[Editor’s note: Scott wrote this article in 2012 after President Obama’s reelection, and provides a modified version here. It reviews a book claiming that the president would use his second term to usher in a “regionalism” agenda bent on controlling local land use. The book was an interesting precursor to Obama’s recent urban policies, which some have found extreme and others mild. Scott will use the president’s final 6 months in office to analyze these policies, both for Market Urbanism and Forbes. This article provides context for what was being said prior to the changes.]
Generally speaking, presidents are judged based on how they address a few key issues. But the small measures they take, often incrementally and with little public notice, better reveal their underlying philosophies. According to National Review writer Stanley Kurtz, President Obama’s governing philosophy is one favoring obsessive federal centralization and control. And he believes this will be evident in Obama’s future attempts to impose regionalism onto America’s localities, an idea he thrashes in his new book Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities.
In the book, Kurtz defines regionalism as the goal to “abolish the suburbs, ideally by having cities annex surrounding suburban municipalities.” Because this strategy has proven unpopular, it is advanced by officials today in indirect ways. One is by establishing urban growth boundaries, which protect farmland by pushing potential suburbanites back into cities. Another is tax-base sharing, which redirects service money from wealthy suburbs into cities. Both, he writes, are “hostile to our traditions of individual freedom and local self-rule,” since they encourage the consolidation, rather than autonomy, of neighboring suburbs.
Although regionalism, in its various forms, is practiced at local and state levels, it has largely escaped federal interference in the U.S. The closest thing has been Congressional-funded Metropolitan Planning Organizations, which for decades have played political or advisory roles on local transportation projects. But Kurtz says that Obama is changing this with programs like the Sustainable Communities Initiative, which uses the EPA, the DOT, and HUD—along with hefty federal grants—to nudge localities towards regionalist goals. This interference will only escalate during Obama’s second term, he writes, when the president, less accountable to political pressure, tries to dictate even the minutiae of local land policies.
Like in previous writings, Kurtz’s concerns about Obama come from studying his background. Throughout the book he plows through the president’s past writings, and his time as an organizer, to detect his bias for cities over suburbs, and big rather than small government. Not only did Obama mature in a political climate inspired by socialism, says Kurtz, but in a city, Chicago, that has been shaped for the worse by top-down policies. He writes particularly of Obama’s supposed tutelage under the city’s radicals, and later under regionalists like David Rusk and Myron Orfield. He also rightly criticizes Obama for subsidizing light rail.
But Kurtz’s own apparent suburban bias blinds him to how city-oriented policies, if centered on market outcomes, could benefit an increasingly urbanizing America. Such policies represent less a turn towards socialism, than one away from the nation’s existing socialized paradigm favoring suburbs, wherein housing regulations restrict dense infill development, while the public foots the costs of state highways, local roads, and other sprawl infrastructure. Obama, for all of his supposedly urban bias, has not been immune to extending this paradigm; for example, his stimulus package, writes economist Ed Glaeser, disproportionately benefited low-density states with low unemployment.
Kurtz also doesn’t note, to an even slight degree, some positive aspects of regionalism, which distances him even from many conservative business interests. Regional policies can reduce waste by combining services between dozens of municipalities who would otherwise operate their own schools, libraries, policing, etc. It can help metropolitan areas complete broad measures, mainly for transportation, that would be impossible without expanded revenue pooling, and cross-bureaucratic cooperation. And it can advance regional housing goals by nudging suburban municipalities to allow more units through the loosening of zoning laws. These latter measures for housing are admittedly a top-down approach, but they still favor the free market, since they attack regulations that restrict housing supply and thus push out certain income groups.
Of course, regionalism can be used for all the generic left-wing reasons described by Kurtz–to enforce more tax redistribution, more restrictive land-use regulations, and the creation of new, expensive bureaucracies. One question is what brand of regionalism Obama will encourage in his second term, if he does at all. Another question is how Obama would pursue this agenda–for example, would it be through mandate, or through grants that municipalities can apply for voluntarily? Perhaps neither the mandate nor the grant option is ideal, since both would increase federal influence over land use; but one is a lot worse than the other.
Kurtz doesn’t draw these distinctions, though. Instead, he uses an oversimplified definition of regionalism, via an emotional writing style and much scare language. The truth or falsehood behind his claims about Obama will be revealed by what the president actually does in his second term.