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Kotkin Konvergence

Reihan's done several more posts on the Kotkin issue, and by the last one I think we're pretty much at agreement on a very stripped-down version of what Kotkin is saying: Many strongholds of urban liberalism have placed severe restrictions of development that are bad for poor people and largely mask the financial interests of well-heeled incumbent property owners under the guise of doing something leftwing. It's hardly a revolutionary point. This was the subject of my first web article for the Prospect and Nathan Newman has written on the subject before. I don't think that point really captures the essence of the game Kotkin was playing, but I'll certainly endorse the policy conclusion. Let the people build!

February 14, 2005 | Permalink

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» Matthew Yglesias on housing from Abigail's Magic Garden
Matthew Yglesias writes about the high cost of housing. One thing that gets me mad about the housing situation is that rich homeowners get a taxbreak for owning a house, which is paid for by the poor people who [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 15, 2005 12:38:26 AM

» Matthew Yglesias on housing from Abigail's Magic Garden
Matthew Yglesias writes about the high cost of housing. One thing that gets me mad about the housing situation is that rich homeowners get a taxbreak for owning a house, which is paid for by the poor people who [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 15, 2005 3:00:47 PM

» Still Knocking Kotkin leads to from City Comforts Blog
A reasonable summary: Many strongholds of urban liberalism have placed severe restrictions of development that are bad for poor people and largely mask the financial interests of well-heeled incumbent property owners under the guise of doing something ... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 3, 2005 6:15:58 AM

Comments

Reihan quotes Tom McClintock: Now I submit to you that no conceivable act of God could wreak such devastation upon our state to make it less attractive than the Nevada desert. Only government could do that. And it has.

The main reason longterm residents have been moving out of Silicon Valley, as far as I can tell, is because they can sell their tiny 50s-era tract house for anywhere from a half a million to a million dollars--in the local real estate market--and move to where they can buy a bigger house.

If any "conceivable act" of government could cause such home sales to take place, then it would be in the interest of government to encourage them, since it's the only way to get a full market adjustment for property tax under Prop 13. However, this isn't being caused by government, and neither are the high salaries that still attract highly educated people from all over the world to the Bay Area.

It eludes me how a loosening of government control could make housing more affordable in the Bay Area. The only way government could increase affordability would be to intervene against the market forces that keep prices high, driving even more people away in the process.

If "aspirational" means so-called "dynamist" in Postrel's lexicon, then you'd have a tough time arguing that this area is not aspirational. Jobs are still awarded by merit (as GOP crony Carly Fiorina must appreciate), attire is informal to just plain sloppy, hierarchies are still flat and flexible, and even restrictions on development are not obviously a hindrance. Much higher densities are permitted than in exurbia. True, there is resistance against highrise construction. As for me, I'm all in favor of it, though I wish the trend to high density infill had begun before nearly every orchard had been cut down.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Feb 14, 2005 4:32:55 PM

After my kids grew up I sold my home in Lexington Mass -- where building lots or
tear-downs now go for a half million dollars.

The limit or restriction that made Lexington homes so expensive was an outstanding school system that the residents of Lexington tax themselves very highly to pay for. Otherwise, I agree with Paul it is not govt that make Lexington homes so expensive.

But is a good school the type of restricting factor you are describing. I moved a few miles away to a blue collar town with average schools and massively cut my housing costs.

Posted by: spencer | Feb 14, 2005 5:01:11 PM

People pay a big premium around here for good schools--such as in Cupertino and Palo Alto--but prices are high everywhere and some schools are not that great. I would say that jobs are the main factor. The climate, environment, proximity to SF, and low crime rate all contribute. I think that low interest rates and speculative purchases may be playing a role too, but it's hard to be sure.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Feb 14, 2005 5:13:11 PM

There definately restrictions to building in the bay area. Consider the coastal area around half-moon bay. You could build a highway to the rest of the penisula and put in a lot of new houses. No current resident wants this so they put in restrictions (water hookups, restricted transportation) that reduce the feasibility of additional housing.

Posted by: joe o | Feb 14, 2005 5:37:25 PM

"Many strongholds of urban liberalism have placed severe restrictions of development that are bad for poor people and largely mask the financial interests of well-heeled incumbent property owners under the guise of doing something leftwing."

Probably true to some extent, but at the moment the obscene increases in housing prices are being driven by speculation, often from out-of-staters. But Kotkin would no doubt think that just capitalism working its glorious magic...

Posted by: Robin the Hood | Feb 14, 2005 5:49:49 PM

There definately restrictions to building in the bay area. Consider the coastal area around half-moon bay. You could build a highway to the rest of the penisula and put in a lot of new houses.

That's a good point, although a lot of the anti-growth sentiment in Half Moon Bay is local. Without any upgrade of Highway 92, you could still get people to move there and suffer through the commute, provided there was any new development to move to. The reason there is little to none is because the people now in HMB don't want it and block the developers from building it.

To be honest, I'm not in favor of coastal development. I'd rather have people moving east to Tracy than to HMB. It's a case where two issues come in conflict: affordable housing and environmental protection. I don't think there is really that much land left around here, and a lot if it is earthquake prone. I would rather see high density infill than sprawl into what's left of the rural Bay Area.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Feb 14, 2005 5:50:50 PM

"a case where two issues come in conflict: affordable housing and environmental protection."

I agree with you about coastal development, but even if that whole peninsula corridor were opened up to development, what kind of development do you suppose would happen there? It would be huge, multi-million dollar homes on huge plots for the most part, and even if a smattering of condos went up here and there they would go for mid to high six figure sums, doing next to nothing for the real housing crisis, which is among middle and lower income people.

Posted by: Robin the Hood | Feb 14, 2005 5:57:50 PM

The only real way to build affordable living space is to build more on the same plot of land -- i.e. smaller houses, townhomes, or apartments. So it's really about zoning more than anything else.

Posted by: Kimmitt | Feb 14, 2005 6:02:28 PM

...no conceivable act of God could wreak such devastation upon our state to make it less attractive than the Nevada desert. Only government could do that. And it has.

For the most part, zoning controls and building limitations are the ultimate in bottom-up, local-democracy in action, not something imposed from above by a distant, faceless government. The town I live in was incorporated in the mid-'70s strictly to control growth and preserve "quality of life," not because the resident's had a burning desire for one more layer of government. In the private sector, if a few people sharing an idea for a great widget get together, voluntarily incorporate, and figure out a way to generate wealth off their intellectual property, it's capitalism working as it's meant to. But if those same people share a common geographic local, voluntarily incorporate, and pass rules to preserve and enhance the value of their real property, somehow certain libertarians and conservatives don't like it.

Posted by: tom f | Feb 14, 2005 6:14:12 PM

The only real way to build affordable living space is to build more on the same plot of land -- i.e. smaller houses, townhomes, or apartments.

That's what's happening around here. Admittedly, a $500k townhouse is not exactly affordable.

http://www.jointventure.org/PDF/2004index.pdf
Cities Continue to Reduce Sprawl Through Efficient Land Use

In 2003, Silicon Valley cities approved new residential development
at an average density of 10.8 units per acre, which is a drop
from 11.4 units per acre in 2002. However, the density of new
residential development is almost double that of existing housing
stock, which in 2003 had an average density of 5.6 units per acre.
Since the land use survey was initiated in 1998, the average
density of newly approved residential development rose from 6.6
units per acre to 10.8 units per acre, an increase of 64%.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Feb 14, 2005 6:34:43 PM

Mostly I'm thinking of replacing existing structures with taller ones, not wrecking coastlines and so forth. There's no genuine environmental value to short, low-density structures. Indeed, tall apartment buildings sharply reduce the need for home heating which is very good for the environment.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Feb 14, 2005 8:28:59 PM

I think this line is pretty much 10+ years late. "Smart Growth" and high density are what the left-siders are most comfortable with now. Looking at DC, the biggest land use conficts have been close to the MD border where the city wants higher density development and the residents there (for the most part whiter and more conservative than the rest of the city) are screaming to high heaven - they want to keep the Leave-It-To-Beaver suburban lifestyle while being within walking distance to the Metro.

Posted by: S.weil | Feb 14, 2005 8:33:41 PM

There's no genuine environmental value to short, low-density structures.

It depends on whether you find value in being able to see out to the horizon. In principle I advocate building upwards, but I have to admit that it'd be a very different kind of Valley if I had to look straight up to see the sky.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Feb 14, 2005 9:51:42 PM

Yes. Maybe we can build our way out of the problem. Build and build and build...

"The denial of climate change, while out of tune with the science, is consistent with, even necessary for, the outlook of almost all the world's economists. Modern economics, whether informed by Marx or Keynes or Hayek, is premised on the notion that the planet has an infinite capacity to supply us with wealth and absorb our pollution. The cure to all ills is endless growth. Yet endless growth, in a finite world, is impossible. Pull this rug from under the economic theories, and the whole system of thought collapses.

And this, of course, is beyond contemplation. It mocks the dreams of both left and right, of every child and parent and worker. It destroys all notions of progress. If the engines of progress - technology and its amplification of human endeavour - have merely accelerated our rush to the brink, then everything we thought was true is false. Brought up to believe that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, we are now discovering that it is better to curse the darkness than to burn your house down.

Our economists are exposed by climatologists as utopian fantasists, the leaders of a millenarian cult as mad as, and far more dangerous than, any religious fundamentalism. But their theories govern our lives, so those who insist that physics and biology still apply are ridiculed by a global consensus founded on wishful thinking."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1414660,00.html

Posted by: El Coyote | Feb 14, 2005 10:22:21 PM

Excluding the land, the basement and the roof ( and other such items ), does each story cost more and more, the same or less and less the higher you build?

Posted by: WeSaferThemHealthier | Feb 14, 2005 11:26:17 PM

Our economists are exposed by climatologists as utopian fantasists, the leaders of a millenarian cult as mad as, and far more dangerous than, any religious fundamentalism.

Well, not really. The economic model of exponential growth works well over appropriate time scales. This is true in the same way that Moore's "Law" has been a good predictor of improvements in computer technology over a span of decades, even though obviously it will hit a wall at some point. I think that most economists would not disagree that the economy, anyway confined to terrestrial resources, will eventually hit a wall. The question is whether this is imminent.

For the economy to continue growing over another hundred years, we'll need some technological advances that are not currently obvious. But it's actually reasonable to figure in some technological progress, since a complete lack would run counter to past experience. Actually, one of the most significant and predictable form of progress is simply improved energy efficiency. It's a point that eludes the Dick Cheney's of the world when they come up with these outrageous projections of growth in electricity consumption.

I'm not trying to paint a rosy picture. I think that the likelihood of climate change and massive species extinction is continuing to grow. It's painful to think about. But I also don't expect that we will literally run out of raw material and energy before developing (a) off world sources, probably processed robotically before ever reaching earth, and (b) much more sophisticated and efficient material use through nanotechnology. If these do not come to pass within a hundred years, it will because we did something collectively very stupid as a species. This stuff is right within our grasp.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Feb 14, 2005 11:43:02 PM

"But I also don't expect that we will literally run out of raw material and energy before developing (a) off world sources, probably processed robotically before ever reaching earth, and (b) much more sophisticated and efficient material use through nanotechnology."

The question of off world sources of energy and resources is one of efficiency. Without literally some massive leap in propulsion technologies that is almost unimaginable today extracting resources from other planets is a self-defeatingly expensive thing to do - even without humans aboard. Nanotechnology will certainly increase our processing power by exponential degrees, and may have some interesting and potentially revolutionary applications in everything from medicine to desalination, but it doesn't fundamentally change the fact that providing a western-style middle class life for the hundreds of millions who are actively striving for such a life in China, India, and elsewhere and the several billion who currently live on next to nothing in a good swath of the global south will put a staggeringly greater strain on a global environment that is in many respects - from fishery and habitat preservation to climate stability - already stretched almost to the breaking point.

Posted by: Mr. Pessimist | Feb 15, 2005 12:07:23 AM

Without literally some massive leap in propulsion technologies that is almost unimaginable today extracting resources from other planets is a self-defeatingly expensive thing to do - even without humans aboard.

I don't buy that. It's not an easy infrastructure to jumpstart, but once you have self-replicating robots outside of gravity wells, they just need to provide a little putt-putt to get the resources back to earth. It doesn't have to be fast once the resource pipeline is established. Once they're close enough, they can parachute in. (Yes, there are all kinds of dangers inherent in launching projectiles at the earth but no obvious energy deficit.)

The asteroid belt contains numerous mineral resources outside any large gravity well, and still close enough to the sun to collect mindboggling amounts of solar power. You could use that to power a laser, which in turn would propel "solar" sails in reverse (that's my best idea in a pinch; I'm sure there are better ideas). Heck, given the hydrocarbons now known to be on Titan, you could actually imagine offworld chemical fuel sources, though there are probably more sophisticated applications.

Anyway, I agree with your point that it is impossible for the whole world to adopt early 21st century western lifestyles. I think, however, that there could be an equally good standard of living at higher population densities provided we were willing to trade a lot of the bulk energy/material use that we now associate with high living standards with smaller, efficient, high quality technology, better health, more stimulating environment, augmented intelligence, etc. Note that it would also be impossible for the current world population to live as hunter/gatherers.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Feb 15, 2005 12:24:31 AM

"I don't buy that."

Well, if you don't mind 10 million dollar cars its a fine idea to go extracting iron ore from asteroids, and if you don't mind 10,000 dollar tanks of gas its a fine idea to go filling up interstellar tankers with liquid natural gas from Titan. It isn't that it can't be done. Its the *cost*. Simply relying on more exotic earth based sources of power (particularly the sexy alternatives, from solar to wind to wave) would send the global economy into double if not triple digit inflation (if it would even be possible), let alone trying to depend on other planets for our needs. Its a cool 200 million to just send a satellite into orbit. Cassini cost 3 billion. It costs literally about five dollars to get a barrel of oil from underneath Saudi Arabia to the surface. Do you realize how much it would cost to get a giant space tanker to Saturn and back?

"I think, however, that there could be an equally good standard of living at higher population densities provided we were willing to trade a lot of the bulk energy/material use that we now associate with high living standards with smaller, efficient, high quality technology, better health, more stimulating environment, augmented intelligence, etc."

Fortunately I won't be around long enough to see the day when we're all packed onto the planet like sardines (ever been to China? there's a reason they all seem to be in such a bad mood) and our political and economic elites are telling us we've never had it better.

Posted by: Mr. Pessimist | Feb 15, 2005 12:59:16 AM

One comment about building large cities in the Nevada and Arizona deserts - perhaps I'm ignorant, but would that be possible without huge government subsidies, and vast federal water management projects?

Posted by: Barry | Feb 15, 2005 7:21:54 AM

When someone says something assholish, you shouldn't let him backpedal until you find common ground and then say "We basically agree." The fact remains that he said something assholish. That "Euro-American" stuff was good old-fashioned librul-bashing for Weekly Standard readers, and should be labeled such.

Posted by: digamma | Feb 15, 2005 9:24:09 AM

Do you realize how much it would cost to get a giant space tanker to Saturn and back?

You don't send it there. Anyway, you certainly don't send it from earth, and you don't have any humans involved in its construction.

I'm not sure how you measure "cost" if the entire offworld infrastructure is composed of autonomous robots capable of assembly and maintenance--including the construction of more autonomous robots.

Developing the technology is not an easy problem, but there is no inherent energy or material deficit in the system. You couldn't do it today, but I would be very surprised if you couldn't do it one hundred years from now.

ever been to China? there's a reason they all seem to be in such a bad mood

As it happens, I was in Chengdu recently. The city does have its problems, but I wouldn't rank sullen residents high on the list. And I would blame many of the liveability issues on low quality of infrastructure rather than sheer population density. The big danger is when more of the residents start trading in their bicycles for cars.

Beijing and Shanghai might be different stories. I've heard they're a lot more polluted anyway. If I spoke Chinese, I could live in Chengdu as easily as I lived in Baltimore. It's worth the trip just for the Sichuan food with real hua jiao.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Feb 15, 2005 10:07:05 AM

Well, I think a desireable compromise on this issue would be the following: allow local communities to continue to be (as they now are in my corner of the world, Massachusetts) the relevant planning and approval authorities with respect to commercial development.

But when it comes to the development of housing, the state government could formulate state-wide regulations and zoning rules. So, if you're a property owner, you can build any housing you want, provided it adheres to said state regulations.

Thus, under this proposal, NIMBYsm would still be a controlling factor in non-housing development. But the construction of new housing (which is, after all, a fundamental necessity like food or shelter) would no longer be at the mercy of economically self-interested local property owners (who, understandably, can hardly be expected to favor development contrary to their own economic self-interest) masquerading as opponents of "sprawl".

Posted by: P. B. Almeida | Feb 15, 2005 10:01:34 PM

But the construction of new housing (which is, after all, a fundamental necessity like food or shelter)...

That should read "like food or clothing."

Posted by: P. B. Almeida | Feb 15, 2005 10:03:46 PM

One of the problems with the whole "affordable housing" issue is that very few people really want housing values to stabilize much less go down.

Anyone interested in this perspective might want to read Who really wants Affordable Housing?

Posted by: David Sucher | Mar 1, 2005 4:06:33 PM

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