Monday, March 22, 2010

What's driving Joel Kotkin?

A common reaction that transit advocates have to Joel Kotkin - and also to the arguments by Wendell Cox and friends that use liberal language - is bewilderment. How can you call me elitist? I'm fighting for transit, which helps poor people! I'm not part of the elite, I take the subway and ride a bicycle!

It's really tricky to figure out what people's real motives are, and certainly Kotkin benefits from his name-calling in classic troll fashion. Liberals buy his books and link to his blog posts as they howl in protest. Conservatives love him for turning liberal arguments against their creators. He gets funding and attention. As long as you can put up with the hate, what's not to like?

So I could be completely wrong, but Kotkin's outrage feels real to me somehow. I think at some point he came up with this idea that it was really liberals who were oppressing the poor with their urbanism, and it felt like some giant insight into the human condition. I, Joel Kotkin, will save the poor and the middle class! I will speak truth to power! I will show everyone who the real villains are! So he stuck with it, and now it's his life. Even if he ever figures out it's a load of horseshit, what's he going to do? Nope, he'll die happy knowing that he spent his life fighting for the little guy.

Despite the torrent of words that Kotkin has unleashed over the years, his argument is fairly simple: the American poor and middle class want houses and cars, and they want wealth and status. This will make them happy. Houses and cars mmhmmm wealth and status. Urbanists want to keep them from getting houses and cars. Therefore, urbanists are keeping the poor and middle class from their wealth and status! They're standing between the people and their happiness!

The main weak point in Kotkin's argument is the part where I wrote "mmhmmm." What is the relationship between houses and cars, wealth and status, and happiness? Well, houses and cars can act as symbols of wealth and status. They can be obtained using some combination of wealth and status, and in turn they can be used to obtain greater wealth and status. Houses and cars can make people happy, and so can wealth and prosperity.

Note that all those sentences contain the word "can." "Can" isn't the same as "always," and it isn't the same as "need." A dumpy house is not a status symbol, and a crappy car isn't a symbol of wealth. You don't have to spend your money on a house, and not everyone uses their status to obtain a car. You can get wealthy without a car, and many people achieve high status living in apartments. Most importantly, you can be happy without having a house or a car, or even being wealthy or important. Many people are.

In Kotkin's worldview, cars, houses, status, wealth and happiness are all more or less the same thing. He really seems to be incapable of distinguishing between a thing and a symbol of that thing. He acknowledges that some "elites" voluntarily give up their cars and houses and live in cities, but that is always after they've achieved status, wealth and happiness through cars and houses. The idea that you could ever become wealthy or influential while living in an apartment and taking the subway is beyond his comprehension. Because of this, anything which makes it harder for people to buy houses or drive amounts to blocking their route to prosperity. We've gotten out of the cellar, and we're pulling the ladder up with us. That perfectly good set of stairs over there? It doesn't exist.

If you try to explain that to Kotkin and friends, the response is that you, the elitist, think you know what's best for these people. But they want houses and cars, and who are you to tell them they can't have them? Of course, if you asked people whether they would prefer to be rich and riding the subway, or poor and driving a '92 Civic, they would probably choose to be rich. Same thing if you gave them the choice to be famous and powerful and live in a condo or be lonely and downtrodden in Valley Stream. By the way, if anyone's done a poll like this, please let me know!

And of course, if you try to tell them that the world can't support ten billion people living in McMansions and shopping at Target, even if they all drive Nissan Leafs, the response is a torrent of bad science, amounting to arguments that it would be so much worse for the environment if everyone rode in empty buses to condo towers with heated garages. That it would be bad for the environment if everyone took transit because nobody would take transit. I can't even imagine what kind of dreck Kotkin would come up with if you forced him to consider the fact that status is relative, or that material goods don't buy happiness.

Whatever the content, the tone borders on infantile rage, and this is really what lies at the heart of the arguments made by Kotkin and Cox, and Randal O'Toole and Sam Staley: I want it all, I want it now, and I'm going to have it, and by god, anybody who tries to tell me I can't is just a big ... Euro-American! Ooo!

Infantile rage is only one ingredient in the mix, though. A large part of Kotkin's success comes from playing to other people's infantile rage. Do you know there are people who want to keep you from moving to the suburbs? They even want to keep your kids from driving. That's right, they want to keep you down! Why? Because they're elitists, of course. They got theirs, and they want it all for themselves. None for you! But we won't let them win, will we? We'll stop their evil plans to confine us to the cities! We'll yank the money from their toy trains! And then there'll be big houses and cars for everyone!


Matt Fisher said...

He is another sprawl shill.

Ian Bicking said...

Joel Kotkin has a certain advantage: what he's saying has empirical backing. There are real desires (for home ownership, for the independence of a car) that are widely expressed in our country. People who want transit are of course no less a part of this country, and there are enough such people that it shouldn't be dismissed. But no theory is really sensible unless it explains both groups.

I think many transit advocates would be much better at their task if they took analysis more seriously. The people who at least find Joel Kotkin's ideas interesting or worthy of consideration will find your response offensive and dismissive. You imply in this very article that to have a car, to want to own a house, is a selfish expression of vanity. That's bad strategy, but it's also bad analysis.

The challenge is to find a path that includes a real understanding of why we are where we are, and also offers a way to retain the good and move beyond the dysfunctions.

Alon Levy said...

There are real desires (for home ownership, for the independence of a car) that are widely expressed in our country.

You know, if a desire depends on what country you're in, perhaps it's not as real as you think. It wasn't too long ago that there was a real desire for smoking...

Cap'n Transit said...

Oh Ian! There are so many things wrong with your comment.

Let me just ask: if I didn't think that Kotkin's ideas weren't interesting or worthy of consideration, why would I link to so many of his posts? Why would I tell people to read his articles? Last time we met, you misused the word "feasible." This time, please go look up "dismissive." And don't use WordNet.

Jonathan said...

I think that if you measure a society's quality of life by a strict access-to-goods rule (number of refrigerators, microwave ovens, automobiles etc. per 1,000 people), it would make sense to encourage automobile ownership. But I don't think that you can interpolate from that to saying that Person X is better off than Person Y because X has more microwave ovens, or automobiles. And there's obviously more to quality of life than strict access to goods.

Cap'n Transit said...

Jonathan, if you look at my post from today, you'll see that it's impossible to measure automobile ownership independent from infrastructure. It's all one system. Someone living without a car above the Best Buy on 86th Street has access to a lot more goods than someone with a car in Carrizozo, New Mexico.

Adam said...

Ian -

Your comment is well put. I am a strong advocate for transit and for integrating it into communities that would otherwise be dependent upon cars. Like you suggest, the truth lies in the great middle that are neither 100% car-free, nor 100% SOV commuters.

This post does seem to follow the paradigm of dense urbanity versus sprawl. Many people do not enjoy the benefits of dense urban living because they may prefer to have more personal space and the independence afforded by a car for occasional trips.

Likewise many people are held captive by the costs of vehicle ownership, and suffer a reduced quality of life for this trade off.

As a strong advocate of TOD as the future of both housing and transit, I did in fact find the post dismissive and reactive.

Let's not make this a rich-poor, urban-suburb debate.

Oh and Alon - just because desires are influenced by culture doesn't mean they aren't real or valid for pursuit. I'm thinking about a certain document...

Ian Bicking said...

What is "SOV" and "TOD"?

Adam said...

Single Occupancy Vehicle
Transit Oriented Development (aka Transit Friendly Development)