Thursday, August 30, 2012

Redistributive Like A Fox

I was flipping through the channels on the hotel television last night, and what did I light upon but the Fox Business Network, one of the arms of the Fox News empire? I was drawn in by the spectacle immediately--since Fox News doesn't have a Canadian presence, all I know of it is its reputation, but a few moments of watching demonstrated that some reputations are not without merit.

The show was Lou Dobbs Tonight, and the current segment was an interview with Stanley Kurtz, author of Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities, which has gotta be one of the most unbiased titles I've ever seen, what? The thrust of Kurtz's argument was simple: Barack Obama wants to get rid of American suburbs. Why? Well, because he's a Democrat, I suppose, and according to Fox this is bad because "America is a suburban nation."

As interviews go, it wasn't much; Dobbs asked softball questions while Kurtz fulminated about how a second term for President Obama would see a Sustainable Communities Initiative used to "hold federal aid hostage" in a bid to encourage people to move from suburbs to cities, and that he would preside over a "redistribution of tax money" by "[forcing] regional tax base sharing on suburbs."

This is not a revolutionary idea. Even in the segment they acknowledged that something of the sort is currently used in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and it sounds similar to what happens in Metro Vancouver--Surrey is nothing if not a suburb, after all--or the regional municipalities of the Greater Toronto Area. In the eyes of Fox, though, it's anathema. "Redistribution," I've come to conclude, is one of those heavily loaded words in American political parlance, and it sounds very much like one of those data points that would be eagerly picked up on by people who claim that President Obama is a Marxist.

Which itself, incidentally, is a ridiculous idea. If he was really a Marxist he would've made it clear by now--I mean, look at the banks. Why would a Marxist president not just nationalize them when given such a sterling opportunity? Claims that he's waiting for the second term are ridiculous; even now there's no guarantee that he'll get it, since Nate Silver gives Romney and Ryan a little less than one chance in three right now. But I digress.

What I found interesting about this was the unspoken assumption that tied it all together: that the suburbs are economically independent, the "rugged individualists" of settlements, and that asking them to combine their tax bases with those of cities is stealing from them. Indeed, if you don't look at the numbers too hard it's easy to think that suburbs are independent--but that overlooks a lot. The biggest thing is that the suburbs were subsidized from the get-go, and still are today; it can be expensive to provide necessary services such as sewer, water, power, garbage collection, road maintenance, and so on due to the scale of some low-density communities, after all. Some suburbs have larger footprints than major metropolises, but they don't have the capacity to generate tax revenue the same way dense cities can. For a lot of suburbs, the natural choice is to build out because building out brings in more property tax revenue... except that brings further costs due to the extension of those services.

I don't think regional coordination of tax revenues would be a bad idea, because with the spread of suburbs plenty of things are regional--it's the standard sort of refrain you hear in Toronto, with people complaining about 905ers filling the roads and the subways to get to work and back without paying the taxes that maintain them. Nor do I think there's any need for active federal intervention to get people to move out of the suburbs. As the gasoline that the suburbs are founded on becomes more expensive, they will shift into more tenable patterns. It doesn't matter if the United States is a "suburban nation" now. Just because the United States, or any country, can be described in a certain way now, it doesn't mean that it should continue along the same trajectory indefinitely. Sameness breeds stagnation.

Though that might explain why Lou Dobbs was so opinionated about the extension of a federal offshore drilling moratorium. On the whole it didn't seem particularly "fair and balanced" to me.

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