I missed this article when it came out:
I was on the road that day, driving back from Palm Springs. A fluke rainstorm closed I-5 from the Tejon Pass to the Kern county line, so I headed up through Barstow and Bakersfield. It took eleven hours, covered 549 miles, two Double-Doubles, and a wait on a stopped road in Tehachapi, but it was a good survey of California.
I share Brooks’ suspicion that much of the push to get Americans to live a higher-density lifestyle is driven by a desire to make the country a bit more European, by some discomfort with the tackiness of the US. And yes, the reason people buy McMansions is that people like them. The great room may not have wonderful architectural roots, but it’s not a bad place to put the TV and hang out.
However, I wonder if the preferences wouldn’t be a bit more meaningful if we didn’t subsidize the suburban lifestyle so much. I made it from Palm Springs to the Bay Bridge without paying a toll, and I tracked through plenty of one-horse towns that could not possibly afford the nice roads the people of the cities graciously built for them. It is seen as the natural order of things. But if a city wanted to build a mass transit system and operate it for no user fee, well, that sort of thing isn’t going to come from state or federal money. I hate busses and like trains only marginally better, but would people stay away if they cost the same as the roads?
The government has decided, consciously and, more often, unconsciously, on a set of policies that make cities more expensive than the country. That’s a bit odd; you would expect more of an economy of scale. But cities have unionized labor and millions of restrictions big and small, so the costs of operating are high and the only people who can afford to live in them are comparatively wealthy. Well, the wealthy and the poor, because the poor aren’t paying for anything anyway, so the cost of living anywhere is about the same to them. We like our municipalities to pay for their poor – to school them, to treat them in their hospitals, to hold them in their jails – and then forget the policies that encourage the poor to migrate to the cities.
If national political power were a bit more one-man-one-vote and a bit less one-acre-one-vote, if the states were more seriously able to disperse the population on government aid, perhaps we would know what Americans really valued in terms of lifestyle. I’m pretty sure I’d rather be in a sprawling city in the desert southwest than a dense northeastern city all the same, but far fewer people would agree with me.
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