The Intellectual Pretensions of Suburb Bashing

Saturday night my wife and I went to see the movie “Revolutionary Road” starring the Titanic team of Leonardo and Kate. It’s sharp, intelligent and deeply depressing fare by the same director of that gem “American Beauty” but without much of the satiric humor.

The film brought to mind the concept of suburbs and just how intellectuals despise them, often for good reason. This is true at Bacons Rebellion (at least the original one) where such keen-eyed observers as EMR and Jim Bacon and Larry Gross take apart the problems of the car-centric suburbs that have overwhelmed Virginia since about the 1930s when the New Deal brought lots of new federal workers to Washington and many flocked to the cheap housing in Arlington.

I, too, have done my dissing of suburbs, although I lived in some as a child and some of my earliest memories are not of cities, but of station wagons on Rockville Pike north of Bethesda and Congressional Shopping Center, a converted civil airport, where I used to buy my plastic models. Later, I lived in true small towns and in the country. During my adult life, I tended towards residing near the centers of cities, including Norfolk, Richmond, Washington, Chicago, Moscow and New York.

Like Frank and April in the movie, marriage and two children brought me to the suburbs which are where I am now. But I start to wonder, why does everyone hate the suburbs so much? Is it really fair, since suburbs have been a huge part of the American experience since at least the 1950s? Are we really the worse for it as the EMRs and Baconators would have us believe? I mean, Ed and Jim, are we all really so worthless?

There is a certain pretension in ‘burb-bashing. Consider this excerpt from the New York Times which was riffing off the upcoming release of “Revolutionary Road:

“In the last couple of decades, the antisuburban film has become as much a staple of Hollywood as the Serious Crime Drama With an Incomprehensible Plot. A few prominent examples: Todd Haynes’s “Safe” (which has suburban people inexplicably bleeding from every pore of their bodies); the 2004 remake of “The Stepford Wives” (where Viking range + Sub-Zero refrigerator = robotic wife, death of feminism and extinction of human rights); “The Ice Storm” (just in case you ignored the urgent alarm sounded by the antisuburban novel by Rick Moody on which the film is based and moved to Larchmont); the British Sam Mendes’s very own “American Beauty” (of which “Revolutionary Road” is simply a reiteration — take a sprinkler, add a dollop of anomie, and presto! you’re an authentic American filmmaker).”

So, let me see if I am getting this right. The “autonomobile” + “dysfunctional settlement patterns” + boredom = hopelessness + self-abortion (see the movie). But I think that is terribly harsh and negates such much of what has been good about U.S. culture at least when I have been alive (I turned 56 last week).

The fact is that for years hardly anyone has lived in the extremely-densely packed neighborhoods where I resided in Brooklyn for four years when I worked at a magazine in Manhattan. I spent fascinating weekends inspecting brownstones and redbricks, studying the sub-society on tenement roofs and on fire escapes and marveling at the incredible ethnic diversity of the place. My Soviet-born wife loved New York with a passion and was disappointed when we ended up in a nice suburb. She ought to know — she teaches the children of suburban families and knows their issues very well.

Suburbs are alien worlds to her so her viewing of “Revolutionary Road” was a bit clinical. As a child, she lived for a while in a city in a “kommunalka” or apartment where as many as a dozen families lived on one floor and shared one kitchen and bathroom. Talk about properly dense housing patterns! Think of it as Risse’s ideal world on steroids with a vodka chaser!

It wasn’t that her family was poor – everyone was. Her mother worked at a partly-underground factory that made, among other things, surface-to-air missiles of the type used against U.S. aircraft in Vietnam. Back then in the Urals, such housing wasn’t so much a factor of far-sighted urban planning, Rather, it was because the nation was still getting over the effects of World War II which killed millions of Russians.

Anyway, back to the movie. Leonardo and Kate do a fine job of playing out their enormous frustrations at being alive in the 1950s suburbs and they really seem to want to get on to Paris and make like Kerouac or Ginsberg. I liked the movie but really admired “American Beauty,” another gutting of suburbia, but more of a satire thanks to Kevin Spacey’s wry and brilliant humor.

I guess I subscribe to the intellectual pretension of ‘burb-bashing because I am so much a product of it.

Peter Galuszka

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48 responses to “The Intellectual Pretensions of Suburb Bashing”

  1. Suburbanism is responsible for so much that I dislike about our society — overconsumption, reckless spending to keep up w/ the Joneses, gridlock, pollution, did I mention gridlock? Places like West Broad out by Short Pump Town Center are literally hell on earth, IMO. I would rather have every hair in my body simultaneously plucked out before being immediately submerged in a tub filled with rubbing alcohol than live in a place like Short Pump.

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Peter, It’s nice to find myself on the same page with you, philosophically speaking. There *is* a lot of “suburb bashing” in certain quarters — and a lot of that bashing is aimed, unfairly, I think, at the inhabitants of the suburbs, portraying them as bored, vacuous, alienated and/or neurotic. Whereas, in fact, most people who live in the suburbs are just quietly living their lives, working their jobs, paying their taxes and raising their kids, and they derive a reasonable amount of satisfaction from doing so.

    If someone is really into self-fulfillment and is intellectually inclined, as the suburbs bashers are, then working every day at a regular job, keeping the house i order and raising two or three kids is not terribly rewarding. But for people who aren’t self absorbed, it’s a pretty decent life.

    What the suburb bashers don’t do is inquire into why people move to the suburbs. For the most part, people are simply looking for good schools, safe communities and low taxes… and, sometimes, enough space to have some privacy. It’s as simple as that. I don’t find that morally deficient in any way.

    I hope you’ll agree that neither EMR nor myself have engaged in the same kind of “suburb bashing” as “Revolutionary Road.” Indeed, we are sympathetic to the residents of suburbs insofar as the suburbs fail to meet their needs. EMR refers to most suburbanites as “Running As Hard As They Cans,” a not unsympathetic description.

    I cannot emphasize this enough, because some of the frequent participants in this blog seem to take our criticisms of suburbia personally, that both EMR and I distinguish between the “suburbs” (a word that EMR classifies as one of his core confusing words, by the way) as a human settlement pattern and suburbanites as dwellers of the suburbs. We are critical of the one and sympathetic to the other.

    Finally, I would add that your observations about Marina’s “human settlement patterns” in the Urals were very interesting. It’s always instructive to bring in examples of how other people live to challenge our assumptions based on our own experience.

    Note to Fan Guy: I love city life, too. I lived in the Fan and Church Hill for more than 10 years before moving to the West End. I once thought the way way as you did, but life in the ‘burbs isn’t quite as awful as you portray. When my child leaves the roost, I would move back in a heart beat. But it’s not a bad life.

  3. “What the suburb bashers don’t do is inquire into why people move to the suburbs. For the most part, people are simply looking for good schools, safe communities and low taxes… and, sometimes, enough space to have some privacy. It’s as simple as that. I don’t find that morally deficient in any way.”

    A couple of points.

    You cannot drive a SUV solo everyday …consuming gasoline at a rate twice or three times what others use and still claim that your lifestyle is no more consumptive than others.

    Having said that …

    it’s always been my impression that …THE… objection to the suburbs in EMR’s central thesis is, in fact, this aspect – couched in “pay your own location costs”.

    I’ve tried to ask the question in a number of different ways.

    What if you live in the suburbs but you carpool or ride commuter rail or bus?

    and then…

    what happens if cars become plug-in electrics – in terms of consuming resources?

    So.. after all the discussion, I still do not know if EMR’s primary objection that Jim seems to agree with – with respect to the suburbs and dysfunctional settlement patterns is…

    consumption of energy

    or what

    what, in fact, are the specific harms that result from dysfunctional settlement patterns?

    and finally.. are there not a number of ways to address these harms and still have suburbs?

  4. Jocelyn Testes-Harder Avatar
    Jocelyn Testes-Harder

    Suburbs aren’t what they used to be, and it’s not just intellectuals who bash ’em.

  5. Some folks like the city.

    Some folks like the rural.


    Some folks like the suburbs.

    Each, for their own reasons.

    and none – as a consequence of a character flaw…

    to give yet another “for instance”,

    we have an influx of retirees who are tired of the high taxes and relentless congestion of those wonderful urban areas.

    They’re looking for a less hectic and more enjoyable lifestyle.

    If that is deemed a character flaw then I’ll be hornswaggled or whatever it is when folks vote you to be a horse’s rear end.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    I originally moved to Richmond hoping to escape the suburbs altogether. Except for a once a month trip to the mall for a special item or some necessary trip to visit a friend or something, I hardly left the downtown footprint. A few things have changed that in the last few years- marrying an avid shopper, friends moving to suburbs for the impression of better schools, and the big one, my workplace deciding to move my office to a West end location (big selling point for suburban co-workers was free parking).

    I am trying to wean spouse off shopping gradually (yes, I know, but I will try). I can’t do much about workplace except grin and bear it (I am appreciative for having a job right now, period). I support mass transit in theory but can’t in practice because it has not made itself practical to do so in routing. I am thinking I may buy an electric bike this spring as gas prices rise, but Henrico is notoriously hostile to bike riding. I would love for my boss to allow me to telecommute.

    There is no doubt in my mind that the biggest drawback of the suburbs vs. the city is the dependence on cars, but the fact is that right now American cities are just as dependent in many ways on trucking and cheap energy as anywhere else. I can’t look down that harshly on suburbs as long as the American populace on a whole ignores these shortcomings. Unfortunately, Richmond is a trucking capitol of the East Coast (despite or because of CSX?) and I think at this time of year hosts more Dominion Power lobbyists than citizens. In addition, Richmond could immediately give itself a leg up if it concentrated on mass transit and improving school buildings vs. baseball stadiums.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    My experience is the opposite of Anon 9:51.

    As a child and young person I lived in the countryside where most people made their living off the land or sea, plus some tourism, or commuting jobs.

    After college I lived in center city, which I hated for the constant aggravations. Anyway, I was commuting tothe near suburbs where my job was,so I soon moved.

    Later, my job moved to the far suburbs and I eventually followed. later that company failed, and I found myself commuting the other direction, but not far enough to justify another move.

    My observation is that except for a few selct places the idea that ciites are less dependent on autos is mostly a myth. Even Nwe York only covers 10% of its trips with transit. The single word you most offten asscoiate with New York is “TAXI”.

    I see no point in supporting mass transit that isn’t practical. which is NOT to say that ALL mass transit is not practical. But we need to be a lot more selective about what works and what doesn’t.

    I like my small town exstence. I like knowing the garbage man by name. I don’t apologize for my commute: it makes my other green initiatives possible.

    But Anon hit it on the head with one comment.

    “….the fact is that right now American cities are just as dependent in many ways on trucking and cheap energy as anywhere else.”

    More so even, and yet the mythology is just the opposite. Cities are huge energy sinks, but by the time we figure it out we will be so invested un urbnism that it will be hard to reverse course and look for the right balance.


  8. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    OAKLAND — An upscale residential project that is one of the keys to the downtown’s revival has lurched into a mortgage default and faces an uncertain future.

    PORTLAND – The City Council on Wednesday passed an ordinance that eliminated a previous one that had capped, at $20 million, transit-oriented development projects seeking tax abatements.

    NEW HAVEN – Mayor John DeStefano lashed out Thursday at United Illuminating’s decision to move 400 downtown jobs to a suburban “1960s-style car park” New Haven State Rep. Pat Dillon has been looking at possible state action against UI in case it skipped town.

    BOSTON – Developers of Dorchester mixed-use building had to change their course when condo market slowed down.

    You know, if all this urban denser is better crap is true, then why are developers needing bailouts?

    Oakland, TOD project can’t get financing because they can’t sell condos.

    Portland, giving developers the gift of no RE taxes on their projects. Portland, the TOD poster child with LRT and smart growth, needs to give away money to get developers to build TOD. That should tell you something.

    New Haven, the electric company moved from downtown because their 20 year tax incentives expired. Cheaper to build new in the suburbs than maintain existing facilities.

    Boston, another city financed project that had low income supplemented by higher end units. Had to change to a rent to own strategy and dump the price to fill the 42 high end units.

    Oh and there are several cities on the Obama bailout train, looking to have their failing TOD projects paid for by fed dollars. Yet every day, all we hear about is how the suburbs are crap and high density taxpayer paid projects are the wave of the future. Sure looks to me like money talks and BS walks when it comes to these bankrupt projects and philosophy. Otherwise people would be flocking to the inner city condo lifestyle.

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    Actually, I use the subway more so than taxis when I visit NYC.

    It is possible to know your garbage man, letter carrier, city parks workers, Councilperson, Mayor, personally in a big city also.

    “I see no point in supporting mass transit that isn’t practical.” Agreed, but your idea of practicality may not fit the majority. You don’t seem to want to acknowledge the true cost of your car commute.

    I am not for bailing out developers either- urban or suburban. The amount of corporate welfare in Richmond is insane. Now we are seeing a push for a new ballpark.

    Cities don’t have to be ‘energy sinks’. They can be very efficient places to live. The problem is that people want the amenities of both city and country living without the costs of either. The result is suburban sprawl, which is unsustainable and increases costs for everyone. But blaming suburbs wholesale is not going to stop it.

  10. Groveton Avatar


    Good article on the suburbs and their bizarre critics. Oddly, many of the people on this blog who most harshly criticize the suburbs live in suburbs themselves. Apparently, their hatred of suburban life has not translated into personal action. This despite the fact that there are plenty of properties available in rural areas and plenty of properties available in urban areas. Any of the suburban haters could move deep into the country or deep into the city. But they don’t. They choose to stay in the suburbs / exurbs. You see, most of these people aren’t really suburb haters so much as self-haters. I mean that in a social (vs. psychological sense). This societal self-hate has become epidemic in the United States. The conservatives decry the loss of morals and talk of how America has gone to he** in a handbasket. They sound like my grandfather at the end of his life (and he was old enough to have fought in WWI). Apparently, hand wringing social self-loathing gains momentum as the one’s years advance. Meanwhile, the liberals are on a similar track. Their spokesmodel, President-elect Obama, accuses small town people of clinging to guns and religion. Perhaps he should check the violent crime statistics between small town America and his adopted hometown of Chicago before putting forth any more anti-small town commentary.

    America is a free country – anybody who wants to get out of the suburbs and live in the countryside or the city should do just that.

    Facts also seem to be in short supply on this topic. To wit – “You cannot drive a SUV solo everyday …consuming gasoline at a rate twice or three times what others use and still claim that your lifestyle is no more consumptive than others.”. Presumably the same is true of people who drive low MPG pickup trucks without hauling much of anything. It’s easy to see which trucks these are since the beds have neither liners nor scratches. Of course, including pick up trucks that aren’t used to pick anything up (except, perhaps, young women in honky tonks) wouldn’t make the case for suburbia bashing so it is overlooked.

    Twenty nine years ago a conservative Republican just short of his 70th birthday was sworn in as President of the United States. Tomorrow, a 47 year old liberal Democrat will be sworn into the same office. My profound hope is that optimism that characterized the elderly Irish-American is replicated in the young African-American. Because, for Gods’ sake, this self-loathing has to end.

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    “Actually, I use the subway more so than taxis when I visit NYC.”

    Me too. That doesn’t mean I enjoy it. Or that it is more convenient. or even cheaper, all things considered.

    “You don’t seem to want to acknowledge the true cost of your car commute.”

    Nope, I’ll accept the true cost of car commuting when the true cost of transit is calculated on the same level playing field. For starters, transit is often highly dependent on autos to provide the customers, and on the parking fees they collect. To that extent, what yoou call the “true cost of the commute is actually a subsidy to transit. It is in fact an interdependent total system, and what I object to is your view of it as one vs the other.

    I don’t have any problem with counting true efficiency after including all the positive and negative externalities. I have a problem with claiming negative extranalities as a political expedient while ignoring the positives, or using differing levels of diligence when comparing what you prefer and don’t prefer.

    I recently saw (in an environmentla blog) an analysis that says hybrids no longer make sense, based on fuel savings. So far as the anlysis went it was correct: you can get a high mileeage convential car cheaper.

    But, you might not have as nice a car (a Corrola or Ion vs a Prius) You might nothave the same levelof performance (max torque at zero RPM with electric drive). And my prius has gone 120,000 on one set of brakes, thanks to regenerative braking.

    The article also pointed out that some models do no better onthe highway, which is besides the point: you have to consider the total package. Some hybrids are designed for additional performance at the same mileage rather than additonal mileage: The V6 Accord hybrid was a screamer, but only got good mileage comapred to other screamers.

    My problem is not that I’m not willing to consider the true cost of my commute, it is that those who complain are not willing to look at the total package.

    Bottom line is that it costs METRO 85 cents per passenger mile. That is not particualrly great, and it doesn’t include any externalities. Once you do that, the overbown total auto costs of $1.50 to $1.85 don’t look so different. And they go more places carry more things, and guarantee a seat. With a seatbelt.

    my claim is that if you do the analysis equally, if you consider the total transprotation network with interdependent externalities, then it looks a lot different.

    For example freight rail has been advertising that they can carry a ton of freight 400 miles on a gallon of fuel. So, if they are five times as effcient as trucks, why doesn’t is cost five times less?

    Because while the train in motion may be mroe efficient on a gallon basis, that is not the same as the total system being more efficient. And, just as Metro DEPENDS on auto drivers, freight rail DEPENDS on trucks.

    BTW, don’t trains run on bunker fuel? A gallon of that stuff weighs twice as much as a gallon of diesel. Their ad is false.

    Total total, net net, that’s my motto. I don’t care which “side” you are on.


  12. Anonymous Avatar

    “Cities don’t have to be ‘energy sinks’. They can be very efficient places to live.”

    I’m not convinced, yet. Studies so far have confirmed that per capita individual energy usage is less. But they do not account for either work related usage or communal usage like outdoor and lobby lighting, eleveators and escalators advertising, etc.

    As a result percapita total emissions in cities arejsut about the same across the spectrum of living conditions. If they were really more eficient, you would expect per capita emissions to be lower, but they are not.

    Even in the suburbs, detailes studies have shoen that auto emissions ar not higher because suburbanites drive more, it is because they drive bigger cars, which is a matter of wealth as much as location.


  13. Anonymous Avatar

    i don’t think itis fari to characterize a whole lifestyle on driving an SUV. To be sure, many drivers use them just so they can be surrounded by an extra ton of steel: they have a different utility value for certain kinds of (percieved or real) safety.

    Others my have compensated other ways in their lifesyle.

    Still other may have a real neeed for a big multiseat veahicle on enough occasions to make it worthwhile.

    We don’t get sterotypes without a reason, but that doesn’t mean we use them to make policy.


  14. E M Risse Avatar


    Interesting post. One problem: You used the word “suburban” – A Core Confusing Word – and your understanding of what that word means clouds your ability to put your experiences in a context that leads to intelligent decisions.

    There are not just two settlement patterns “crowded Urban” and “scattered less than Urban.”

    Here is what we wrote on the topic on Saturday in editing Chapter 26. – Gibberish – The Vocabulary of Babel. As you will see EMR uses a review of Revolutionary Road as an example.


    Two quotes from columnist Robert Samuelson on understanding the economic sphere are illustrative of the importance of the Vocabulary that impacts the economic, social and physical spheres:

    “It’s increasingly clear that much of our standard economic vocabulary needs revising, supplementing or at least explaining. … The larger lesson here involves perception. Our regular vocabulary [in this case, ‘inflation’ and ‘recession’] often fails to describe the complexities of a changing economy.” In “The Upside of Recession,” 25 April 2007 Also see The Shape of the Future Chapter 6 discussion of the terms “productivity,” “competitiveness” and “prosperity.”

    A year and a half later Samuelson said: “The great lesson of the past year is how little we understand and can control the economy. … It was once believed that the crisis of “subprime” mortgages – loans to weaker borrowers – would be limited…” “Humbled By Our Ignorance,” 29 December 2008.

    The later quote demonstrates how the very ignorance Samuelson decried a year and a half earlier came back to bit him. It show how the economy and ignorance about human settlement pattern dysfunction – in this case the Affordable and Accessible Housing Crisis – is directly connected.

    The problem with “subprime” loans is NOT just that they were loans to “weaker borrowers.” “Subprime loans were by in large, loans on the Wrong Size House in the Wrong Location. When the ‘weak’ borrower defaulted, no one was willing to pay anything like the original sale price / mortgage value. If all that had happened was the borrower defaulting on a well located and fairly priced dwelling, then the fact that the ‘bad mortgages’ were embedded in “securities” (aka, collateralized debt obligations or CDOs) would make little difference. See “The Tragedy of Trickle Down” in RESOURCES.

    Also in the economic sphere a “The Color of Money” column by Michelle Singletary on spending habits focuses on Vocabulary. In WaPo on 4 January 2009 “It’s Time to Drop the Consumer label; It’s a Good Time to Mend Our Spendthrift Ways,” Singletary argues that citizens just calling themselves “consumers” justifies piling up debt in economic times that require more intelligent management of resources.

    Perhaps summing up the role of Vocabulary best is, of all things, a movie review. by Ann Hornaday. In WaPo 2 January 2009 a review titled “Hitting a Dead End: ‘Revolutionary Road,’ An Unrelenting Journey Through Suburban Ennui” in explaining why the widely hyped movie starting Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in not effective Hornaday says:

    “Those hopes are never quite articulated in “Revolutionary Road” other that April’s vague references to leasing “interesting” lives or being “happy.” Part of the Wheeler’s tragedy is that they don’t have a rhetoric for their experience. April is fighting her role as a full-time homemaker years before Betty Friedan would write about the problem that has no name. Frank is confronting the ambivalence that surrounds his won gender role, long before phrases like “gender role” would become part of the American lexicon.” See End Note Three

    3. These issues surfaced in the 20s and John Keats wrote The Crack in the Picture Window in 1956. The novel upon which “Revolutionary Road” was based was written in 1961. There were many concerned with the problem but, not the Vocabulary that SYNERGY now believes to be required to describe it.

    The Shape of the Future is replete with references to the importance of a robust and clear Vocabulary as a prerequisite to understanding human settlement patterns. There are 139 references to the word “Vocabulary” in the text and End Notes starting with the second page of the Prologue. The Resource section of this chapter includes reference to 13 columns (in particular Columns 71 thru 75) and a number of Blog postings that deal with specific problems generated by Core Confusing Words.

    Hardly a day passes without additional material being added to the files that present a rogues gallery of examples of MainStream Media’s obstinate misuse of words and phrases that confuse citizens about human settlement patterns.


  15. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    “Maybe America should take a look at Baltimore, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh before getting behind Mr. Obama’s plan to use public-works projects to lead us out of economic morass.”

    Gibberish – The Vocabulary of EMR.

  16. Anonymous Avatar

    “Putting new infrastructure spending in depressed areas like Detroit might have a big stimulating effect since infrastructure building projects in these areas can utilize some of the considerable unemployed resources there. However, many of these areas are also declining because they have been producing goods and services that are not in great demand, and will not be in demand in the future. Therefore, the overall value added by improving their roads and other infrastructure is likely to be a lot less than if the new infrastructure were located in growing areas that might have relatively little unemployment, but do have great demand for more roads, schools, and other types of long-term infrastructure. “

    Maybe something for Virginaia to think about re ROVA and NOVA


    If EMR spent as much time tring to communicate as he did complaining about the lack of it and trying to re-efine it to his own likeing………..

    It is easy to dream up a controversy, moreass, or calamity. What is hard is solving it.


  17. Groveton Avatar

    EMR makes a good point. The legal entity known as the County of Arlington has a population density of just under 8,000 per square mile. The legal entity known as the city of Alexandria has a population density of 8,400 per square mile. Meanwhile, the legal entity known as the City of Richmond has a polulation density of 3,200 per square mile. So, from the important perspective of population density, the “city” of Richmond is much more of a suburb than the county of Arlington.

    I understand Peter’s interest in using commonly understood (perhaps misunderstood) words. However, these words do create confusion. Such as when certain Richmonders yap on and on about the vast, souless suburbs of Northern Virginia while living in just such a place themselves.

  18. Groveton Avatar


    Great article. The guy is quite right about the Steeler bars. They exist to serve the vast army of supposed Pittsburgh loyalists who fled that city when the going got tough. There is a Buffalo Bills bar in Falls Church. Same thing. And make no mistake – when the going gets tough in Virginia, the recent transplants from Cleveland, Long Island, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, etc will be on their way elsewhere too. Which is one reason why all the crap about “the real Virginia” is so sad. All of Virginia is headed for a very difficult period. “Real” Virginians from all over the state will stick it out and get things back on track while “fake” Virginians (also from all over the state) will move to the next place on the national hype list. If we can just figure out where that next place on the hype list is we can make some real dough. All we have to do is open a couple of Steeler bars.

    Note: I personally think Pittsburgh is a great city. The people still living there are friendly and warm. Long term, they are probably better off with the pinheads who frequent Steeler bars in places like San Francisco out of their town. I wish many of the transplants to Northern Virginia would find some other place to infest.

  19. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake


    Philly 5 year budget suddenly 2 billion in the hole.

    “As state and federal assistance dries up, Minnesota’s 855 cities are relying more on property taxes for their revenue, a new report finds. And that spells trouble.”

    “Looked at another way, while cities relied on property taxes for 23 percent of their revenue in 1998, that grew to 32 percent a decade later.”

    How much does RE make up in your VA city budget?

    Must…Raise…Taxes… 14% in a falling Cincy market.

    The treasurer’s response?

    “You voted for the levies. That’s what dramatically and exactly affects your taxes.”

    How many VA city spending sprees did you vote for? In Tidewater it was mostly none, because government outflanks levies and their inconvenient referendum.

    Must…Raise…Taxes… Indiana pits farmers against homeowners.

    “Hoosier Farmland Property Taxes Set to Increase Substantially “

    Farmers scramble for profits as grain boom ends.

    “We can’t afford to raise the crop,” said Indiana president Don Villwock. “Prices are below the cost of production for corn and soybeans.”

    Dare I say it?


  20. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Peter: Thanks for a thoughtful post.

    I don’t have much to say about the present living patterns other than,”To each his own.”

    My comment is on the burbs of the 50s/60s. I grew up in Arlington. I remember when the woods near my house went down for more houses.

    My mother had a different perspective than the Revolutionary Road meme of self-absorbed whining.

    My mother was one of 5 or 6 secretaries for the U VA extension office that grew up to become George Mason Univ.

    She was in her 30s/40s in the 50s/60s. She had a love for learning and an appreciation for art and music. Yet, she didn’t feel trapped in the suburbs.

    She was thrilled to be alive when she was and grateful for all the improvements in life.

    Two of her best friends at work were Jewish ladies from NYC. My mother and these ladies were happy to be in the suburbs. Their life was the Depression and WW II.

    During the Depression my mother’s father died and she grew up on her grandmother’s farm – totally self-supporting. No money. No electricity. Meanwhile, the ladies from NYC recalled being hungry. Worrying about food.

    All three survived all that. Their husbands served and survived WWII. Life in the suburbs was good. It beat the hell out of their past.

    They loved living in the suburbs.

  21. Anonymous Avatar

    It’s so frustrating. I can never win. Just when I think I come up with a really good post, you tell me I got the vocabulary all wrong. If I get the vocabulary right, you’ll say my point is all wrong.


    Peter Galuszka

  22. Groveton made a point about density in Arlington and Alexandria and Richmond …and it occurred to me that even after a gazillion tomes from EMR – I still don’t have a feel for what he thinks is an optimal density level for a balanced community.

    Peter made good points.

    You can take a heavy-duty commuting suburb – like Fredericksburg, Va and you can move it – lock, stock and barrel … to say where Covington, Va or Waterloo, Iowa is – where the town, it’s population, and most of it’s attributes are pretty much the same – except there are no commuters because it is not located in proximity to an urban area where folks would commute to/from.

    EMR – treats Waterloo, Iowa differently than Fredericksburg, Va in the functional settlement pattern conundrum….

    is they are very similar to each other – why?

  23. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    Remember This?

    Associated Press
    © September 18, 2008


    The director of the Virginia Retirement System says the $54.3 billion portfolio has suffered a small hit from the fallout on Wall Street.

    Robert P. Schultze says the portfolio’s investment in American International Group Inc. and Lehman Brothers Inc. amounts to less than one-half of 1 percent.

    He said any investment loss will not be significant because of what he called the system’s diversified portfolio.

    Now there’s this.

    The Virginian-Pilot
    © January 19, 2009


    The stateʼs $51 billion retirement system is on course for a 24 percent loss in investments this budget year, a state official said today.

    It may become necessary to ask the state and local governments to increase retirement contributions should the recession continue next year, Robert Schultze, director of the Virginia Retirement System, told the House Finance Committee.

    More than 596,000 current and former state and local employees belong to VRS.

  24. Yes, I also saw this.

    I guess what this means – is that if the local govts do not kick in more money…that cuts will be made to pensions?

    oh.. that will be fun.

  25. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    Actually if it’s like some other states, it means the lawsuits will start. Government employees have unions for a reason, even in right to work states.

    The union sues the pension fund, who in turn sues their investments. Homeowners of course don’t have unions. They just get to pay for it all.

  26. Groveton Avatar

    My retirement accounts went down in value over 2008. Who do I get to sue? Oh right … the governemnt wanted everybody to hoave self-directed retirement accounts so that American commerce could be more efficient. Except, of course, for government employees who need to have their retirement funds guaranteed by the taxpayer. Do I have this right?

  27. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    Pretty much. They are defined benefit plans. You know the same type of plans companies used to provide before they pushed them off to the PBGC for the taxpayer to pay.

    What you have is a defined contribution plan. You agree to pay money into a fund, the employer agrees to match some of that if they feel like it, and the whole works is managed by someone you never heard of and can’t contact until most of your money is gone.

    VRS has a 5 percent employee contribution, but many agencies pick up that tab in addition to the employer share. As you are aware, agencies don’t make money, so any shortfalls are made up by the investor of last resort. You.

  28. Anonymous Avatar

    I predicted this, based onprevious reports formCalifornia and Pennsylvania.

    The good news is that right now your contributions are buying stock at very low prices.

    Based on the history from previous downturns we should start seeing market recovery by August. If you are very pessimistic it could take until Dec, or April, giving you more time to acquire equities at low prices.


  29. Anonymous Avatar

    Today is shaping up to be areal test of our transportation system, including both the strnghts and weaknesses fo the METRO system.

    Consider that to even get to the Metro stations ou may have to park as far away as Potomac Mills and take a bus to the station, wiat in line to get into the station areas and then wait in line to get on a train, and when you get off walk two miles through the 3rd street tunnel.

    Meanwhile, as long as you werent; going anywhere near a METRO station, the roads were mostly empty.

    I heard one commentator mention that one reason the bridges were closed was in case of an emergency evecuation. How is that supposed to work, with most everyone on foot?

    If nothing else, this exercise should indicate the limits to which you can allow “attractive nuisances” downtown to screw up the transportation system.


  30. Anonymous Avatar

    “The Institute for Liberty, a conservative think tank, estimated recently that the millions of people coming to the inauguration will generate a half-billion pounds of carbon dioxide — 260 million pounds from the 600 private jets that will come to Washington, and another 260 million pounds from personal vehicles.

    It says the pollution amounts to more than 575 million pounds of CO2, which would take the average U.S. household 57,598 years to produce.

    The institute did not say how it derived its figures, which are debatable. But the bottom line is undeniable: the more people who fly or drive to Washington for the inauguration, the more fuel that is consumed and the more emissions that are dispersed.

    “You can’t on the one hand lecture about emitting CO2 and believe it’s a problem, and on the other hand create such vast amounts of CO2 almost needlessly,” said IFL president Andrew Langer. “

    I’ll be watching on the tube.


  31. Groveton Avatar

    The private jets create as much CO2 as the private vehicles? Wow! Even with President-elect Obama’s huge entorage of rich guys I assume that many more people will be arriving by private car than private jet. I wonder how many of our “Hollywood Heroes” drive a Prius past the reporters and then sneak off to a corproate airport to fly away in a private jet.

  32. Anonymous Avatar

    TABLE 1. Fuel Intensity of Competing Modes of Intercity Passenger Transportation
    (in ascending order of Btu consumption per passenger-mile)

    Mode of Transportation Btu per Passenger-Mile
    Btu per Pass.-Mile Compared to Amtrak
    Intercity buses 953 36 %
    trips over 75 miles 2,625 99
    Amtrak 2,646 100
    Autos, all trips,
    including local 3,593 136
    Air, certificated route,
    domestic 4,482 169
    general aviation 8,582 324

    What we see is that for comparable trips autos and buses are energy competitive with AMtrak

    Cars are less competitive if you consider local trips, but we don’t know what trains would cost for local trips. probably it would not be cost effective.

    When you look at costs per passenger mile, it is even worse: the total subsidy (not including pollution externalities) for highwyas works out to around one cent per passenger mile. For AMtrak it is 22 cents per passenger mile. Amtrak takes in twice as much in revenue per passenger mile as airlines do.

    However railroads own and pay taxes on their property, and highwyas are real estate tax free. If you piad back the reialroads for their property taxes, you probably still wouldn’t have a competitive cost match.

    Air travel does burn more energy, but considering the speed of travel provided, it isn’t THAT much more.


  33. Groveton Avatar

    Good speech by Obama (who would have expected anything less). Great to hear his only direct quote was from fake Virginia's own George Washington.

    Unfortunately, President Obama did not de-throne the king. Still the greatest inaugural speech of my lifetime:

    However, I will give Obama a Top 3 ranking. Reagan's 1980 speech was right up there too.

  34. Anonymous Avatar

    260,000,000 pounds from the 600 private jets….

    okay. that equals an average of 433,333 pounds of carbon dioxide for EACH JET. For this one trip. Gosh, I am skeptical. I didn’t know those Hollywood jets could even carry that much fuel, much less spew it out as carbon particles. Wow, special effects are so cool!

    And the 260,000,000 pounds per vehicle. Oh good grief.

    I think the Institute for Liberty wants freedom – from the fact-based world.

  35. Groveton Avatar

    Anon 2:07 – I’m not sure I get all the math. I’ve heard that the average American generates about 10 tons of CO2 a year. It seems hard to imagine that the same American burns 20,000 pounds of various fuels per year. That’s 55 pounds of fuel a day – per person. Is that possible?

  36. Anonymous Avatar

    Yeah, The quote even points out that the figures are debateable.

    And you have to consider that the source may want to dicredit anything Obama.

    Let’s see, Carbon is 12 and oxygen is 16 so CO2 is 44. So 28% of 433,000 lbs is carbon in the jet fuel or 121,000 lbs. Kerosene is roughly 85% carbon, so call it 140,000 of fuel.

    A Gulfstream V carries 41,000 lb of fuel and has a range of 5800 miles. He would have to refuel four times to burn that much fuel.

    If you think Institute for Liberty is calculating round trip they are still off by a factor of at least two and probably four.

    Unless somebody is fling bigger planes than the G5’s a lot more than 5800 miles.


  37. Anonymous Avatar

    That’s 55 pounds of fuel a day – per person. Is that possible?

    Probably, remember it isn’t personal usage, it is average per capita fuel use. You get charged for the fuel used to bring your bread to the grocery, and fo r the fuel used to build the truck.


  38. Anonymous Avatar

    Cities are dens of corruption that put their residents last. See D.C.

    Inspector general blasts D.C.’s internal controls on money
    January 20, 2009 – 4:10am

    Michael Neibauer
    Examiner Staff Writer
    The D.C. government must tighten its internal controls on vendor payments, tax refunds and payroll in the face of “significant fiscal challenges that we believe will continue into the foreseeable future,” the D.C. inspector general recently warned.

    The IG’s office issued a report earlier this month that advised D.C. leaders of many weaknesses in the District’s payment processes that were uncovered in recent audits. Those failures include insufficient management oversight, ineffective supervision, lack of policies and procedures, poor file maintenance, disregard for regulations and unfamiliarity with standards of conduct.

    “The tightening of revenue streams due to falling real estate values, combined with increasingly higher demands on social and support services will place additional stress on the city’s limited resources and heightens the importance of mitigating the risks of financial losses,” the IG wrote in the report.

    “Accordingly,” it continued, “agency heads should review existing controls to see that they are in fact in place or implement new controls that will ensure the integrity of the payment process, thereby maximizing revenues and eliminating unnecessary or wasteful expenditures.”

    Many of the internal control weaknesses emerged from reviews of the Office of Tax and Revenue, home to the costliest scam in D.C. government history. Harriette Walters, a midlevel OTR employee, stole nearly $50 million over 20 years by manipulating the property tax refund process, revealing the absence of any anti-fraud program within the office.

    Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, under whose watch the money was stolen, has said repeatedly that his office is re-evaluating and strengthening anti-fraud programs and installing numerous controls on the tax refund process.

    The problems go well beyond the tax office, the IG reported.

    Another 2008 audit found that the District paid $16 million over the previous five years for construction management services, despite having invoices that were neither approved by an authorized government official nor sufficiently verified by a financial officer. Still another review found that the city’s managed care organizations were earning excessive profits – roughly $97 million over five years – because the District did not properly adjust its per-person rates.

    The city made duplicate payments for disability services, paid overtime without required approvals and paid vendors late, drawing interest penalties, the IG said.

    The IG called on all government managers to “consciously design operational strategies that maximize every dollar realized or spent.”

    (Copyright 2009 by The Examiner. All Rights Reserved.)


  39. Anonymous Avatar

    “generates about 10 tons of CO2 a year. It seems hard to imagine that the same American burns 20,000 pounds of various fuels per year.”

    Ten tons of CO2 produced doesn’t mean you burn 20,000 lbs of fuel, because you combine the carbon inthe fuel with oxygen in the air, so only about 28% of the amount of CO2 comes from carbon in the fuel.

    Natural gas has less carbon than coal oil or kerosene, so you have to burn a lot more of it to produce the same amount of CO2.

    Acetylene, C2H2, has a caloric value of 11,920 and ethylene, C2H4 has a caloric value of 11,880. You can see that in this ase you don’t get much additional heat from the additional hydrogen, and most of the energy comes from the carbon.

    Hydrogen burns with a flame temperature of 2400K and Acetylene burns with a temperature of 2600K. For carbon burning in pure oxygen, the maximum flame temperature is 3,200°C; for hydrogen it is 2,750°C.

    As noted above kerosene is almost 85% carbon, so it has a high energy density at C12H13 compared to say propane at C3H8. Kerosene weighs almost 7 lbs per gallon Diesle is 7.3 and gasoline is only around 6 lbs. So, when you buy a gallon of diesel you are buying more fuel compared to a gallon of gasoline.

    As a result that 55 lbs of fuel per day is less than ten gallons.


  40. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    Hey Groveton, you think you lost money in your retirement accounts? Get this. I got a statement today from one of my dead 401k’s. I put this money in the do nothing mattress account almost two years ago. I lost 17 percent this past year, but I don’t feel so bad. Out of all the funds that are available, none were winners. Mine was the best, while all the others lost at least 22 percent. This is a perfect example of why these retirement plans suck.

  41. re: the weight of fuels and GHG.

    when ya’ll get a chance, do a tour of a coal-powered plant and find out how many pounds of coal are burned per capita per day. (IIRC it was about 1/2 ton).

    re: 401K black holes

    well… no one believed it until now -but you were never entitled to an ever increasing value of your home or your 401k to start with.

    Not that there were not a whole heck of a lot of folks including stock brokers who thought otherwise..

    I’m not being callous – just pointing out some realities that we all got away from in our financial planning….

  42. Anonymous Avatar

    Larry is right. You have to assume SOME risk in your 401k. If yu llok at the 20 greatest Dow point gians and compare them to the 20 greatest Sow point losses all but one fo the gians is greater than the losses. On a %gain bases on five of the lossses are greter that the loses and they are all the smallest ones.

    Those are the averages you are playing with.

    The Dow peaked at around 14,000. You cant expect to alwaysget out at the peak. If you assume you are taking some risk, say ten percent, then your real losses only start at 12,600 or so.

    We are at 8000 now so call it a 25% loss. A lot of what people are calling losses are a) overstated in reality, and b) paper losses.

    You would have to go back to 2000 to find the dow at 8000, so unless you have been in the market a short time, you probably haven’t lost any of your own contributed capital.

    Unless you have to get out in the next five years, you will probably be fine, in the end.

    Take a deepo breath and relax. Go buy something, prevferably a capitl item, equities, or something green, like a geothermal heat pump. Borrow some money, you will probably be paying it back with inflated dollars.


  43. Anonymous Avatar

    Larry that half ton of coal works out to 600 lbs of CO2. That would be over a 100 tons of CO2 every year. Along way from the ten tons mentioned above.

    Anyone know the right answer?


  44. Anonymous Avatar

    Shows US percapita emissions at 20 tons per year, therfore Larry’s half ton per day cannot be right.

    This graph also shows the relationship between income and energy used. Anyone who thinks we can reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050 should look at this chart. If you reduce everybody by 80% the world average willbe on apar with Ethiopia.

    Right now renewables cost about 4X conventioanl fuels. Even ef we reduce that premum substantially and replace the conventionals you still wind up with a world usable average income on apar with India or Quatemala. And the poor folk on the bottom of the chat have none.

    I don’t think it can be done without global upheaval.

    It gets worse. There are countryies wher rhe percapita usage is higher than the U.S. not shown on this chart. Kuwait, Qatar, and UAE are among them. They have high percapita usage because they refine petroleum for the European market, which makes the European percapita usage artificially low.


  45. Anonymous Avatar

    The last paragraph might be a clue to Larry’s error. We might mine that much coal and export some of it.


  46. Anonymous Avatar

    “The latest big PV plant (Waldpolenz Park, Germany) to go up using the cheapest thin-film PV available will need to sell its power at $350/MWhr to cover interest and operating costs. That’s three times the current mean residential rate in the US.”

    Meanwhile, Spain and Portugal have had to cut back on their large renewable subsidies because the cost of energy from these plnats was increasing uses electric bills.


  47. Anonymous Avatar

    “A new study shows there is a direct relationship between the level of fine-particle pollutants in the air people breathe and life expectancy in cities across the United States.

    Reducing the average level of fine-particle pollutants — the most damaging kind — by 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air adds about seven months of life expectancy, according to the study of 51 metropolitan areas from Portland, Wash., to Tampa Bay, Fla.”

    Now. All we have to do is figure out what that reduction in fine particals cost us and we can figure out what months of life costs.

    The article doesn’t say anything about that, but it does say the current permissable level is too high. You can figure that the costs of lowering it more will be exponentially more costly, and therefore the cost per month of life saved will go up exponentially.

    When we withc ot renewables we will be paying the cost of electricity plus the cost of saving those lives.


    And of course those costs wiol be shared by everyone, everywhere, but the benefits will accrue mainly to those living in the cities.

    You know, those people whoa are not paying their full locational costs.


  48. Anonymous Avatar

    Shows another verison of the link between energy usage and percapita GDP. The graphs are based on UN data. These are pretty much a stright line, except for Japan which I mentioned before.


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