Monday, February 01, 2010

The New Feudalism

According to Joel Kotkin, the fifty-year War on Suburbia ended definitively in 2005, then restarted a year later, then threatened to re-restart in 2009 because of Obama's tendency toward eco-Malthusianism, and has now been launched in earnest.

In everything from land use and transportation to “green” energy policy, the Obama administration has been pushing an agenda that seeks to move Americans out of their preferred suburban locales and into the dense, transit-dependent locales they have eschewed for generations.
When Kotkin says that Americans prefer suburbs, what he really means is that they generally prefer single-family homes. And of course, there are single-family homes in cities and small towns, just as there are apartments and condos in suburbia. But as I've complained before, Kotkin tends to treat all non-urban communities as functionally equivalent. It doesn't much matter whether you're in Old Westbury or Lost Hills, Grosse Pointe or Palmdale; as long as you don't live in a big city, your "choice" tends to prove whatever anti-urban point he wants to make.

Unfortunately, the smug urban sophisticates in the Obama administration lack Kotkin's grasp of Human Nature:
[T]he Obama administration seems almost willfully city-centric.
For example, Obama is in favor of high-speed rail.
Economics writer Robert Samuelson, among others, has denounced the high-speed rail idea as “a boondoggle” not well-suited to a huge, multi-centered country like the United States.
'Cause when you think about it, what possible value could high-speed rail have in a country like ours, where multiple urban centers are separated by large distances?

Obama is also threatening to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions, which we can all agree is egregiously city-centric.
[R]egulators can use the threat of climate change as a rationale to stop funding—and permitting—for even well-conceived residential, commercial, or industrial projects construed as likely to generate excess greenhouse gases.
Next thing you know, they'll be using the toxicology of lead as a rationale to deny permits to well-conceived residential projects that just happen to use lead water pipes.

Since Kotkin doesn't seriously believe in global warming, or peak oil, or carrying capacity, or resource depletion, or anything else that could conceivably be invoked as a sensible argument against cornucopian happy talk, he's baffled and a little frightened by people who choose to live in a nightmare world of limits, no matter how tentatively those limits inform their actions.
Administration officials have also started handing out $300 million stimulus-funded grants to cities that follow “smart growth principles.” Grants for cities to adopt “sustainability” oriented development will reward those communities with the proper planning orientation. There is precious little that will benefit suburbanites, such as improved roads or investment in other basic infrastructure.
That "precious little" includes $27.5 billion in highway funds, which my trusty abacus informs me is a lot more than the $300M allocated to smart growth "smart growth." (Scare quotes like these are central to Kotkin's argument, so it'd be unfair to edit them out.)

As you'd expect from someone who's very fond of military metaphors, Kotkin seems to see urban planning as a zero-sum game: every federal dollar that doesn't explicitly benefit his beloved suburbs is part of a scorched-earth attack on the middle class, and therefore on humanity itself. The idea that good urban planning might actually benefit suburban residents seems alien to him. For instance, he treats suburban growth around Portland, OR as a rejection of that city's planning though people were flocking to these areas despite their proximity to Portland, rather than because of it.

Although we're in terrible danger, what with all these New Urbanist radicals threatening our way of life, Americans are sensible people, so everything will be fine.
[S]uch policies have little or no chance of being passed by Congress. Too many representatives come from suburban or rural districts to back policies that would penalize a population that uses automobiles for upwards of 98 percent of their transportation and account for 95 percent of all work trips.
In other words, the fact that we currently have low walkability and poor mass transit is the reason we can't have high walkability and better mass transit. The system works!

Better yet, technological advances will soon make cars much more fuel-efficient, without improving the efficiency of mass transit in any way. This means that we get to compare the glorious new supercars of the Kotkinian workers' paradise with today's antiquated buses, which are ridden primarily by basilisk-eyed welfare queens and hoboes with 100-proof vomit all over their shoes. Never underestimate the power of new technology to carve conventional wisdom in stone!

Speaking of which, did you know that many of our environmental problems can be solved by telecommuting? From suburbia, I mean? Laugh if you want, but modern technology has allowed Kotkin to retool the same pro-sprawl arguments again and again, and send them electronically to various media outlets without leaving his gracious single-family home. Multiply that gain in efficiency by, say, 150 million people, and you can see that federal regulation of CO2 emissions is a waste of time, in addition to being immoral.

From here, we proceed directly to Kotkin's traditional litany of complaints against liberal snobbery and doomsaying. Tweedy academics say suburbs are drab and ugly, even though the people who live in them seem to like it just fine. Liberals say suburbs are "the racist spawn of 'white flight,'" just because "in 1970 nearly 95 percent of suburbanites were white." Environmentalists say it's possible to run out of oil and water and land, even though that kind of talk makes people feel bad. With enemies like these, suburban developers and homebuyers (and the banks who lend to them, and the politicians who subsidize them) must be doing something right!

In conclusion, Kotkin warns us about a looming "new feudalism," in which "questions of land ownership and decision making would be shifted away from citizens, neighbors, or markets and left in the hands of self-appointed 'betters.'" As if anything could be "better" than market decisions with which Kotkin agrees! Nulle terre sans seigneur, motherfuckers!

Be sure to tune in next month, when the War on Suburbia will either end again or start anew, depending on whether the coin Kotkin flipped came up heads or tails.

(Image at top: Oppressed cottagers use appropriate technology to create a locavorist "garden city" on a royal desmesne in 12th-century Northumberland.)

2 comments: said...

We have created a link to this article.
Our website,, strives to be a valuable resource for learning about - and expressing your opinions on - all the issues of the day. We invite all political writers to visit us, and perhaps set up a profile, and post more links to articles such as this.

Jazzbumpa said...

I'm a bit concerned about new feudalism myself, but for a different set of reasons.