Prairie Populism Meets Boomergeddon


Over on the Strong Towns blog, Andrew Burleson describes the reaction that he and his compatriots get when they tour the country preaching their Minnesota brand of Boomergeddon, to wit: that human settlement patterns in many cities and towns are fiscally unsustainable; local elected officials need to re-think everything about growth and development; and communities should strive to achieve productivity, not growth.

“More than any other group, Conservatives tend to initially react very negatively to the Strong Towns message,” says Burleson in his recent blog post. Many conservatives don’t see a problem with current human settlement patterns. They tend to see “growth” as the key to prosperity.

When dealing with conservatives, Burleson makes the case that the way things are now is not the way they always have been. Indeed, today’s status quo is the result of decades of social engineering beginning with the not-so-conservative New Deal.

  1. Historically, mortgages were short-term instruments (5-10 years) for no more than 50% of the value of the property. The first fixed-rate, amortizing mortgages (20 year term, 20% down-payment) were created by government programs during the FDR administration, and sweetened into their current form (5% down payment) as part of an economic stimulus policy immediately following World War II.

  2. Historically, land uses were determined by the property owner with very little intervention from the government. Zoning was conceived of as a tool for relocating industrial pollution out of densely populated areas, but was rapidly adopted across the country as a tool for segregation. Even in places where racial segregation was not official policy, zoning was often intentionally wielded as a tool for keeping different socioeconomic groups separate, and continues to have negative socio-economic consequences.

  3. Historically, cities were built with highly connected street patterns, either as designed grids (most American cities), or organic street networks (see Boston). Starting in the FDR administration, grids were actively discouraged by the government in favor of superblocks and the traffic hierarchy.

  4. Historically, streets were seen as shared spaces where many activities took place, driving being simply one of those activities. Led by Ralph Nader and AASHTO, this view was dramatically changed in the 60’s and 70’s. The engineering community adopted a mindset that all streets should be designed according to highway geometries, the idea being that the road should facilitate high-speed driving while also “forgiving” driver error. This made the historic Main Street, with slow speeds and everything happening close to the street, a non-starter.

I love these guys. That is very much the message that I have been preaching (although, I’ll concede that I never made a connection between Ralph Nader and suburban sprawl — I guess I still have a lot to learn). Some conservatives are wedded to the status quo, but others understand that Business As Usual is fiscally unsustainable. Reality is sinking in and the thinking is beginning to change.


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25 responses to “Prairie Populism Meets Boomergeddon”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    What conservatives understand that the smart growthers don’t understand is math.

    Virginia had total expenditures of $45.5B in 2011. The spending is categorized by major function. Highways is one such function. It had expenditures of $3.3B in 2011 or 7% of the state’s 2011 expenditures. We spent 5X more on education and 3X more on “public welfare”.

    Until somebody can add up the numbers and demonstrate that Virginia really is sinking under the cost of infrastructure I’ll have to consider articles such as these are politically inspired propaganda.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    If conservatives really want to do something about profligate state spending they should endorse McAuliffe for governor (as many actually have). It seems Mr. Cuccinelli has increased the spending of the Attorney General’s office by 25% since taking over less than four years ago. Overall, state spending increased just under 16% during that period.

    Small government is a good idea as long as it’s not his small government I guess.

    Cuccinelli makes Virginia’s public colleges and universities look positively frugal.

    1. Read past the first paragraph, Don. The increase in spending comes from bulking up the staff to fight Medicaid fraud. The relevant question is whether his staff collects enough money to justify the effort.

      Private insurers spend money on preventing fraud. The federal government doesn’t. That means the state has to step in. If Terry McAuliffe had done it, you would have thought it was a great idea.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        What I’ve learned about politicians and spending:

        1. There’s ALWAYS and excuse to spend more. Reagan blew out the budget to “win the cold war” although the Soviet Union was in a death spiral with or without more government spending. Obama had to save America from “the Great Recession”. He’s now spent the last five years running the printing presses 24 X 7, 365. Cuccinelli is going to stop Medicaid fraud. So he’s growing his little bit of government faster than the average.

        2. Once a budget it increased it stays increased. The one time stimulus package becomes an annual stimuli package. Cuccinelli’s peak Medicaid enforcement actions seem to have occurred the year before last with a decline in the last fiscal year. Did the spending go down?

        3. Politicians lie. Cuccinelli’s people are essentially claiming that his generally losing efforts on high profile cases are free. I don’t know what’s worse – the ease with which Cuccinelli and his people make up these fairy tales or the level of stupidity they assume in the electorate as they tell the fairy tales.

        I’d love to hear Cuccinelli state for the record what his first biannual budget will propose to spend (in exact dollars). However, I won’t hold my breath. Like too many other Republicans of late he’ll talk about small government and then spend ever more once elected.

        1. Neil Haner Avatar
          Neil Haner

          DJ, if WordPress had a “like” button, I’d be clicking it for your post right now.

      2. you know.. no matter who runs the govt – they have fraud issues and the govt DOES indeed have anti-fraud efforts, not true that they don’t and in fact some data to indicate that the govt is better at catching some kinds of that private industry is.

        but this is just part of a bigger, generalized “govt is bad, incompetent, etc” narrative. You have NASA, NTSB, FAA, Seal Team 6, FDIC, superfund sites taken from private industry, etc, etc..

        it’s just not all black and white unless that is how you want to view it which basically just removes one from any objective perspective..

        what you cross over that line – everything one looks at becomes put in terms of anti-govt vs private sector… and that’s not the real world IMHO.

  3. There are political constraints on how much money we can spend on transportation — regardless of what percentage it may constitute of the state budget. It would be wise to ensure that we spend that money as effectively as possible. Why you regard that as “propaganda” is beyond me.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      It becomes propaganda when it is exaggerated out of all proportion. Auto-centric suburban sprawl creates a need for roads that is bankrupting Virginia and America? Not true by the numbers I see. We spend 7% of our annual state budget on highways. Maybe we need to spend 10% on one of the very few things that is useful to virtually every citizen in the state. Frustrating? Maybe. Challenging? Yes. A crisis? No, not at all.

      1. I don’t know of anyone who is saying that sprawl is bankrupting America. But it is contributing to the fiscal demise of many local governments… See my post on Charles Marohn’s description of the fiscal ponzi scheme that is local government. (Marohn is the founder of the Strong Town group.)

        1. DJRippert Avatar

          Jim, here is your opening sentence: “Over on the Strong Towns blog, Andrew Burleson describes the reaction that he and his compatriots get when they tour the country preaching their Minnesota brand of Boomergeddon, to wit: that human settlement patterns in many cities and towns are fiscally unsustainable; local elected officials need to re-think everything about growth and development; and communities should strive to achieve productivity, not growth.”.

          There are a lot of code words. What does human settlement patterns in many cities and towns mean? Presumably it is an indictment of sprawl. Certainly, the Strong Towns blog entry you reference is centered around sprawl.

          What does “fiscally unsustainable mean”? What happens to something that is “fiscally unsustainable” if it is not made to be “fiscally sustainable”? Presumably the thing goes bankrupt, no?

          Meanwhile, the blog you reference uses the code word “infrastructure”. What does that mean?

          People pay for the infrastructure for electricity and gas by sending checks to utility companies. These utility companies build and maintain all of their energy infrastructure. These companies make enough money to manage their infrastructure, pay their executives handsomely and turn a profit for their shareholders. Hard to see how that piece of infrastructure in “fiscally unsustainable”.

          Water and sewer authorities are usually owned by municipalities. They also bill for their services. In the recent Detroit bankruptcy it seems that the water and sewer authorities are one of the few entities related to Detroit that remain solvent.

          If you keep boiling down the code words it seems that “infrastructure” means roads and the facilities that enable roads – bridges, tunnels, etc.


          1. Dysfunctional human settlement patterns = sprawl.
          2. Sprawl = regulations and subsidies that encourage low density development.
          3. “fiscally unsustainable” = will go bankrupt eventually if not fixed.
          4. “infrastructure” = roads.


          A post that says dysfunctional human settlement patterns are not fiscally responsible and then references a blog post condemning the ponzi scheme of infrastructure really means:

          “Sprawl will drive localities into bankruptcy because of the road costs involved.”.

          If that’s the boiled down meaning, my response is “probably not”. Unless roads are consuming far more than the 7% of state payments that seems to be the situation, I question the impact of roads on a locality’s overall financial health.

          Schools consume 5X more of Virginia’s budget than “highways”.
          “Social welfare” consumes 3X more.

          As far as municipalities not being concerned with growth – that seems penny wise and pound foolish. First, the population of America is growing and people have to live somewhere. Second, the growth of certain areas and the shrinkage of others seems a necessary outcome of Schumpeter economics. What else would you suggest? That everybody stay put wherever they happen to be regardless of the economic consequences? Should Detroit still have 1.5M residents and an unemployment rate of 60%?

  4. World War II was 70-some years ago. Home financing before the War is simply immaterial. Zoning has been around for more than 100 years and, while sometimes arbitrary, it gives both existing and new landowners some level of protection that the basic characteristics of their neighborhood will remain constant. That create stability, which is essential for strong communities. Even Houston, without zoning, has very strong land covenants that define an area’s characteristics.

    I think moving away from street grids was generally a dumb idea. However, a return of street grids needs to be balanced with a policy of limit curb cuts to major roads. That is a prescription for gridlock. The better policy is likely limited connections with major arteries, with street grids in neighborhoods.

    Use of streets. I fondly recall playing football, kickball and street hockey on community streets. We’d move when a car drove by. Of course, there are so many more cars today that traffic volumes are higher and also more cars are parked on the street. Most families I knew only had one car – two at the very most. That sure isn’t the case today. Gotta park ’em somewhere.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      “I think moving away from street grids was generally a dumb idea. However, a return of street grids needs to be balanced with a policy of limit curb cuts to major roads.”.

      The best two sentences regarding development patters that I’ve seen in 2013.

  5. yup. this has large dollops of revisionist history….

    It was the GI bill that gave returning servicemen a “thank you” for their service that included education benefits to re-train, and mortgages so they could secure a place for their families to live. To blame this on the “New Deal” is just partisan blather.

    zoning has been around a LONG time and was originally envisioned to protect the property rights of people from being damaged by activities of others. Yes.. it was used inappropriately by racists but so were a lot of other programs … so what? The original motivation of zoning was fundamentally legitimate though.

    re: city streets – how did they get created to start with? They were NOT “shared” unless someone wants to assert that crossing over someone elses
    land is “okay” so how did these spaces become truly “shared”? By govt – right?

    how do you get a public right-of-way? not usually through a willing seller/willing buyer transaction.. usually instead by govt asserting imminent domain… bad bad govt.. right?

    those ‘highly connected” grid streets were not built by the private sector.
    If they had been, you can bet that tolls would be assessed to use them to
    pay back investors for the construction, maintenance and operation of the “investment”.

    How people can go back and re-arrange history to suit their ideology is interesting..

    In essence, what they’re saying is that cities were built by something other than govt – then govt came along and screwed the pooch…

    good grief!

    Cities are FUNDAMENTALLY a govt creation if they are going to be something more than dirt pathways running with sewage…

    you don’t get water, sanitary sewers, or even electricity unless the land to put them is available and pipes and wires are maintained and fixed when they break.

    I know of no modern city on the planet that was built, maintained and operated purely by the private sector unless it walks and talks like some 3rd world cities ….

    density alone does not make a functional settlement pattern. it takes infrastructure and services … normally not done by the private sector.

    if fact, density, without the other functions usually done by govt means the kind of cities seen in 3rd world countries …

  6. re: ” When dealing with conservatives, Burleson makes the case that the way things are now is not the way they always have been. Indeed, today’s status quo is the result of decades of social engineering beginning with the not-so-conservative New Deal.”

    what in the do da does this have to do with anything remotely connected to the idea of cities and growth and development when clearly cities, growth and development exists LONG BEFORE that nasty socialist New Deal.

    this is the kind of partisan blather that slimes just about every discussion about anything the govt has do do with these days.

    this is like there is no Paris nor Perth, Australia.. or Seattle or Syracuse because it was the ‘new deal’ that screwed up cities, growth and development.

    it’s just intellectually dishonest but’s par for the course these days,

    New York city does not have water/sewer, subways and airports and 5 boroughs and a hundred or more bridges stretching surround locales because of the frigging New Deal.

    Everything that is wrong these days is the fault of govt, or unions, or bad teachers, or liberals .. an progressives … that granted too rich pensions and benefits.. used zoning to segregate the races, etc..

    we could not have possibly screwed up as a mere coincidence of the human condition. Nope.. if there were only Conservatives around, we’d clearly have nirvana by now.

    and the hits and the offal – they just keep on coming!

    good lord!

  7. you have this narrative here that the New Deal convinced cities to abandon grid streets and to participate in the suburbanization of the country.

    as if cities and their ignorant policies with regard to pensions and benefits – to include their ignorant policies about zoning and growth and development…

    were the ones that created “sprawl”.

    it’s about as convoluted as partisan blather can get.

    The New Deal did not encourage cities to abandon grid streets and to institute zoning that drove people to the suburbs.

    it sounds ‘good’ from a “Conservative” point of view but it’s about the furthest from the reality that you can get..

    at some point – if you buy the narratives, those nasty “progressives” are responsible for everything from the destruction of Detroit to bad breath and halitosis…

    it don’t matter what the truth is.

    it’s like Goldilocks and the three bears – Conservative style.

  8. Neil Haner Avatar
    Neil Haner

    Have to echo those above… the “sprawl” movement had far less to do with zoning, grid discouragement, and engineering practices (though I’ll give you mortgages), and far more to do with two things: The interstate system and White Flight. Once limited access highways (whether a state highway or part of the interstate system) connected the far edges of the counties with the city, it became feasible to commute. And it wasn’t zoning that caused segregation, it was free will of whites causing self-segregation.

    It was a free market at work. I’d think a Libertarian like you, Bacon, would appreciate that. Eisenhower sparked a movement of highway building, then the free market (land developers, banks, etc) gave the people what they wanted and were willing to pay for.

    1. Neil, and all others — it is absurd to suggest that sprawl was the result of “a free market at work.” You are going up a huge body of research and evidence — most of it coming from the left side of the philosophical divide — documenting the role of government policy at all levels. I don’t have the time now to recite chapter and verse (and, to be truthful, I have no idea what role Ralph Nader might have played, even indirectly) so I’ll just hit the highlights — federal mortgage financing, federal housing policy generally, the Interstate highway system, state transportation policies (especially the construction of new highways, throughways and freeways), local zoning policies, local parking requirements, local street design and a host of other things.

      You guys can believe what you want — and obviously will — but you’re going up against reality.

    2. DJRippert Avatar


      I ask a simple question – if you add up all the taxes paid by suburbanites and then subtract all the costs government spends on those suburbanites (including an allocation of Jim’s so-called subsidies), do you get a positive number or a negative number?

      I bet you get a positive number and I have yet to meet an informed person who will take the other side of that bet.

      1. Your idea of calculating a net tax-expenditure balance for suburbanites across all levels of government doesn’t tell us anything. State, federal and local expenditures in the suburbs encourage sprawl. Suburbanite taxes go to many different uses — from sustaining the military to paying the salaries of federal bureaucrats — that don’t affect human settlement patterns in any way.

        1. DJRippert Avatar

          And you ignore the big picture to focus on 7% of the state’s budget.

          Occasionally, you claim that people should be able to live in whatever settlement patterns they choose so long as they are willing to pay the cost of those patterns. I have never been sure why you take such a myopic view. Why not say that people can live whatever lifestyle they want so long as their lifestyle doesn’t hurt others and they pay the full costs of their chosen lifestyle?

          So, if 60% of residents in the City of Richmond who are having children choose to have children out of wedlock (which they do) then that’s their choice. If we know that this increases the costs of law enforcement, prisons and social welfare (which we do) then the residents of the City of Richmond need to be economically responsible for their lifestyle choices.

          You have never been able to see the big picture.

          If Virginia removed all the people, jobs, taxes and costs of supporting its sprawling suburbs from the economics of the state it would immediately become the poorest state in America.

          Virginia already milks its suburban population for excessive taxes vs costs to subsidize education, law enforcement, prisons, general costs of government, social welfare, etc. But I guess that’s not good enough for wealth re-distributors like Barack Obama and yourself. There is still the 7% budget account of transportation where wealth redistribution from the suburbs to elsewhere is not happening. So, you want that last redistribution, I guess.

          1. Wherever did you get the idea that I think it’s OK for people who have children out of wedlock are entitled to welfare? I have a *huge* problem with the way the welfare system is structured. It creates exactly the kinds of social pathologies that you mention. Heck, I’m the guy on this blog who’s continually harping on the social pathologies of welfare.

            As for being a “wealth redistributor like Barack Obama…” hah! hah! You cannot possibly mean that seriously!!!!

  9. there are numerous things that have affected suburbanization over the decades – but to tag all of it to the New Deal and “progressive” policies is
    a disservice to the entire conundrum IMHO especially when you consider just
    how many cities grew up BEFORE the New Deal and as Neil has pointed out
    dramatically changed by the advent of the interstates and beltways.

    so when a narrative is constructed that essentially blames dysfunctional settlement patterns on “progressive” policies and asserts that “conservatives” would have done it “better” or “right”… there is no real way to actually deal with substantive issues when they are cast in that way.

    My view is that humans – both liberal and conservative – make mistakes.. decisions that result in unintended consequences, etc… and the goal
    should to learn from the mistakes, reforms, etc. rather than looking backward t assign blame for political philosophy.

    who would have thought that the interstate highway system and it’s affect on settlement patterns could or would be attributed to a particular political philosophy?

    and who would have thought a big city like New York which has hundreds of multi-story buildings could be accused of myopic zoning policies that caused the “sprawl” that surrounds it?

    Once we get to the point where they are tying dysfunctional settlement patterns to a particular political philosophies…. we got trouble in river city.

    why we “go there” to start with is a puzzle but these days those who are politically unhappy with govt – are on a tear to tar everything from from world hunger to public pensions to bad breath on those pesky “progressives”.

  10. mbaldwin Avatar

    It’s well to encourage so-called conservatives to understand the costs of sprawl and so forth, but it’s disingenuous — I’d say simply silly — to blame the New Deal and Ralph Nader et al. for our city plight. The forces of demographics (African Americans from the south and whites out from the city), technology (the auto), and prices and fads (lower cost suburban houses and lawns) predominantly drove our city shapes, and politicians and reformers did comparatively little besides sometimes accelerating these trends and possibly.

  11. mbaldwin Avatar

    omit “and possibly.”!!

  12. the bigger problem is that the Conservatives believe their own propaganda…

    we have cities with grid streets, zoning, even sprawl – around the world and engaged in those activities not only separate and apart from the New Deal but centuries before also.

    sometimes the “right” blather here is wretched.

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