Mike the Mad Biologist

There’s been some discussion about Joel Kotkin’s argument “The War Against Suburbia“, kicked off by The NY Times making it their Idea of the Day. Leaving aside whether there should be a ‘war against suburbia’, it’s just not true. First, there has been a decades-long policy of federal subsidization of housing prices through the mortgage interest tax deduction. Since there are far more homeowners in suburbs than in cities, this is a massive wealth transfer to suburbs. Also, Obama’s non-cramdown policies which have the effect of (temporarily) keeping housing prices higher than they should be are also pro-suburb.

Second, road construction is massively subsidized at the federal and state levels. If these costs were ‘PAYGO’–that is, not externalized, and, instead, paid in full through gas prices, licensing and registration fees, and car taxes–that would be a ‘war on suburbia’ (or reasonable policy, take your pick).

Third, gas prices are subsidized by federal tax breaks (the gas tax doesn’t fully cover that). Again, suburbanites, because they use more gas, receive far more subsidies than urbanites.

Fourth, our lending policies stink: neither Fannie Mae nor Freddie Mae will even touch home loans in mixed-use properties. Again, more money for suburbs–if there’s a war, cities certainly aren’t winning.

And this is before one looks at funding allocations within states, which are often biased towards suburban areas, not urban ones.

It’s a silly idea from an economic perspective, but this is really just an episode of narcissism (italics mine):

Atrios says, “This is completely idiotic for mostly obvious reasons, including the hundreds of billions devoted to propping up single family home prices. It isn’t necessarily a wise policy, but it’s hardly a war on the suburbs.” I agree: Kotkin is overwrought. And yet, Atrios bangs the drum pretty regularly for the notion that if Obama wants the public to support his policies, then the public better get some goodies out of it. And for the most part, suburbanites might well be feeling that they aren’t getting many goodies lately. “Hundreds of billions devoted to propping up single family home prices” is overwrought too, and in any case is generally invisible.

The invisibility of actual policies that help suburbia is combined with some (unspecified) cultural resentment. In other words, they feel unloved:

Whenever possible, the Clintons expressed empathy with suburban and small-town voters. In contrast, the Obama administration seems almost willfully city-centric. Few top appointees have come from either red states or suburbs; the top echelons of the administration draw almost completely on big city urbanites–most notably from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. They sometimes don’t even seem to understand why people move to suburbs.

Of course, everybody wants to be loved:

We don’t applaud the Obama administration for seeking ways to improve dense urban areas because we want to steal from suburbanites; we’ve just never had many leaders who give two shits about the cities, and we’re excited that someone cares about taking care of us for once. Don’t we deserve some improvements? A lot of American cities are in a bad place because they’ve received so little investment. Obama’s ideas would improve urban spaces not to punish suburbanites, but because it’s the right thing to do. City dwellers are people, too.

As always, follow the money, not stupid faux-cultural markers.

Besides, suburbs seem to be doing a perfectly good job defunding themselves and creating urban decay….

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    February 5, 2010

    Nitpick on your last link: Colorado Springs is actually a sizable city. Wikipedia gives a 2008 population of around 380k, making it the second largest city by population in the state (behind Denver) and 48th in population for the US as a whole. However, as in many western states a large chunk of that population is in areas that would be considered suburbia if they were on the east coast.

  2. #2 kumasama
    February 6, 2010

    Colorado Spring is entirely suburban. Even “downtown” is pretty darn suburban.

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