New urbanism isn’t going to save the economy now or ever

Ike Brannon President, Capital Policy Analytics
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I was recently at a dinner held in honor of some minor foreign dignitary. The dinner concluded with the host exhorting each of the attendees (a bunch of economists) to give a short spiel on their view of “the future.” In such circumstances I realize that everyone else would rather go to the bathroom, visit their mistresses, find their dealers or at least go home and not hear someone’s tendentious summary of their latest research paper or pet theory, so I kept mine brief and appropriately dour: Greece is going under, China has a property bubble that dwarfs ours, current commodity prices are unsupportable and our debt is going to cause us grief well before our president is prepared to make any hard decisions — i.e., before November 2012.

I was followed by an earnest liberal economist who rejected my pessimism, using his time allotment and mine (apparently it carried over) to convince us that the U.S. has a bright future because of — wait for it — new urbanism. He described the U.S. as being ready to embark on a four-decade-long demographic swing from the “soulless” (his exact word) suburbs, exurbs and small towns to the big cities, and this is going to trigger a new boom in housing construction, which the toast-giver identified as “the” (quotation marks used to highlight his emphasis as well as to indicate the absurdity of his claim) driver of the U.S. economy.

I considered two responses: a solid thrashing and a solitary, slow clap that gradually sped up, punctuated with a sarcastic “bra — VOOOO.” But despite the open bar that preceded the dinner, I managed to refrain from doing either. Still, I’m not going to let this meme go without a reply somewhere, since this liberal economist is not the only one who has an opinion on new urbanism’s future.

And let me preface it with the caveat that I am, in fact, a product of a small town who moved with his family to a big city and survived to tell the tale.

Put simply, a wave of migration into the cities, facilitated by a wholesale embrace of the panoply of ideas loosely embodied by the term new urbanism, is not going to happen because two competing forces dominating the Democratic Party will prevent it from happening.

The first Democratic precept providing the impetus for half-baked ideas such as this one is the idea that the sweaty masses are poor at making decisions and that most of them would be better off if the government made some of their decisions — like where to live — for them. Liberals would like to herd people into the cities so everyone can enjoy cappuccinos, live jazz, myriad Thai food options and a convenient bikram yoga studio within walking distance of their condos that come without parking.

The problem is that most of my small-town comrades could care less about such things. What matters to them is convenience and their children’s educations. I come from a burg of less than 1,000 people located about a dozen miles north of Peoria, which we refer to as the “big city” in a non-ironic way. The school is less than a 10-minute drive for literally every parent who lives in the (very good) school district, as is a grocery store, at least a couple restaurants and most of their extended family. The big city can give them more restaurants, but the rest of it is dicey.

This takes us to the other competing force governing liberals: a slavish obeisance to unionism. The existence of unions makes a serious influx of new families into major cities more difficult because making these communities more attractive to the currently non-urban families would inevitably require the liberals who run big cities to seriously take on the teachers’ unions and transit unions. And Democrats have made it perfectly clear that if they need to choose between students and teachers, or commuters and transit workers, they’ll inevitably come down on the side of the workers. And that means that incompetent teachers can’t be fired and transit workers will earn more than most commuters.

As a result, at least here in D.C., the schools aren’t good enough for responsible parents in all but a few neighborhoods and transit is infrequent, unreliable and uncomfortable. The tourists who marvel at the efficiency of Metro are not the ones who have to wait 20 minutes for a train after 9 p.m. or who have been on a bus when the driver pulled over to try to get the phone number of a woman walking down the street. Responsible 20-somethings who start their careers in big cities figure it out and leave as soon as they get married and pregnant, and the few of us who stay are left trying to figure out how to afford a $900,000, three-bedroom condo that’s near one of those few good public grade schools and hope that we’ll stumble onto enough money to do private schools after our oldest child finishes sixth grade — or else we will leave the city as well.

Liberals can sing the praises of an urban lifestyle and talk about herding more Americans — and families — into the city all they want, but as long as they stand foursquare with the government unions that make cities costlier to live in, it amounts to mere posturing.

Ike Brannon is director of economic policy at the American Action Forum.