The Progressive Paradox

At The Atlantic, Derek Thompson writes “Why Middle-Class Americans Can’t Afford to Live in Liberal Cities.” In brief, housing costs, and income disparities, tend to be higher in “blue” metro areas than “red” ones, and this is supposed to point to a failure in liberalism. What follows is my comment to the article.

This article should be studied as an exercise in logical fallacy. First, the argument that metro areas must be run by “liberals” if voters there preferred Obama in the last election rather falls apart if you look at the actual metro governments. For example, New York City’s last two mayors, Giuliani and Bloomberg, were both right-of-center by most measures. When When Bill de Blasio was elected last year you could hear America reaching for the smelling salts — what, a real honest-to-God progressive liberal in charge of a major U.S. city? The end is nigh …

To me, the situation the article describes doesn’t say anything about whether “liberals” or “conservatives” are more committed to affordable housing, because nobody anywhere has done much about it in recent years. As I remember, the last time “affordable housing” was a noticeable part of a national political campaign Reagan was running for president. He made fun of the idea; the newspapers were full of “for rent” ads, so what was the problem? I remember this because I was living in New Jersey at the time and struggling to find a decent place I could afford for myself and two small children. Let’s just say I was not a Reagan voter.

Rent control was an attempt to keep the poor from being priced out of their apartments, but the side effects of that made matters worse in the long run. After the disaster of badly planned high-rise urban housing projects of decades ago, I’ve seen few attempts to come up with new solutions.

So nobody’s doing much, and affordable housing happens if it happens. Red states tend to have lower taxes but also lower property values. Many, such as Texas, have an overabundance of really cheap, and still empty, land. The coastal cities, by contrast, are often out of land; there’s no empty space to expand to. “New” development requires tearing down existing densely occupied neighborhoods. Inland cities, red and blue, are over-sprawled, and over time pockets of suburban poverty such as Ferguson, Missouri, have developed. So “cheap” is not necessarily “problem free.”

“Red” areas often have minimal regulations regarding housing standards, so there always are trailer parks with iffy sanitation and potentially hazardous conditions, but they’re cheap. Here in the NYC area even “affordable” housing is too expensive for low-wage workers. That so many manage to find places for themselves anyway is a testament to human ingenuity.

But the single biggest reason the “blue” metro areas are more expensive is that so many of the affluent want to live there, in spite of the higher taxes. We might reflect on why that is true. In the U.S. there is a correlation — not a perfect one, I acknowledge — between affluence and “blueness” — with some exceptions, more “liberal” leaning areas tend to be more prosperous than red ones. Are they prosperous because they are “liberal,” or liberal because they are prosperous? I propose that where people are more willing to tax themselves to pay for better school systems and nicer parks and other public works, there will be healthier economies and more “livable” cities, and the affluent naturally will want to live there. But that drives up housing costs and leaves the poor scrambling for places to live. So that’s a paradox.