But What About the Tract Homes?

Suburbia (not this one, alas) seems to be in the news, prompted by Joel “New Geography” Kotkin’s essay claiming that the Obama administration (aka “the president’s cadres”) is inveighing a “war against suburbia.” This is so ridiculous it almost needs no comment. Atrios sums it up well: “This is completely idiotic for mostly obvious reasons, including the hundreds of billions devoted to propping up single family home prices.” (I think Kotkin needs to watch Over the Edge is he wants to see what a war on suburbia really looks like.)

Mike Konczal puts some specific numbers behind some of the other obviousness, the idea that money for Obama’s high-speed-rail initiatives threatens pro-suburban transportation policy.

From the ProPublica Stimulus Spending List:

Highway infrastructure investment $26,725,000,000

Highway infrastructure funds distributed by states $60,000,000

Highway infrastructure funds for the Indian Reservation Roads program $550,000,000

Highway infrastructure funds for surface transportation technology training $20,000,000

Highway infrastructure to fund oversight and management of projects $40,000,000

Additional capital investments in surface transportation including highways, bridges, and road repairs $1,298,500,000

Administrative costs for additional capital investments in surface transportation $200,000,000

High speed rail capital assistance $8,000,000,000

Check that out: Over $28 billion dollars allocated to highway spending, with over $26 billion allocated to “Highway infrastructure investment.” That’s over three times the amount spent on the $8 billion for “high speed rail capital assistance.”

Factor in all the ongoing support and tax breaks for mortgages and single-family homes, and it’s safe to say that the suburban way of life is going to remain heavily subsidized and under no particular threat from the current regime. No one is planning to run rails in place of the highways. And as Amanda Marcotte points out “some of the biggest beneficiaries of public transit by rail are the very suburbanites in middle American cities that Kotkin claims to fiercely defend.”

Kotkin goes to great lengths to sell his bill of goods: he quotes right-wing economics writer Robert Samuelson, he evokes Europe as a boogeyman, uses the “elitists hate it, so it must be okay” argument, and deploys insinuating rhetoric, as in this passage:

These efforts will be supported by an elaborate coalition of new urbanist and environmental groups. At the same time, a powerful urban land interest, including many close to the Democratic Party, would also support steps that thwart suburban growth and give them a near monopoly on future development over the coming decades.

Yes, there is a vast left-wing conspiracy implementing the urbanist agenda and unleash its “deep-seated desire to change the way Americans live” behind the backs of voters, who are nonetheless so outraged that they voted for Scott Brown.

Kevin Drum, who seems to think it is glib to remind suburbanites of their subsidies, argues that these suburban voters are waiting for some more explicit and unwarranted handouts, mainly because they are too myopic to see the ways existing policies already benefit them. Drum writes that “there’s a real tension between good policy and good politics” and seems to imply that we must inevitably surrender the former to the latter. What has happened over the past few years gives us no reason to think about things less cynically, I suppose, but I would hope there is still something useful in arguing the merits of policy, in acknowledging that suburbanization is unsustainable in the form it has taken up to now. Why give respect to Kotkin for providing an ideological smoke-screen for suburban-voter selfishness? Marcotte also makes a good point about the ideological cover Kotkin provides for suburban racism of the sort that apparently animates a good portion of the Republican party: “You can really tell what the agenda behind this article is when author Joel Kotkin puts ‘white flight’ in square quotes, implying that liberals made it up because of our irrational hatred of the suburbs.” (I always thought they were “scare quotes,” though they are sort of for squares, as well.) It always seemed to me that suburbs are about the fantasy of escaping from the presence of poverty or any feelings of social responsibility over inequality. You move somewhere where “those people” don’t exist. Then you can practice a me-first, NIMBY-style politics as if it’s rational and “natural.”

Of course suburbanites don’t like the idea of having to change their lifestyle. Ideally economic, demographic and environmental realities will end up driving the change, not a government cabal. Incidentally, it’s at least as plausible to argue that zoning restrictions, various state-funded incentives and the relative underinvestment in cities that forcibly “changed the way Americans live” in the past 60 years. Ultimately, ideology and habitus shape where and how people choose to live more than any explicit raft of social-engineering programs — in a class-inflected society, residential spaces will mutate to continue to reflect and reproduce the various distinctions.