President Barack Obama has rightly spoken positively about the American Dream, how it is becoming more expensive and how it needs to be reclaimed. But to do this, he may have to disregard many of those who have been among his strongest supporters and the dense urban centers which have been his strongest bastion of support.
Indeed, the American Dream has been achieved by countless millions of households, though many have been left out of this expansion that began following World War II. Home ownership has risen from little above 40 percent to nearly 70 percent. Automobile ownership has become nearly universal, making it possible for urban areas to grown to unprecedented size. The Brookings Institution, the Progressive Policy Institute and others have published studies showing that people in low income households are far more likely to find and hold employment if they have access to cars.
All of this has been associated with a democratization of prosperity that has never before occurred. Per capita income is now 3.5 times its 1950 level in the United States (see 1929-2007 inflation adjusted data).
Yet, the American Dream is under serious threat – and this predates today’s faltering economy. A key component lies in the machinations of an urban policy and planning elite contemptuous of the comfortable lifestyles achieved by so many Americans. Instead they propose creating an environment in which households would have to pay more for their houses and spend more of their lives traveling from one place to another.
Most of those who wish to create this situation come from the political left and consider themselves to be “friends of Obama.” They have achieved positions of power in some urban areas, such as throughout California, Portland, Seattle and a host of other areas. As early as 2007 some saw Obama as the dream candidate – what one called “a smart growth President”.
This elite group starts by demonizing the very foundations of America’s inclusive prosperity. Having declared “urban sprawl” a scourge, they seek to stop further development on the urban fringe and want virtually all development to be within already developed urban footprints. These and other overly stringent regulations have served to strangle urban land markets, forcing land prices and housing prices higher, in those region where they have been imposed.
Over fifteen years ago William Fischell at Dartmouth University demonstrated that California’s overly restrictive land use policies had made that state more expensive than elsewhere. Since 2000, with the wider availability of mortgage credit, the new demand drove prices to double or triple historic norms in areas with restrictive regulation. Price reductions have lowered prices, but they are still well above historic norms. This means that fewer households still are able to own their own homes in areas with restrictive land use regulations. Once normal prosperity is restored, the higher house prices of the restrictive land use areas can be expected to resume their increase relative to the rest of the nation.
This is a problem for some regions now. But many planners are enthusiastic about Obama in part because he is thought to be sympathetic to recreating these conditions throughout the entire country.
The automobile plays the role of the Great Satan in this morality play. The goal of many ‘progressive’ urbanists is to force people into transit and stop road building. Transit, of course, has its place. There is no better way to get to your job south of 59th Street in Manhattan, to Chicago’s Loop or to a few other of the nation’s largest downtown areas. But the stark reality is that transit can not substitute for the automobile for the overwhelming majority of trips, except for these niche markets. Further, failing to expand highways to keep up with traffic growth increases traffic congestion (and air pollution) and reduces economic productivity (read: “increases poverty”).
Higher costs for home ownership and slower commutes to work – and they will be slower because transit commutes average twice as long as automobile – impose significant burdens on people. Fewer people will have houses and fewer will have jobs. Forcing a single parent to take longer to navigate from home to the day care center to the job, whether by transit or by car, makes life more difficult – and for no rational reason. It is the equivalent of forcing people to work harder for nothing.
Of course, this way of thinking has been around some parts of the country for decades. The new drive to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has extended its reach. The typical formulation now is that in order to reduce GHG emissions, Americans need to be crowded into dense urban areas and give up our cars.
In reality, nothing of the kind is required. “Green” houses are being developed that can make it possible to substantially reduce GHG emissions while Americans continue their favored suburban life styles (the lifestyles, by the way, also favored by Europeans and Japanese). Hybrid and other advanced car and fuel technologies can make it possible for the personal transportation sector to achieve massive long term GHG reductions. The answer is regulating emissions, rather than people.
But the planning and urbanist lobbies may not fundamentally be driven by the perceived need to reduce GHGs. They would rather regulate people, just as was the case well before climate change was even on the political agenda.
Of course, the planners don’t see their strategies as nightmarish. They have worked them all out theoretically in their heads. The problem is that the theory is not and cannot be translated into reality. There is no more comfortable place to live in the world for people – particularly those past their youthful and single years – than the American suburb. There are no metropolitan areas of similar size in the world where people spend less time traveling to and from work than in America. Take Hong Kong, which is by far the world’s most dense large first-world urban area. No other metropolitan area of its size should have such theoretically short trips, because everything is so close together. Yet, average travel time to work is almost double that of Dallas-Fort Worth, with a similar population. Indeed, even in “gridlocked” Los Angeles, so often ridiculed for its automobile-oriented “sprawl,” work trip travel times average nearly 40 minutes less per day than in that ultimate of urbanization, Hong Kong. That adds up to about a week’s worth of extra commuting time each year.
Rather than trying to constrict the dream, President Obama should work on ways to expand it. This will not be easy. Today, less than 50 percent of African-American and Latino households own their own homes. At the same time, Anglo home ownership is about 75 percent. No program to extend the American Dream can be based on policies that unnecessarily increase the price of housing.
For the new President, there is a clear choice. He can cast his lot with those whose strategies would extinguish the aspirations of millions of Americans, or he could make it easier for more households in the nation to achieve the American Dream.
Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”