chapter entitled “Dumbed-Down Taxes” Ms. Jacobs discusses the fourth trend, incompetently managed public finance systems. Ms. Jacobs argues that government works best when it is responsible to the people it serves, and that this objective is best satisfied when government finances are transparent. Government accounting and budgeting processes often serve to cloak what “provincial kleptocracies” (p.110) do with federal grants. Not enough resources are available for social programs, and there is an absence of fiscal accountability because government accounting information is obscure. Her concerns about fiscal responsibility and budgetary equity in Canadian provinces are similar to issues that face state governments in the U.S.

Ms. Jacobs’s observations with respect to the fifth trend, the decline in professional ethics, notably with respect to the accounting profession, reflects the recent series of corporate scandals involving Adelphia, Enron, Lucent, Tyco, Worldcom and other large firms. This chapter is weak because it confuses issues involving government accounting with the corporate scandals, and fails to address either government accounting or the scandals coherently. Harvard professor Robert N. Anthony (Anthony and Young, 1993) has spent a substantial part of his notable career arguing that government and private sector accounting should not be treated all that differently, and conservative economists such as Mancur Olson (1983) have developed theories that explain the lack of transparency of public sector accounting in terms of special interest group pressure. But problems with government accounting are at most obliquely related to the private sector accounting issues that have been relevant to Enron et al.

An underlying problem with Dark Age Ahead is that Ms. Jacobs’s definition of Dark Age is vacuous. Ms. Jacobs’s definition of a Dark Age as cultural forgetting implies that 18th century American culture is in a Dark Age of cultural forgetting because the techniques of slave driving, horse-drawn carriage driving, and blood letting as a medical cure have been forgotten. Rather, some form of compulsion, elimination of free choice, or erosion of transportation or communication systems would seem to be necessary for a Dark Age.

Social scientists sometimes accuse economists of methodological imperialism when the economists extend their neoclassical paradigm to adjacent fields. In this book Jacobs seems almost imperialistic in discussing education, labor economics, general science and political science.

I had philosophical quibbles with much of the book. For instance, Ms. Jacobs’ claims about the Centers for Disease Control study are overdrawn. Rather than suggesting a Dark Age, the incentive structure provided to government researchers likely offers clues as to why their work was of poor quality. The solution might be to redesign the incentive structure, although the special interest group pressures that government employee unions pose may play a role. Perhaps Ms. Jacobs should have included a chapter on the role that public sector unions play with respect to economic decline.

Likewise, in the chapter on government finance, Ms. Jacobs intelligently argues for fiscal accountability in government. But she also condemns “neo-conservative” approaches to “reinventing government” such as requirements that government programs pay for themselves. Of course, the reason voters often have favored such “neo-conservative” reforms is the very lack of accountability and misuse of government monies that she observes in other contexts. Ms. Jacobs seems to argue both that (a) government programs should be encouraged even though (b) government behaves unaccountably.

Ms. Jacobs is a fine writer and imaginative observer, but this book is far from her most important work. Rather than indicating a Dark Age ahead, many of the issues that she adduces could best be resolved by limiting government, a solution that she paradoxically opposes. It is a significant loss to libertarians that Ms. Jacobs lacks the theoretical rigor that would have directed her toward a more consistently free market solution set. Her ideas are garbled and self-contradictory. This book represents a loss to anyone seriously interested in seeing reform of liberalism’s failed institutions.


Anthony, R.N. and Young, D Management Control in Non-profit Organizations Seventh Edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill/Irwin 2003.

Jacobs, J. Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Olson, M. The Rise and Decline of Nations, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983

Veblen, T. The Higher Learning in America, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1993.

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