In his recent column, “Why Suburbia Irks Some Conservatives,” the prominent urban geographer Joel Kotkin creates and then slays a number of straw men in defense of suburban development patterns and all that is right and good in this country. This, unfortunately, is a lament that too often goes unchallenged, ceding a large swath of the American experience in the process. It is time for conservatives to confront the true nature of the suburbs.
America’s suburban experiment is a radical, government-led re-engineering of society, one that artificially inverted millennia of accumulated wisdom and practice in building human habitats. We can excuse modern Americans for not immediately grasping the revolutionary ways in which we restructured this continent over the past three generations–at this point, the auto-dominated pattern of development is all most Americans have ever experienced–but today we live in a country where our neighborhoods are shaped, and distorted, by centralized government policy.
Kotkin begins his piece with a reference to Franklin Roosevelt. In the depths of the Great Depression, Roosevelt pushed for the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The traditional way of building a home–in slow increments over time, sometimes with an attached commercial enterprise that helped with cash flow–became impossible to underwrite as government officials, desperate for economic growth, used regulation to make the single family home the only viable option for new homeowners. The federally-established Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac followed. The results were rising home ownership and economic growth, but on a very different framework, one where families held significantly higher levels of long term debt.
Dwight Eisenhower likewise embraced the capacity of centralized government action to reshape society. The Interstate Highway Act was a grand vision to connect the entire country with a world-class highway system. This undertaking was finished three decades ago, but policymakers found transportation spending such a seductively simple way to create short-term jobs and growth that we continue to expand it aggressively.
American governments continue to be obsessed with maximizing people’s capacity to travel, even as they ignore minimizing the amount people have to travel. Not only must American families pay the taxes to support this continually-expanding system, but to live in it they are required to purchase, maintain, and store a fleet of vehicles even as they endure heightened sensitivity to oil price fluctuations (and support the military adventures that result).
Like Medicare, Social Security, and a myriad of other federal initiatives, housing and transportation subsidy programs are as popular today as they are financially insolvent. In an effort to prop up our suburban experiment, we now have the Federal Reserve owning the mortgage-backed securities market while Republicans in Congress champion “pension smoothing” as a way to pretend an insolvent federal highway trust fund can continue to build more roads. As with any over-centralized effort, a lack of appropriate feedback mechanisms allows the system to continue barreling down its present course–until it buckles under its own insolvency. Our suburban experiment has an expiration date.
Kotkin argues for the popularity of subsidies for highways and dispersed single-family homes when he claims the suburbs, “represent the epitome of the American Dream and the promise of upward mobility.” This is a pleasant platitude, but is it true?
If it were, we should expect the typical American to actually enjoy more upward mobility than those in other societies. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Research shows that most Western European and English-speaking nations have higher rates of mobility than the United States, despite living at much higher densities.
We would also expect Americans to have more economic security–more accrued wealth–than those in other societies. Again, the reality is that Americans rank 19th in median net worth behind countries such as the United Kingdom, Spain, and Japan, countries that have urban population densities many times that of the United States.
The sad reality is that, despite the marketing, the suburbs were never about creating household wealth; they were about creating growth on the cheap. They were born under a Keynesian regime that counted growth from government spending as equivalent to that coming from private investment. Aggressive horizontal expansion of our cities allowed us to consistently hit federal GDP and unemployment targets with little sophistication and few difficult choices.
That we were pawning off the enormous long-term liabilities for serving and maintaining all of these widely dispersed systems onto local taxpayers–after plying municipalities with all the subsidies, pork spending, and ribbon cuttings needed to make it happen–didn’t seem to enter our collective consciousness. When all those miles of frontage roads, sewer and water pipes, and sidewalks fall into disrepair–as they inevitably will in every suburb–very little of it will be fixed. The wealth necessary to do so just isn’t there.
To quote the late columnist Earl Wilson, “Modern man drives a mortgaged car over a bond-financed highway on credit card gas.” Debt-to-income and debt-to-assets ratios for U.S. households have grown steadily during suburban expansion. That’s because there is an enormous ante required to participate in Kotkin’s version of the American dream. Two cars. Two incomes. Home, work, daycare, school, milk, and fun all require an enormous investment in time behind the wheel every day. It should be no surprise that younger Americans, burdened with student loan debt and having diminished job prospects, are less and less willing to tie themselves to a 30-year mortgages with two car payments.
Where Kotkin sees a “forced march towards densification and ever more constricted planning augurs,” I see the unwinding of our great suburban experiment. As government’s ability to subsidize this artificial pattern of development wanes, a return to more traditional living arrangements is inevitable. For thousands of years, cities have been engines of wealth creation. In America, they are becoming that again.
This leads us to a final truth: cities desperately need conservatives. These are places that have been abandoned to the left for decades. Many urban dwellers are hungry for better government. They want a more responsive bureaucracy. They favor unwinding many of the stifling regulations and perverse subsidies that have built up over the years. They are angry with the political patronage systems run by a governing class that has been unchallenged for decades. Why would conservatives cede this ground so easily?
If conservatives want to identify with the artificial paradigm of an urban left and a rural right meeting on the suburban battlefield, we will continue to empower a progressive governing minority in a country that is solidly conservative. Instead of abandoning America’s growing urban centers to the left, we must see the inherent conservatism rooted within traditional neighborhood patterns of development. These are our people. They are there just waiting for us to speak to them.
Clinging to the Kotkin Doctrine of suburban primacy during this period of change will not only lead to a generation of conservative exile; it will produce a much weaker America.
Charles L. Marohn, Jr. PE AICP (@clmarohn) is a licensed engineer, a professional planner and the president of the non-profit Strong Towns. His latest book, A World Class Transportation System, is now available on Kindle.
This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.