Some Infernal Metaphors to Understand NYC's Government
Most people don’t know anything about government, especially the more intelligent, who trick themselves into believing they do.1 There are tons of reasons why people don’t learn about these fundamental structures of their world, and I’ve written about some of them already.2 And while this post is another attempt to shed light on this behavior, it’s not a technical analysis. It’s some short yarn spinning that features good ole’ Satan.3
“The Devil’s in the details.”
This lesson has been pounded into us all at the civilizational level, and in several variations. We know that fine print is classic devilry. We know to be careful what you wish for, because broad wishful intentions aren’t actually as important as their object-level implementation (beware the curling of the monkey’s paw).4 And we know that surface impressions can hide great depths—kind exteriors hide raging storms, and icebergs sink titans.
I’d render the broad lesson this way: only when you understand a thing in its totality (or model it decently well) can you understand its true nature. Details, technical specifics, and concretes are key to this.
Most voters who otherwise consider themselves intelligent enough to know about “second and nth order effects” vote blindly, usually not even understanding what each office on the ballot does (including mayor, president, etc). Their general approach to politics and government is the same, at best.
So our largest problems remain unsolved.
But if we know that the devil’s in the details, and that a key to understanding why we are bedeviled is in the detail of government and law, why don’t we5 gather the exorcists and charge boldly forth? Why not learn the detail, find the bad policies, strategize, organize, and exorcize?
Well, the devil didn’t get this far by being dumb. He knows that we know that he lives in the details, and he has taken appropriate—and so far very successful!—defensive measures.
He has weaponized the details.
“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he doesn’t exist.”
If your opponent doesn’t think you’re there, they won’t set up defenses to counter you. If you can stay invisible, you can be left alone to wreak what you please. The best battles are often those not fought, etc.
In the case of the government, the devil just makes the details soul-crushingly boring. Humans can tolerate a lot, but for many of us extended boredom is a cardinal sin, not to mention counter to our nature as social, productive, and novelty-seeking creatures.
His Most Infernalness’s goal is to provoke the thought, “It’s not worth looking into.”6
Important laws that constrain what and whether our cities can build are called names like the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or the Zoning Resolution7—heaven absolutely forfend the word “ordinance.” That’s enough to send most people heading for the hills by itself.
These laws are contained in hundreds and thousands of pages, all in inaccessible and inconvenient formats that make it impossible to see how they connect to, and interact with, the larger governmental system. Even if you’re the bold type to venture into the details, you’ll find that the devil has increased them massively—more room to hide, and more room to tire you out in the search.8
But if you are the kind of person who will get through the details, no matter how voluminous, the devil’s last line of defense against you, the citizen who would like to take the wheel of their city and their world, is belligerent boredom, or government via ham-and-maynase. The feeling you get when encountering the bull-headed, stubborn, ill-informed, and administratively loquacious groups that have carved out small fiefdoms throughout our legal regulatory processes. These are the people you find in public meetings and community boards of various kinds, and if giant piles of paper didn’t scare you off, the feeling that these are the people in charge of any portion of our metropolis will.
That is, unless you’re part of a group of friends who can help you. Who can guide you through the maelstrom of detail, and help you see atypical and creative paths through it together. Who are bold in the face of petit tyrants, who do not demand that you crawl over broken glass to achieve political ends, who pursue the devil to his last cave and evenly square off with him. Find those people, or be one yourself. This is the essence of Maximum New York.
And, to bring things up from hell for a moment: “the devil” is merely the name we give to (among other things) the emergent product of a society of people acting according to bad incentives. Those incentives are put in place by laws that were enacted at one time by mere mortals, and you can know what those laws are, and you can change them. The first step is to learn and connect with others who aim just as judiciously, and just as boldly.
This post also appears on the Maximum New York Substack.
This is done in many ways, but the most common (and often unconsciously deployed) is succumbing to the anti-concreteness meme. Never be specific about government and how it works, or you’ll realize you don’t know how. ↩
The anti-politics meme; treating politics as simple; not taking politics seriously; defaulting to a sports mentality; thinking “we, but not me” (see also footnote 5); most people are so ignorant they don’t even know how to begin learning about government. ↩
Just as an aside, I don’t believe in an actual devil; the usage here is all metaphor. Insofar as I would believe in one, I agree with the protagonist Betty in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1907 novel The Shuttle: “‘I have never objected to the devil,’ said Betty. ‘He is an energetic, hard-working creature and paints himself an honest black.’” ↩
Accordingly, we know the path to hell is paved with good intentions! ↩
“We” is a weasel word a lot of the time; beware the writer who uses “we” to mean “other people, but not me,” and consider whether you’re a reader who thinks “other people, but not me.” In Citizens Who Build I called it “a convenient rhetorical tool often used to mean all of us in aggregate, but practically excusing any reader or writer individually.” ↩
The technical term for this thought is “Fuck this!” ↩
New York City’s 1961 Zoning Resolution is, in fact, the throne upon which Satan sits. ↩
For NYC this is laid out primarily, but not entirely, in our city charter, which is published and updated for the public by a seemingly random publishing company in Cincinnati, OH. It’s hundreds of pages that our legislators don’t take any care to make easily legible (not even to themselves). Nonetheless, I am not deterred. ↩