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Pax Urbana -- Debunking America's Third War

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The United States is at war. Not just in Iraq and Afghanistan. No, a battle is being fought much closer to home in the quiet, comfortable suburbs where the sons and daughters of the real America are battling their overlords in the White House. The Obama administration is waging war on the suburbs. Instead of tanks and machine guns, the administration is deploying street car systems and light rail and imposing "draconian" restrictions on land use. The goal is "a kind of new feudalism" and a "hierarchical form of social organization."

Or so Joel Kotkin - that defender of the American way, that diviner of the true desires of the American people, the only soldier fighting on the side of right in the War Against Suburbia - would have us believe. Writing in the American Enterprise Institute's journal The American, Kotkin informs us that the suburbs are now "in open revolt" against an "almost willfully city-centric" Obama administration. This is evidenced by suburban support for Republican senatorial and gubernatorial candidates in recent elections, a shift from their support for Obama just over a year ago.

Obama's appointees, his economic recovery package, his support for smart growth principles, and, perhaps worst, his "body language," Kotkin argues, demonstrate that this White House not only supports revitalizing urban areas but hates suburbs. The environmental arguments in favor of urban development, he continues, should not be taken for granted: suburban living, with a few tweaks, can be just as environmentally friendly as urban living. For Kotkin, the purpose of such "urban-centric" thinking is to alter how Americans live and work and to systematically destroy individual aspiration, small communities, and democracy.

Kotkin's presentation of Obama's "urban-centric" thinking is, at best, overblown. He wrote a similar piece warning Obama to take heed of suburbia prior to the general election, cautioning him that his "body language" might give suburbanites the wrong idea about his then-potential presidency. Yet, Obama won support in the suburban counties that Kotkin now says are in full revolt even as he extolled the virtues of cities and smart growth and pledged to create a White House Office of Urban Affairs.

Since his inauguration, the Obama administration has indeed paid attention to issues that matter to cities. But far from containing "precious little that will benefit suburbanites" as Kotkin claims, the stimulus package disproportionately aided non-metropolitan areas, as several studies have shown. Even Kotkin admits that the "draconian controls over land use" that so scare him will never become law. But he still ascribes their oppressive effect to the administration. Indeed, the White House's progress in urban policy - helping struggling neighborhoods build affordable housing near transit, altering rules governing transit funding, an urban "listening tour" - are mostly baby steps to test how the federal government can leverage small (really small) amounts of federal funds into community revitalization.

Kotkin's real motive is to defend an outmoded, retrograde notion of freedom that he never defines. The spleen that his argument contains - the talk of feudalism, of edicts, of altering "the way Americans live" - is meant to frighten lovers of liberty. But what is the freedom he defends? One that consists of the ability to drive a car subsidized by the Cash for Clunkers program and the auto bailouts to a house bought with the home buyers' tax credit. Kotkin calls the auto-dependent suburbs more environmentally friendly places to live - which, and this is saying a lot, is not true - but never wonders if cities are more desirable places to live because they are more affordable, cutting down on the cost of living associated with transportation even if housing is more expensive. His argument is strangely unconcerned with the fact that the federal government spends four times as much on home ownership - that type of housing that is quite popular in the suburbs - as on rental affordability. One might be tempted to think the government is already undermining our "individual aspirations."

In essence, Kotkin's argument is based on politics, not sound public policy. Can we really ever tell what Americans want? Or, better, why should Kotkin tell us what Americans want? The real responsibility of policy wonks - city lovers and haters alike - is to identify solutions to problems that need to be solved.

The purported War on Suburbia is no more than an attempt to drive a wedge between urbanites and suburbanites. The truth is that suburban development is here to stay, that formerly "urban problems" are moving to suburbia, and that suburbs have benefited from - are even the result of - outsized government assistance. Far from threatening suburbia, incentivizing the good elements of urbanization - the environmental and economic benefits that come with more density - can help cure the bad elements of suburbanization.