Sunday, October 12, 2008

More Economic Analysis from It's a Wonderful Life

Having invoked the Frank-Capra-and-Jimmy-Stewart classic ourself more than once recently, we defer to the estimable Ross Douthat who offers an especially timely application of It's a Wonderful Life to understand the present financial crisis.

Douthat is one of those renegade conservatives that some call "crunchy." So he expects a future in which the pursuit of universal home ownership will be restrained but not forgotten, with its object more in New Urbanism than suburban sprawl.


chrisine said...

This idea of the “New Urbanism” reminds me of a conversation I had with my father this weekend. He me said that he was in favor of more transit friendly, dense urban development. It's fortunate that I was not quick enough to point out the hypocrisy of his statement because he lives in a rather sprawling development in the foothills of the Sierras in a home more than twice the size of my little suburban raised ranch, on a huge lot. (No mass transit within many miles and one of his cars is a Jeep Cherokee) He will tell you that he often walked a mile to and from the train when he was working, but not mention that’s because he spent most of his life in the suburbs. His time living in the city was very short, because he, like most people, wanted to live somewhere safe and pleasant, where his kids could play in the yard, walk to school, and he could grow a vegetable garden.

While I am happy for the proponents of the New Urbanism to live in high density, transit friendly, developments, I don't want to live in them. I like where I live because there is lots of green space, my neighborhood is quiet, and my kids can walk to school or bike around the neighborhood without worry on my part. I don’t have to carry groceries up 3 flights of stairs or be awakened by the train at night. I don't have to worry about my young boys bothering any neighbors that might share a wall with us. And I can send my kids to public school. (Plus the fact that living in the city makes no sense if you don’t also work there.)

Even the best dense urban developments don’t offer what the suburbs offer for a family like mine. So I am happy that at least Douthat doesn’t write off suburbs and small towns completely. And I’m not sure suburbs are any more alienating than cities. My own experience has been that when living in apartments and townhomes my neighbors were less likely to socialize with each other. In my present neighborhood, I see and talk to my neighbors much more often. I think having a little space helps people to be a bit more tolerant and forgiving of each other compared to living on top of each other.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

There's a myth in some folks' minds that automobile manufacturers, homebuilders and realtors conspired to put Americans in the suburbs against their will. Obvious nonsense, of course.

We also note that as demographic patterns of the "New Urbanism" emerge, those who live in new urban communities tend to be single, married without kids, or empty nesters. San Francisco, for example, has the fewest children per capita of any large city, while the Bay Area suburbs are teeming with kids.

Still, we like having choices, like a reasonable choice not to drive or cut grass, and so we hope that something of Douthat's prophecy is fulfilled.

And we'll say yet again that in a lot of big cities, it's very possible to send kids to very fine public schools.

Anonymous said...

You always have the choice to live in the city. I'm more worried that some of these planners will try to make it more difficult for those that are not wealthy to live in the suburbs.

But the school situation in Chicago is not good. There are a few good ones, but only in the expensive areas.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

It's not exactly true to say that one always has the choice to live in the city. The decay of American cities in the 1960s and 70s shows what can happen to an urban culture when it is poorly governed. Cities require a political consensus to do planning that makes it possible for people to live comfortably in very close proximity to each other.

And while we appreciate the fear of policies that make suburban living less accessible, there is an economic reality that suburbs generally can only exist when an urban center exists and thrives. One can make the case that suburban residents benefit disproportionately from the higher tax rates generally charged within cities to support their infrastructure, though we freely acknowledge than in most communities, suburban residents see the situation as exactly the opposite.

We idealistically favor the development of an informed consensus between urban and suburban dwellers on such matters, and with utmost hubris imagine that we contribute to the creation of that consensus.