Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

"Where can you go when there ain’t no San Francisco?"

I remember that song from when I lived in the Bay Area a long long time ago. The next line had something to do with tying up your boat in Idaho, after an earthquake centered on the San Andreas Fault had caused the slate to slip into the ocean. Joel Kotkin offers us a somewhat less apocalyptic version of that vision here, arguing that things like affordable housing and business-friendly political climates are attracting talent away from backward-looking "Euro-America" (you know, New York, Boston, San Francisco...) to places like Boise and Reno. But before all you Karl Rove wannabes out there start celebrating, Kotkin offers this caution:

CONSERVATIVES AND REPUBLICANS have reasons to celebrate the conflict between a slowly declining Euro-America and the cities of aspiration. Yet the future may not be so easy to predict. Success, defined as increased jobs and population, has a way of turning cities of aspiration toward a more European worldview.

This has already occurred in places like Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, where public employees have made common cause with wealthy environmentalists, resulting in a kind of one-party, status-quo politics. Over time, this phenomenon could spread to today’s aspirational cities. As places like even Phoenix, Houston, and Reno grow, become congested, and attract refugees from Euro-America, a powerful lobby against economic expansion will start to develop.

These issues tend to gain currency as traffic jams worsen, schools get overcrowded, and the countryside recedes. And while conservatives offer bromides about the free market, open space grows more scarce, and infrastructure, including schools and roads, is neglected. This failure opens the door to liberals and Democrats, even in states such as Nevada, Arizona, and Florida.

But, in the end, he argues:

Euro-American politics do not work in aspirational cities. Where and when such policies do become influential, companies, entrepreneurs, and individuals will seek their future elsewhere, in places where they don’t have to subsidize fancy nightclubs, art galleries, gay bars, and yuppie lofts, or pay the freight for inefficient public-sector bureaucracies. If the contagion takes over Phoenix, these restless Americans will move further out, into the unregulated exurbs or deeper into the hinterland, to Boise, the Salt Lake Valley, or beyond.

The American future belongs to those places where people can most fully engage in their private pursuit of happiness. The party--and the politicians--that can appeal to these voters, wherever they are, will be the one likely to win political power.

"People I talk to and want to recruit seem more than willing to come here," notes Reno entrepreneur Darik Volpa. "It’s a different feel here. It’s more friendly, people open doors. In the Bay Area or Boston, it’s get in line. Here it’s still open to new people and new ideas."

I have some hesitations about this line of argument, as, apparently does Kotkin, who makes a somewhat different one
here. In this past weekend’s WaPo, he argues that the latest developments seem to suggest a desire on our part to replicate some of the "communal" features of cities--walkable neighborhoods, cultural and religious institutions, and so on--in the suburbs. This isn’t the private pursuit of happiness simply, and it’s a lot closer to James Howard Kunstler’s vision than Kotkin wants to admit. Kunstler, by the way, has delivered a lecture, sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute on "Why Conservatives Should Care About the New Urbanism."

My own view, briefly stated, is that safe walkable neighborhoods are ultimately more kid-friendly than typical suburban tracts. (And we all know, I say only somewhat facetiously, that children are the glue of the community. To restate a hackneyed point: "It takes a bunch of kids to raise a village.") Wherever you can produce housing that is kid-friendly, you’ll have population growth. So put the doggone new urbanist developments where we want them, where our kids can be safe!

I hasten to add that I am not anti-"Euro-America" or anti-urban: cities still have a prominent place in our economic and cultural lives (Kotkin nails that one in his Weekly Standard piece), and I’m not about to demand that all students and bohemians abandon their "enlightenements."

Update: Ken Masugi has a post full of interesting and provocative thoughts about related issues here.

Discussions - 2 Comments

Two comments:

1. James Howard Kunstler is a fascist nutjob (cites available if needed). I long ago expressed to ISI how appalling it is that they would sponsor anything by him.

2. Kotkin (my old colleague at PRI out on California back in the mid-1990s) is on to something very important about rising constituencies against economiic growth, but the most complete and compelling analysis of this was done 30 years ago by Fred Hirsch in his splendid book, Social Limits to Growth. Herman Kahn said Hirsch’s book should be subtitled "Why the Middle Class Will Increasingly Oppose Economic Growth." Check it out.

I would be interested in cites. I’ve used one of his books in a class and, without agreeing with everything, found it a provocative conversation-starter.

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