Thursday, November 19, 2009

Five steps to save the Obama presidency

I usually try to avoid politics on this blog, but this Forbes op-ed from Joel Kotkin on saving the Obama presidency not only resonated with me, but also touches on some of the subjects I cover
here. Describing the administration as " run by the Chicago machine" is painfully to the point. He notes:
I suggest these things because, for all his missteps over the past year, Barack Obama is my president and I want him to succeed. But to do so, first he needs to hit his own reset button -- and the sooner the better.
His five recommendations are:
  1. Forget the "Chicago way"
  2. Focus on real jobs, not favored constituencies
  3. Step on the (natural) gas (clean energy independence that would be a big boost for Houston)
  4. Rediscover America
  5. Chuck the Nobel; Embrace Exceptionalism
#4 is directly relevant to common topics on this blog:
Obama's people need to understand that 80% of America live in suburbs or small towns. They do not want to live in dense cities or realize a move there would mean living in less than idyllic conditions. If Obama wants to shape a green America, he must find ways that work with the majority's preferences.

But so far the president's housing, transport and planning advisers seem to be pushing the death of suburbia and promoting ever more densification. It's hardly surprising, then, that suburbs and small towns feel left out. After finally starting to inch toward the Democrats, they are now turning again to the right. If Democrats want to retain their majority, they need the strong support of these constituencies -- without it the Congressional majority will be gone by the end of the second term, if not the first.

I think it's a problem all presidents face: no matter how centrist they aspire to be, they have to deal with extreme left or right Congressional leadership (since the most lopsided districts tend to have the most stability and therefore seniority) - and the farther down administration appointees get from the President, the more extreme left or right they tend to be - because that's the supporter base they draw from. These extremists undermine centrist Presidents in the million little actions that happen every day in DC. It's an inherent flaw in the system, and the system needs to be fixed.

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At 9:54 PM, November 19, 2009, Anonymous Trevor Kemp said...

Nice post Tory. You and Kotkin are right on. I've seen a local candidate working to address the issues you're talking about here in the Houston area. His name is Ed Hubbard and the concept he is talking about is called Renewing The American Community. I'd suggest checking him out at - these concepts of Exceptionalism and Rediscovering America are all topics that Hubbard is hitting upon.

At 10:43 PM, November 19, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>Obama's people need to understand that 80% of America live in suburbs or small towns. They do not want to live in dense cities or realize a move there would mean living in less than idyllic conditions. If Obama wants to shape a green America, he must find ways that work with the majority's preferences.

I think the real issue is that the "majority's preferences" have to conform to reality at some point - it is time to pay the piper. We cannot continue to subsidize a wasteful, inefficient, and ultimately broken suburban model.

Obama's voters, myself included, did not elect him to promote or facilitate sprawl. We elected him to make intelligent decisions - and when he rethinks sprawl, just as he rethinks Afghanistan or healthcare - I may not agree with all of the outcomes but I appreciate that someone is attempting to tackle the tough problems with some new ideas instead of letting them fester and worsen. Some call that "dithering" - I call it progress.

>>But so far the president's housing, transport and planning advisers seem to be pushing the death of suburbia and promoting ever more densification.

A bit histrionic, wouldn't you say? What is actually going to happen - maybe as a result of Obama's efforts we'll get slightly better mortgage terms for buying in Montrose than Fulshear and maybe more money will go to projects like Metro's Alt-90 commuter rail or improving existing roads rather than building roads to nowhere (like the Grand Parkway). Did I miss the "forced death march into Montrose" policy? Like the health care "death panels" and the "socialist mop" - I must say it is fun watching conservatism implode from within due to its own sheer inanity.

At 11:25 PM, November 19, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, come on - "Pushing the death of suburbs"? Stuff like that makes people tune out any actual substantive argument.


At 7:37 AM, November 20, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Sprawl is not inherently evil. If he has an issue with carbon, then put a price on it and let the market figure it out (probably with electric or plug-in hybrid cars). But I do think many of his bureaucrats deep in the administration do believe sprawl is inherently evil, and want to redirect the vast majority of federal transportation funding to transit projects at an absolutely absurd cost per passenger mile. They may also link federal funds to "smart growth" policies (including urban growth boundaries), therefore creating another area where the feds interfere in what should be local decisions.

At 8:14 AM, November 20, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Obama has no care for how the U.S. moves forward. He and his administration are purposefully tearing the country down. He's following the Cloward-Piven Strategy to break down a capitalist democracy to bring in a socialist/communist rule. His policies are designed to hurt jobs and pretty much break everyone down except for the ruling elite.

Kruschev was right when he said Americans won't accept communism outright, but they can be dragged there slowly through ever increasing government presence (social programs).

Luckily the real America will wake up and return the government back to what the founding fathers envisioned.

At 9:13 AM, November 20, 2009, Anonymous Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

Sprawl "evil?" Pretty grandiose, fire and brimstone language there.

I don't think many people think it is "evil" anymore than they think, not recycling is "evil" or driving an SUV is "evil."

What sprawl "is" is wasteful and it has a detrimental effect on our environment, health and foreign policy.

Face the facts Tory, the reason we have to send men and women to die in places like Iraq (and the reason we have to play nice to regimes like Saudi Arabia) is because this country uses so much oil. We use way more per person and way more as a percentage of GDP than any other country. Part of the problem is the lifestyle of the country for the past 50 years.

Is that lifestyle "evil." No. Smoking a pack of cigarettes everyday isn't evil either. But both are bad for your health. One is bad for your personal health. And the other is bad for the country's health. It's about time we had a president that started to recognize this.

At 9:16 AM, November 20, 2009, Anonymous Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

And all I have to say is "wow" kjb..."wow."

You need help.

At 9:55 AM, November 20, 2009, Anonymous lockmat said...

Is "rethinking" sprawl the same as forcing us to live a certain way? Many people paid way over their heads to buy houses they couldn't afford. Are more of those in the suburbs or urban areas? It's a fact I'd like to find out but I'm guessing most of those were in the burbs. If people wanted to live in a urban area so much, they'd be going into debt trying to do so(they're doing in both urban and suburban but at a higher rate in the 'burbs). I guess Obama will "rethink" how we SHOUDL live and send middle and lower income America to the core and let all the rich sit in their big fancy houses out in the "country."

At 10:29 AM, November 20, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

See what I mean?


At 10:37 AM, November 20, 2009, Blogger david said...

"Next-generation projects will ori­ent to infill, urbanizing suburbs, and transit-oriented develop­ment. Smaller housing units-close to mass transit, work, and 24-hour amenities-gain favor over large houses on big lots at the suburban edge. People will continue to seek greater convenience and want to reduce energy expenses. Shorter commutes and smaller heating bills make up for higher infill real estate costs."

(and I know, I know, the ever-dependable PriceWaterhouseCoopers performed this at the behest of ULI - but it still does indeed give some food for thought)

At 10:47 AM, November 20, 2009, Blogger david said...

(and potentially more food for thought)

"Job subsidies granted by several Illinois state agencies have severely shortchanged Chicago and many parts of Cook County. Instead of helping to revitalize areas in the region hardest-hit by plant closings and job flight, the state's development deals have favored affluent, outlying areas
with low unemployment and the strongest tax base. The resulting spatial mismatch between new job creation at the fringe and economic need at the core means many transit-dependent workers cannot benefit from regional growth."

(Oh! And I most decidedly did not vote for Obama.)

At 11:12 AM, November 20, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>and want to redirect the vast majority of federal transportation funding to transit projects at an absolutely absurd cost per passenger mile

Believe it or not, there are other metrics besides cost per passenger mile (such as cost per trip) and other institutes besides Cato and Reason that come up with such figures - just because you do not read them does not make it not exist. If you really think that building the Grand Parkway north of I-10 was a great idea and commuter rail to Sugar Land is a horrible idea, I'm afraid we'll just have to agree to disagree - I'm pretty confident that light rail / commuter rail is no more wasteful and in fact probably much more efficient than most roads - including clearly wasteful roads which are basically developer give-aways which you have supported.

>>He and his administration are purposefully tearing the country down.

KJB, please, spare me. This is EXACTLY the sort of inanity that I'm talking about.

At 1:18 PM, November 20, 2009, Blogger david said...

Specifically for kjb434: I was hoping that such Manichean mindlessness would cease with the demise of the last administration; please, read this:
and this:

These numbers put together by the Austin Chamber of Commerce for where Central Texas stands in this regard should blow one's mind:

Mike Krusee, former Grand-Poobah of the Texas House of Representatives Transportation Committee: "No road that we built in Texas paid for itself.":

"TxDOT forecasts that it has only 30% of the funds needed to make the improvements required to meet future travel demand.":

Mayor (Denton) Pro Tem Pete Kamp, who serves on the North Central Texas Council of Governments’ Regional Transportation Council: “TxDOT is not being shy about the fact that they will not have any money for new construction projects after the first quarter of 2012. They will only be able to barely keep up with the current M&O [maintenance and operations] costs of their facilities. So unless we decide to quit growing as a state, then we probably are going to have to continue to have this debate.”:

"Standard & Poor's experience indicates that optimism bias is a consistent trend in toll-road traffic forecasting. Bondholders and lenders should, therefore, view these forecasts with some degree of caution as they attempt to identify the inherent risks that these forecasts pose for credit quality.":

Throughout the country streetcars/urban rail are being viewed as good bond investments, not for any transit improvements they may make but because their real-estate development ROIs are through the roof.

(dated yet relevant)"High speed rail appears to be the costliest of the three modes for the corridor analyzed. But rail’s full costs are close to highway transportation, and social costs are lower. However, highway’s lower per user infrastructure costs compensate for the greater external costs than high speed rail. Users bear many highway costs: accidents and congestion are imposed by one driver on another, and so are internal to the highway transportation system as a whole...The implications of this are clear and far reaching. They suggest that the most cost effective high speed rail configuration in California would be as an alternative to highway, rather than to air transportation.":

At 3:18 PM, November 20, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Lumping suburbs with small towns is unfair. Obama's policies aren't anti-suburban. On the contrary, the stimulus included tens of billions more in funding for roads than any smart growth advocate would have liked. It's the McCain/Palin campaign that sneered at anyone who lived in a community that's even moderately diverse or urban, as most suburbs are today.

At 3:57 PM, November 20, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Is "rethinking" sprawl the same as forcing us to live a certain way?

Yep, pretty much, just like rethinking cities from the 1900s to the 1950s was forcing Americans to live in a certain way. Urban reformers hated cities, so they redlined neighborhoods to force the middle-class to move to the suburbs, and then tore down entire city blocks to build mega-highways for the middle class to drive to the city. Once GM became powerful enough it joined in the chorus - after all, every person who rides the streetcar is one fewer car it gets to sell.

At 8:19 PM, November 20, 2009, Blogger Placemaking Institute said...

Yep most definitely doubt our suburban growth model is predicated upon the so-called American Dream's Manifest Destiny myth

One person who perpetuated it, Horatio Alger? Was once arrested for raping little boys.

At 11:34 PM, November 20, 2009, Anonymous lockmat said...

I guess China's move towards sprawl is the governments fault too? I'm sure Europe would be sprawled more if the govt didn't keep them tied to their sidewalks and trains. I love walkability just as much as the next person, but everyone's got an agenda. They're not like that by consumer choice.

At 11:59 PM, November 20, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>I guess China's move towards sprawl is the governments fault too?

What are you referring to? Rates of car-ownership or something? Because China is building one of the most expansive train networks in the world. Shanghai's metro system alone opened in 1995 and is being expanded to over 400 miles of track by 2020, with 3 million boardings daily already. My understanding is China is building dozens of these systems throughout the country in their large and moderate-sized cities - meanwhile in the US it is going to take us 20 more years to expand the NYC subway by a single line (that goes what, 7 miles?).

I agree with Kotkin that Obama has a problem, but I think Obama's problem is he isn't doing enough things like this - our stimulus was some tax cuts and some bailouts to Wall St. fat cats, when we could have put people to work building the infrastructure of tomorrow like China is doing. We have no appetite for massive government spending and putting people to work - even though our U6 unemployment rates are approaching 20%.

At 7:37 PM, November 21, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

I love walkability just as much as the next person, but everyone's got an agenda. They're not like that by consumer choice.

And yet you seem to think that sprawl was all consumer choice, and no lobbying by GM and Chevron.

At 7:48 PM, November 22, 2009, Anonymous Dale said...

Kotkin's post is further demonstration that it is easier to make good criticism than good alternate recommendations - since three (#1,4,5) of the five suggestions carry no substance worthy of note, and one of them (#2) is too constrained to really help (natural gas, good, but not enough). On a scale of 1 (least) to 5 (best), I give his post a 1.5, just barely.

At 9:41 AM, November 23, 2009, Anonymous lockmat said...

Alon, you are correct, but did the government also force these people to the burbs, or did they have a choice of where to live?

At 5:04 PM, November 23, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Lockmat, the government kind of did force people to move to the suburbs. In the 1930s, Fannie Mae started engaging in redlining, denying credit to anyone who wanted to buy in neighborhood it deemed slums - for example, any block with even one black family was considered a slum. Even people who were worthy borrowers could not get mortgages in many city neighborhoods; the government and the banks considered giving such mortgages to be investment in slums and believed it to be a waste of money.

In that environment, the easiest areas to get mortgages in were greenfield suburbs, which were not too dense or diverse for the banks and for the New Deal czars' tastes.


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