Fight Communism With Sprawl

The biggest threat to continue promoting sprawl — or at least the sprawl-promoting force I find most bewildering and difficult to imagine a remedy for — is also what makes sprawl so much worse in the United States than anywhere else. I don’t have in mind the geography of North America or American “individualism” exactly, not in any general form that could be said to have existed for centuries. The main problem, I suspect, is — and I know I’m writing this in 2000 — anti-communism.

This thought occurred to me recently when someone told me they couldn’t trust Gush or Bore, but wouldn’t vote for Nader because the Green Party reminded them of the Khmer Rouge. How so? What could a party that advocates nonviolence have done to equal genocide? According to my interlocutor, the Greens want to nationalize the 100 largest banks in the U.S. That was it. That, I was told, showed the same indifference to people as slaughtering them.

I don’t know who in which Green Party advocates this, and I have no opinion on whether it’s a good idea. And I DO have a problem with the sort of Sovietesque corporate welfare, tort reform, and savings-and-loans-bailouts that are common practice among US advocates of “free enterprise.” But I can’t see any position on the nationalization of banks ever weighing heavily enough with me to sway my vote.

But, that’s only because my views are not dominated by anti-communism. Why is campaign finance reform so difficult? It’s not just that the beneficiaries of the current system are reluctant to change it. More important is the thought that public funding is communist. Were it not for this seldom-stated idea, people would be clamoring for a specific solution (public funding of campaigns) rather than whining about the problem (legalized bribery and an absence of democratic representation).

Why can’t we fund schools well and fund the ones in poor neighborhoods better than, or at least as well as, those in rich counties? It’s not a lack of resources or a lack of belief in the importance of education. Rather, Americans don’t like the idea of national funding, and are so horrified by it that – in a rush of paranoia – they assume that national funding must require national curriculum control (which would be even more communist). If schools are underfunded and therefore of poor quality, the solution is “free enterprise,” which – of course – means the giving of tax money to select private sources promoting a controversial majority opinion. How better to fight off the commies?

This notion that Americans are still fighting commies might seem to break down when it comes into contact with our state and federal highway budgets or our federal military budget. But the reason why $300,000,000,000 is so insufficient for our military when all our supposed enemies combined spend less than a third of that, is precisely the need to fight commies, which always presupposed the more fundamental need to line the pockets of weapons makers. Nothing has changed, right down to Clinton’s recent funding of Colombia’s military. (He called the enemy drugs rather than communism, but we all know who will suffer as a result, the same as always: poor Colombians and poor Americans.)

And highways are a key part of sprawl-promotion, the goal of which is using government time and money to promote the lack of government interference in the Market. All across the country counties and towns and pouring their tax dollars into gifts to whichever corporations will condescend to come destroy the countryside in that particular county. Free land, subsidies, deregulation, tax breaks — what do such tidbits matter when we are “building our tax base”?

See, the theory is supposed to be that businesses will pay taxes and residents won’t have to. That’s why all our local governments tell us we should be grateful to lose our scenic vistas and safe drinking water, as well as why our state governments should build road after road after road. Our taxes will go down! Yippee.

The trouble is, of course, that they don’t. Even the sprawl promoters now all admit that residential “growth” raises taxes with its increased need for schools and other services. Yet, despite overwhelming evidence, often from as close as the next counties in from the sprawling exurbs, they continue to pretend that industrial “growth” lowers taxes.

Not only do taxes go up, in part because businesses require workers who require houses. But the explicit plan in each county is to hurt the surrounding counties. This half-believed fantasy would have it that each exurban county is pouring its money into “economic development” so that it can become the workplace commuting destination for residents of the other counties.

A solution to this silliness would be regional planning. Thinking regionally might even mitigate some of the competing inferiority complexes that are as much to blame for desires for sprawl as is the notion of “free enterprise.” The trouble, of course, is that regionalism is communism.

It’s OK to spend $300 billion, or even twice that, on weapons at a national level in order to heighten the external risks to each individual town. But a national land-use plan would be as communist as national health care.

Health care will be all right as soon as HMOs can’t be sued, according to Bush Jr. Or maybe we should make sure children are covered (Gore). Children aren’t exactly individuals; they’re practically communists anyway.

Sprawl will come under control as soon as developers are left free to decide what to do with their own land, according to Bush Jr. Or maybe we should write a book about it and consider our work done, like Gore. At least we won’t go pinko, right?

Or is that an error upgraded to an anachronism and one more fallacious argument against voting for Nader or trying anything else new?

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