Friday, November 23, 2007

Voting with feet, if not with ballots

Writing about cities and human settlement, Joel Kotkin usually gets it right. In today's WSJ, he recalls the beginnings of post-war suburbanization in the U.S.

Elite opinion had completely missed the point. Critics objected how large numbers of people were able to dramatically improve their lives on the wings of entrepreneurial discovery, in this case by the Levitt's and their followers.

Interestingly, little has changed. The pseudo-science of "sustainability planning" is invoked to stymie development, drive up prices and put housing affordability out of reach of most young people. Not to worry, their housing will be provided by new politicized housing initiatives.

In 2004, most eligible voters voted for neither Bush nor Kerry. Bush was actually second and Kerry third. Rational ignorance was first.

Interestingly, a majority do vote with their feet. Most Americans have moved away from central cities where the political corruption (lower-case as well as upper-case) is worst.
Suburban Development

I didn't grow up in Levittown, N.Y., the iconic American
suburb founded 60 years ago. But you could call North Woodmere, the Long Island
town my parents moved to in 1957, a close relation.

In 1963, poet Richard Wilbur wrote "To an American Poet Just
Dead": "In summer sunk and stupefied/ The suburbs deepen in their sleep of
death." Many of us who were raised in these places would have agreed. Some might
even have cheered the news announced a couple of weeks ago that the Levitt Co.
has gone bankrupt.

The streets of our suburbs were often roughly paved at first;
trees were slim sticks that provided little shade. Everyone was similarly aged
and, for the most part, from one of the three major New York social food groups:
Italians, Irish and Jews. Boredom could be relieved only by a train ride to
Manhattan. In our innocence, we did not know why our parents moved to these
pre-packaged wonderlands. The only times we got an inkling was when visiting
relatives still back in Brooklyn. They lived in apartments on blocks with no
yards and often attended dangerous schools.

Our parents, as we understood only when we got older, knew
what they were doing. They were part of a nationwide revolution in expectations
among middle- and working-class city dwellers for whom a move to suburbia meant
the chance to flee the crime, crowding and other ills of urban

What made this revolution possible was in large part what made
cars, refrigerators and TV sets luxury goods no longer: mass production. Like
most geniuses, William Levitt, the founder of Levittown, worked on a simple
premise. If you could build houses on an assembly line and remove cost-creating
encumbrances (most famously, basements), you could make them affordable for
average Americans. "Any damn fool can build homes," Mr. Levitt, who made the
cover of Time in 1950, once noted. "What counts is how many you can sell for how

Previously, homeownership had been a prospect for only the
affluent or people in the hinterlands. But Mr. Levitt, using production
techniques he perfected in the Navy, offered amazingly cheap homes: The first
Cape Cods went for $6,990 in 1947 (when median family income was $3,031). With
the aid of mortgage financing from the GI Bill, buyers could get along with down
payments as low as $100 and monthly installments of as little as

By the time he was finished, 17,500 homes were completed in
Levittown. This was not a singular achievement but one repeated by Mr. Levitt
himself in Philadelphia's suburbs and by imitators from coast to coast. Indeed,
by the mid-1980s America enjoyed a rate of homeownership -- roughly two-thirds
of all families -- double that of Germany, Switzerland, France and Britain.
Nearly three-quarters of AFL-CIO members and the vast majority of intact
families owned their own homes.