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.

22 thoughts on “The Progressive Paradox

  1. “That so many manage to find places for themselves anyway is a testament to human ingenuity.”
    In NY City, singles and couples are living in what before would have been considered a large closet.
    Here’s an article about some of the smallest ones – one of which is 275 square feet:

    It also speaks to how little space people can live in, and how much they’re willing to pay for that space (take a look at those prices!), to be in a city as great as NY!

    When I lived in NY City,I typically had small apartments in the boroughs. I lived in every one except Bronx.

    Back then, in the 80’s, you could find some decent apartments relatively cheaply in the boroughs. Cheap enough so that I could go to shows, the opera, the ballet, restaurants, clubs, museums, ballgames, etc. – in other words, all of the things you want to do when you’re in a city with all of those things available to you.
    Now, could I go all of the time?
    I had to budget. But, I could go at least a few times a month to something.

    One year, my multi-millionaire boss allowed me to live in his Peter Cooper Village 2-bedroom for free! He was a demanding asshole, and didn’t want to pay me a higher salary, so, he allowed me to stay there.
    It was a great apartment – on 23rd St, east of 1st Ave, right by the East River.
    I got a $30.000 a year salary, and, with no rent to pay, I felt like a millionaire.

    Of course, when I quit that asshole’s job, I lost that great apartment.
    Oh well, I found a good job in Queens, and moved back to Queens.

    Now, the city is unaffordable to anyone who’s not rich.

    I don’t know what to do about the price of rent – but, that loon who ran for Mayor a few years ago, had it right:

    Now, what’s the solution?

  2. Oh, and one of the reasons I think most cities are more liberal, is that they’re not homogenous.
    A city if full of “others.”
    And to live in one, you have to accept the other people live.

    In SiblingSchtupp, Red State, you typically have white people on one side of the tracks, and black people on the other.
    They really don’t mix much.
    When I lived in Southern Pines, NC – a fairly well-off town, next to that golf haven Pinehurst – for awhile I rarely saw any black people.
    Then, I found them – sure enough, on the other side of the railroad tracks, back behind some nicer homes in which whites lived.
    There was a whole, well-kept neighborhood.
    They had their own little grocery store in that neighborhood, and I started shopping there, because it was cheaper than at the Kroger of Food Lion.

  3. Re: what to do about rents, Krugman and Weis point out the answer in their textbook. Rent control won’t work unless you’re saying “no more than X” where X is above the market clearing price. But if you provide subsidies, you can let the market work and find a natural clearing price, while still seeing activity in provision of housing. Of course, that’s giving away to the “moochers” (forget that it flows from the “moochers” to the “job creators” because that only matters if you’re an economist trying to understand the market, not if you’re a Republican pretending to be working with economics!).

    This is why SNAP (/food stamps) is such a successful program. Done properly, it can protect people from price shocks and let the markets find their clearing price.

    But even food stamps are under constant attack, puffed up by a letter to Paul to a town where people didn’t want to work because they figured Jesus would be returning Real Soon Now, so why bother bringing in the harvest? So, Paul said “don’t feed people who aren’t willing to work because they think Jesus will return and save them.”

    But if you point out that this is the worst form of cherry picking, well, no one cares, because it’s not a nice, snappy sound bite.

    Hm. I wonder if it would help if it was noted that the idea that the poor don’t deserve to have anything they can’t afford is called “social Darwinism”? That might get the right wing to disavow it.

  4. That’s interesting. I wonder if any of this has to do with people in blue cities paying something closer to the “real” cost of things, as opposed to a heavily subsidized red state lifestyle. I know I’ve seen a number of reports showing how tax dollars tend to flow from blue areas to red ones overall, and it’s not hard to think of specific kinds of subsidies that make really cheap real estate inhabitable. For one thing, you basically need motor vehicles to live in a lot of these places, and we don’t come anywhere close to paying the real costs of all that.

  5. There are some apparent contradictions between “liberal” and “conservative” cities and their policies. Boulder, Colorado is “liberal” but puts a sales tax on groceries, which falls disproportionately on the poor and is by any definition a regressive tax. Colorado Springs, headquarters of Focus on the Fetus and a city where Republican members of Congress can feel safe as can be, does not put a sales tax on groceries. These taxes are levied by votes of the city councils, which are elected by the citizens. Both tax policies have been in place for decades. If they felt scandalized by regressive sales taxation, the citizens of Boulder have yet to demand a vote to repeal the tax at city council meetings.

  6. In the early 60’s, my family moved from San Jose to Santa Cruz. San Jose was not yet, ‘Silicon Valley’ – there was no university on the hill in Santa Cruz. Property values were low – there was no traffic. I could go all over town on my bike with no worry.

    It didn’t happen overnight but San Jose became an electronic boom town and then prosperity spilled over to Santa Cruz – UCSC was built and became one of the premier colleges in California. The retirement town became ultra-liberal and the population in the county probably quadrupled (or more) while politics held back construction, road projects, housing for low-income workers and infrastructure to support growth. Property values went through the roof – even for California.

    Santa Cruz is still one of the most beautiful places in the US. Liberal policies protected the environment and preserved a lot of open space. A general hostility to growth doomed Santa Cruz as far as transportation, housing and infrastructure is concerned. Beauty and commercial opportunity will be a draw for many decades – it’s a great place to live if you can afford it. This is the only tie in I have to the theme of the original post – and validates Barbara’s thesis. Places that are more expensive are more attractive. That’s why NYC is where it is economically.

    I will go to my grave with fond childhood memories of a place that doesn’t exist – not like it did – except in my mind. It’s strange and sad to visit a place and see with two sets of eyes – There is what is before me, as you would also behold it, and a different set of eyes sees what was there, and is forever lost.

  7. I call the driving out of the poor by high prices “economic cleansing”. It happens automatically by market forces when the gentrifiers arrive; so no-one’s to blame and everyone’s to blame.
    This will create privileged liberalism in the pricy cities, and underclass reaction elsewhere; false consciousness in both cases, therefore vulnerable to sudden turnover, if people ever get to stop and think.

  8. I have never heard a person say they hoped the value of their property would decrease so things would be more affordable for the poor, nor have I heard some one say “if my property value would fall, I would be happy because my tax bill is too high”.
    Back in ’79, we bought our first house in long Beach, ca. Just over 900 square feet, but in a nice neighborhood and a back yard big enough to enjoy, but small enough to be easy to maintain.
    The couple that we bought it from paid $28,000 for it in ’75. We lived in it for 10 years, made some up grades, and in ’88, we sold it for $184,000. Our purchase price was $79,000.
    Not long after, the real estate market crashed. The reason being people could not afford the rediculous prices or come up with down payment.
    After a time, the lenders got creative and figured out how to get huge loans to people, and the market again got on steroids. That same little house was worth over $350,000. We stayed in touch with friends in the neighborhood, and they liked the fact that their property values were way up, but knew they could not afford to move unless they moved far away because property costs were so high.
    Southern California was mostly blue, except for the “inland empire”, northern San Diego county, and the wealthy areas of orange county. Up until about ’78, the labor unions were strong and helped wages grow, but that all came crashing down when Reagan attacked the air traffic controller’s union. Soon, the retail clerks adopted a two tier pay scale.
    When we moved to Florida,, we were in for a rude awakening. Real estate prices were low, but wages were a joke. This area is pretty red, with plenty of service jobs and low wage republicans.

  9. If high housing costs are the inevitable result of “liberal” city governance, how do conservatives explain the massively depressed real estate markets in cities like Detroit, which they are also blame on liberals? Wingnuts always want to have it both ways, it seems.

  10. I live in San Francisco, have lived here since 1980. I moved here partly because I don’t drive and there’s no workable public transit in most red-state cities. Think about the money a Houston resident spends on a car. I don’t have that expense. I will also never have to pay an air-conditioning bill here (though of course that’s not the case for a lot of blue cities.) Government services are better and more available here — for instance, we’ve never even considered shutting libraries here, though some had reduced hours for a while.

    I do benefit from a rent controlled apartment — but even if rent control was nullified tomorrow, there still would not be room in this city to meet the demand for housing within its limits. San Francisco is seven miles square. There’s nowhere to put vast apartment complexes or subdivisions within the city; the housing supply is capped by geography. There is still a lot of new construction, which will not be covered by rent control; the rent control ordinance does NOT apply to any building constructed after 1980.

  11. Washington DC was just named the most expensive city in the USA. USA today has named DC as a liberal city, which was a surprise to me.

  12. Anniecat, the good public transportation issue is so true. I was in DC for three weeks recently, and really enjoyed riding the metro from the hotel in Alexandria to the Smithsonian and the monuments. The metro rides costs are low, no charge for the museums or monuments. Quite a contrast to Florida. We do have a light rail project now and more planned, but the conservatives are mostly against them.

  13. I am with you Anniecat. As I get older, I hate driving more. I love the mass transit in cities like San Francisco and Portland, and it is a major advantage. Here, in a red area, we have the opposite problem. We have about a fifty mile round trip to see a decent movie and a tractor pull is a cultural event. The only mass transit is a special van service for people who use wheelchairs, which is, of course, very important.

    I remember one of David Brooks’ more idiotic columns about high speed rail. He opined that liberals had a romantic fascination with trains as if we were all longing for the nostalgic rhythm of a steam locomotive rather than something more like the TGV or bullet train. The capper was that he admitted that high speed rail was efficient, fast, comfortable and beneficial, but that we liberals just wanted to “boss other people around” by forcing others to ride mass transit. It would have been pure comedy gold, except that is wasn’t worth the discomfort that his columns always cause, unless you have a taste for tripe.

  14. goatherd,
    I love tripe!
    Don’t insult tripe by mentioning Bobo in the same paragraph – let alone the same sentence.
    Bobo’s columns are what passes through the tripe, and eventually exits.

  15. Wow, I really am getting old. I love trains and I like the idea of high speed rail although I do feel nostalgic about the slower ones. I could not live in NY and ride on the subway. I rode the tube in London and didn’t enjoy it but thoroughly enjoyed the train ride to Bath.

    I now live in a small town in eastern Washington. There are no major highways in or out but we do have a small airport. Still only one airline will come here and flights are limited. Our bus service is very good. The drivers will actually let a passenger off anywhere not just at the bus stop. I don’t use it cause I still drive but my daughter is threatening to take my keys away. That’s okay with me, she will have to chauffeur me if that happens but she has to catch me first.

    If I have bored anyone, I’m sorry but it is raining, I have already voted and feeling like “just enjoying being old”.

  16. I will admit to a romantic fascination with trains myself, but my belief in high speed rail has more to do with my romantic fascination with having a livable planet. Because it’s not even a question of whether we like driving or not, driving is over. It’s just grotesquely irresponsible to keep burning fossil fuels at this point, and it really doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to generate enough electricity for everyone to be able to drive a Tesla. You just look at how much energy you get from a barrel of oil, and compare it to any other power source, and the numbers don’t add up.

    So it makes more sense to put the electricity that we are going to spend on transportation into high speed rail, because that’s much more efficient.

    Up next: the return of sailing!

  17. grannyeagle,
    “…but she has to catch me first.”
    Thanks for the laugh today – it’s a cold, wet, and miserable day in Upstate NY!

  18. Yeah. I think the key is the “right” level of technology and the most efficient use of energy. A big part of my dislike of driving is the waste of energy and the harm that does.

    We haven’t ridden our horses in quite a while, my old bones are too fragile. But, I agree with grannyeagle, we hope to retire to a place where we can walk and ride bikes most of the time. I love to just walk around aimlessly and explore and the exercise keeps you in shape.

    The government of Finland is considering having publicly owned high efficiency or electric vehicles that are robotic. So that citizens could call a vehicle on their cell phone and climb in at home and out at their destination. Imagine what the Republicans would think of that.

    CUNDgulag, the last time I had tripe was in a soup that we had at 4:00 a.m. at the fish docks in Athens quite a few years ago. It was supposed to be a remedy for a late evening of overindulgence. As I recall it worked pretty well.

  19. The Mexicans have Menudo, made with tripe.

    We Slav’s boil it forever, then saute-up some onions, celery, carrots, add some flour, cook that down, add the tripe,some broth and potato’s, and let it simmer – and, with rice or egg noodles, it’s one of my favorite dishes.

    I used to make tripe chili – man, was that GREAT!
    Instead of beef or pork, or other meat, add well-cooked tripe, and it’s a whole different taste!

  20. Generally I’d say most people would prefer to live in beautiful settings with great green public spaces and good public schools for their kids. It’s funny how those places tend to be “Liberal” bastions where people understand that their taxes purchase those amenities.

    That is why the Conservative dream of obtaining all of that at no cost is such a sham.

    They try, in the Kansas of Sam Brownback to have it all for free, but the only way to do that is to sell it off to private corporations which are only too eager to purchase whole cities or even whole States.

    And then those poor schmucks are surprised that they owe everything to the company store.

    Eventually they will realise that they will never be out of debt to their masters but by then they will be paying tolls to drive the highways to the jobs which don’t pay enough to support their families, let alone provide a tax base for their Cities and States to function independently.

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