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February 5, 2001
6:46 AM   Subscribe

Government's 50 Greatest Endeavors from The Brookings Institution. Rebuilding Europe After World War II and Expanding the Right to Vote are number 1 and 2 respectively. Do we give our Government enough credit or should this be compared to a list of Government's 50 greatest boondoggles?
posted by quirked (19 comments total)

 
I'm somewhat surprised at highway construction being in the top ten, amid all the genuine social advances. Given the mess of problems it saddled us with (pollution, landscape eyesores, oil dependency, to name but a few), and given the powerful and unscrupulous corporate lobbying behind it, I wouldn't call it "great" except as an engineering endeavor.
posted by Joe Hutch at 9:23 AM on February 5, 2001


That requires that you discount all of the good that the US interstate system has brought -- faster, simpler and cheaper transit and transport (and the related cost benefits) being paramount. No, it's not a panacea, but to only view it as a negative is to ignore far too much.
posted by Dreama at 9:28 AM on February 5, 2001


Perhaps the Brookings Institution's next Top 50 will be the 50 best things about cancer. Seems about the same to me.
posted by ljromanoff at 11:02 AM on February 5, 2001


That requires that you discount all of the good that the US interstate system has brought -- faster, simpler and cheaper transit and transport (and the related cost benefits) being paramount. No, it's not a panacea, but to only view it as a negative is to ignore far too much.

What if we view it only as mostly negative, in that it destroyed cities, increased costs of transportation, increased overall energy usage and decreased air quality. Secondary effects range from social isolation of suburban children to overall trends in poor physical fitness.

The idea of an interstate highway system is a good one, but the way it was implemented was far too shortsighted, and more importantly, far too destructive for what it was worth. A myriad of other transportation options have been ignored over the past 50 years as highway construction has become the number one priority. Meanwhile, running highways through dense urban areas and placing exits at every semi-major road has led to totally auto-oriented culture and development while simultaneously destroying entire neighborhoods (and not just the ones in the highways' paths but on each side. When the city's fabric is torn, you lose more than just that small strip. The value of the entire surrounding area is destroyed as well.).

Not that I have a strong opinion on this or anything. ;)

But I also question the inclusion of #30: expansion of home ownership. Once again, the idea isn't so bad in that a house is about the only long-term investment or savings of any kind for that matter that most families make. But the implementation of it (through the FHA, HUD, and the GI Bill) was totally horrendous, leading to the sprawling, isolated subdivisions that rule the housing landscape today.

Finally #47: Improving Mass Transportation? Hello? While mass transit has made strides in the last 10 years as highway spending becomes so ludicrous that people are beginning to realize it may not be the smartest option in every case. But the article is about the federal government and mass transportation improvements have occurred almost solely as a result of local initiatives and funding. The Federal government has provided a lot more funding recently in the form of matching grants. But even now, highway funding is 80-90% of all government transportation spending in this country. This item should not be on the list, except as a joke.
posted by daveadams at 11:30 AM on February 5, 2001


leading to the sprawling, isolated subdivisions that rule the housing landscape today.

What would be better? Row houses for everyone? Urban living where you can reach out of your window and touch your neighbour's house?

"Sprawling, isolated" subdivisions continue to exist, and new subdivisions are opening regularly because that's how American suburbanites want to live. They like having enough land to call a yard without needing hours of maintenance. They like cul-de-sacs where kids can play without fear of speeding cars. They like mazes of dead-ends and circular roads and single points of entry and exit because they cut down on thru-traffic. They like homogenised-looking communities, in every aspect of the phrase.

Older planned communities, Levitt towns and the like, had some of the same "features" as today's subdivisions, but without the inclusivity. Moving planned housing off of a regular city neighbourhood grid was just the next step as people wanted to get further away from noise and commercial property.

What would have been a better way of expanding communities to reflect the desire of the people to move away from the city centers?
posted by Dreama at 11:43 AM on February 5, 2001


Hmmm. Rebuilding Europe made it in, but not the installation of a puppet government in Japan? Hmmm...
posted by Neb at 12:27 PM on February 5, 2001


I really respect the use of the word boondoggle there.
posted by efullerton at 2:45 PM on February 5, 2001


"Sprawling, isolated" subdivisions continue to exist, and new subdivisions are opening regularly because that's how American suburbanites want to live.

Oh, if only it were so.

See, the thing about a free market -- or even a market subsidized by great big whomping tax write-off, like the mortgage interest deduction -- is that price indicates demand.

So, what't the most expensive housing? Apartments in dense, multi-purpose downtowns.

What's the least expensive? Cookie-cutter, SimCity Classic, monoculture Burbland.

That's because discounting those "houses" is the only way to get people to buy them.
posted by aurelian at 2:48 PM on February 5, 2001


I don't know that government should take credit for expanding the right to vote. I think the people should take credit for that one. I don't think the vote was given freely to women nor to people of color.
posted by sudama at 3:06 PM on February 5, 2001


What would be better? Row houses for everyone? Urban living where you can reach out of your window and touch your neighbour's house?

C'mon, there's no right solution for everyone. But I think you'll find that the majority of new housing construction fits my description. There are other options anyway. Ever hear of multi-family housing? Duplexes, triplexes, 4-plexes, apartment-style condominiums? Not everyone has to live in a detached home. Yes, row houses and "urban living" as you describe it are options along with suburban housing. FWIW, I live in an urban setting in which I couldn't touch my neighbor's house by sticking my arm through my window even if I wanted to.

"Sprawling, isolated" subdivisions continue to exist, and new subdivisions are opening regularly because that's how American suburbanites want to live. They like having enough land to call a yard without needing hours of maintenance. They like cul-de-sacs where kids can play without fear of speeding cars. They like mazes of dead-ends and circular roads and single points of entry and exit because they cut down on thru-traffic. They like homogenised-looking communities, in every aspect of the phrase.

I don't disagree that a lot of people like that kind of environment, but the fact is that government policy from the federal level down to the local level, does everything in its power to enforce this style of development. Suburban planning principles and zoning codes do not allow anything but mazes, cul-de-sacs, and single-points-of-entry. They do not allow a mixture of building uses. They do not allow a dense, connected network of streets. They do not allow an 8-unit apartment building next to three single-family homes next to a strip of stores abutted to the sidewalk with apartments above them next to a townhouse next to a dentist office next to an elementary school.

Older planned communities, Levitt towns and the like, had some of the same "features" as today's subdivisions, but without the inclusivity. Moving planned housing off of a regular city neighbourhood grid was just the next step as people wanted to get further away from noise and commercial property.

People also would love to drive 80 miles per hour on city streets, dump sewage into lakes, and steal from the local bookstore. But do we let them? No. Why not? Because it's bad for the entire community. Not that it's exactly the same. Sure people can build such places if they desire, but it's wrong for me to have to subsidize the additional "collector" roads and highways that need to be built because none of them can be bothered to use public transportation, which is impossibly expensive and inconvenient in such environments anyway.

What would have been a better way of expanding communities to reflect the desire of the people to move away from the city centers?

Perhaps not to subsidize it and lock out all other options? I'm not saying that people don't love the suburbs. For some unfathomable reason many of them do. But government policies and subsidies have created the current environment. They forced (through economics) builders to do things just one way. Once the housing industry was tooled up to build sprawling, isolated subdivisions, that's what they want to continue to build. Try to find a reasonably priced new home that isn't in such a subdivision in any medium-to-large metropolis. You can't do it. Why? Not because 100% of the people want that kind of house, but rather because there is no other option. Government intervention drove it away and still does.

Besides, I take issue with your contention that all, or even most, people desire to move away from city centers. Maybe in the early 1900s when cities were inherently dirty and undesireable places to be in and the automobile seemed to be an effective way of getting away from it. Maybe in the late 40s when, after over 15 years of zero investment in infrastructure, American cities looked pretty bleak compared to the brand new federally-subsidized tract housing springing up outside of town. Maybe in the 50s and 60s and 70s when "urban renewal" projects eliminated what vestiges of interesting communities we had left and replaced them with huge, dull, modern blocks of single-use buildlings that drove what vitality was left from cities. Maybe in the 80s and 90s when, after decades of directing most of our education resources to new suburban schools, the state of education in central cities got to be so bad that there doesn't seem to be a way out and no caring parent with any other option would send their child to "one of those schools."

But I think that given a chance, with fairer government policies and less emphasis on accomodating the automobile into everything we build, more vital urban environments will spring up, not only in older city districts, but also in deteriorating inner-ring suburbs and new developments outside the core.
posted by daveadams at 3:21 PM on February 5, 2001


Right on, aurelian, who said it much more concisely (thank God) than I did.
posted by daveadams at 3:22 PM on February 5, 2001


See, the thing about a free market ... is that price indicates demand.

Think you're forgetting about supply there. The amount of undeveloped land available at a 30-mile radius from downtown is considerably larger than the amount of undeveloped land downtown.

Frankly, I'd never want to live in a dense urban area. It doesn't matter how much more "efficient" it is. I enjoy my daily visits to downtown Seattle but live here? No way. Far too many people always getting in your way. People are best taken in small doses.

Low blow, by the way, putting scare-quotes around "house," as if a house in the suburbs isn't just as much a house as one in the city. I don't live in a place because it's different from its neighbors, or because it's part of a community, or because it has "personality." I live in a place to keep warm and dry and to have a safe place to put my stuff and to have some privacy. What it looks like on the outside is almost irrelevant, within certain limits of course, as most of my interaction with my home occurs on its inside. And that is highly customizable regardless of how cookie-cutter the outside may be.

Right now I live in an apartment, but damn right I want a place of my own, where I don't even have to see my neighbors if I don't want to, let alone listen to them bouncing basketballs on my ceiling. Multi-family housing would be better if most people weren't inconsiderate buffoons, but the truth is, most people are.
posted by kindall at 4:33 PM on February 5, 2001


damn right I want a place of my own, where I don't even have to see my neighbors if I don't want to

Whereas other people actually enjoy that kind of thing. I have no problem with your housing preference, but unfortunately, government preference for that type of housing severely and artificially limits my own choice of housing.

let alone listen to them bouncing basketballs on my ceiling. Multi-family housing would be better if most people weren't inconsiderate buffoons, but the truth is, most people are

Well, there are ways to limit sound transference. The apartment building I lived in before we bought a house didn't transfer sound at all between us and our neighbors, to the side or upstairs. The fact that most multi-family housing is so cheaply built is a testament to the market-screwing effects of the subsidy of single-family housing.
posted by daveadams at 8:16 PM on February 5, 2001


"Low blow, by the way, putting scare-quotes around "house," as if a house in the suburbs isn't just as much a house as one in the city... most of my interaction with my home occurs on its inside.

I would certainly hope so. Here's why:

I put the quotes around "house" both to protest current poor building practices, and the abuse of the words "house" and "home". A house is a physical structure. A home is an abstract institution. There's a reason why people who disregard marital obligations are called "homewreckers", not "housewreckers". :)

But to turn back to your demand vs supply observation -- demand determines supply. Or at least, the perception of scarcity. If I personally drip some paint onto a canvas, it's worthless, even if it's unique. If I can find one that's known to have been dripped by Jackson Pollock, it's ain't worthless anymore. :)

The same applies to real estate. A 100-unit building at First and Pine will command a higher price per unit than a 100-unit building in Bellevue. The most expensive house in London, I'm fairly sure, is on the south bank of the Thames, just west of the Globe Theatre, because it's about the only single house on that side of the Thames. (It overlooks St. Paul's on the other side of the river, and is in fact where Christopher Wren lived while St. Paul's was under construction.) Put that same house in Croydon, and it ain't worth as much.

I live in Orange County, Calif., and I think it's no accident that almost all the big development companies here are privately held. If they were public, they could be sued massively for lack of return, because of the cheapo kind of suburban construction they specialize in.

The thing about Burbland is that a), it's familiar -- not just to the customer but to the construction guys; b) it's quick to build; c) it's cheap to build. It really is the physical equivalent of fast food.

But a residence with texture, with feeling, with depth behind it -- the structural equivalent of haute cuisine -- is still pretty much only possible in places like London, or Paris, or the Upper West Side, or Queen Anne/Capitol Hill, or Vancouver, or the Strand in Stockholm, or San Francisco, or Sydney, or... Well, you get the idea.

My ideal would be a Greene & Greene bungalow in either downtown Seattle, Vancouver, or Stockholm -- but hey, that just me (and shows my affinity for water).

But what I really object to is the idea that people are getting what they want. I think people are both smarter and more sensitive than that. They know they want something better, but are willing to muddle through with the limited pallette of choices presented to them.

And (he said, coming full circle), I think Burbland's low, LOW prices reflect that muddling through.

posted by aurelian at 12:21 AM on February 6, 2001


See, the thing about a free market ... So, what's the most expensive housing? Apartments in dense, multi-purpose downtowns.

Yes, and the main reason for its cost is lack of supply. Many big cities legislated rent control decades ago, which has directly led to many landlords refusing to rent a lot of their units: Depending on the state of the economy, the cost of maintenance/upkeep of lived-in units often outweighs potential profits from renting. You also have to factor in urban zoning restrictions, which severly limit how many new apartments can be constructed.

In other words, most dense, multi-purpose downtowns are not at all free markets.
posted by aaron at 12:43 AM on February 6, 2001



aaron:Yes, and the main reason for its cost is lack of supply.

Perhaps you were typing at the same time I was, but to repeat: Supply is defined by demand.

If I have 30 million houses, but 40 million people want them, they're going to be expensive. If I have one house and nobody wants it, it's going to be cheap.

It follows from what you say that even with prices artificially jacked up, demand for urban downtown housing is so high that people are still willing to pay those prices. And what I'm saying is that, even with suburban housing being deeply discounted, subsidized, and in abundant supply -- that such high urban demand and pricing still exists.

This, to me, is a clear indication of what the overall market wants.

posted by aurelian at 9:46 AM on February 6, 2001


Supply is defined by demand ... even with prices artificially jacked up, demand for urban downtown housing is so high that people are still willing to pay those prices.

Some people are. If you have substantially more people who want to live in a place than there are houses, prices will of course rise until only the people who really want to live there very badly and have lots of money can afford to do so. Of course, all that tells you is that there are a certain number people who want to live in the city. It doesn't tell you the preferences of the people in the surrounding burbs, who vastly outnumber the city-dwellers; they may well prefer living there. So few people live in the city proper these days that it is impossible to draw any meaningful conclusion about what "the overall market" wants. The idea that everyone (or even most people) would live in the city if only they could afford to is completely ludicrous.

As for supply being defined by demand, well, no, not always. Eventually you reach a point where meeting the demand costs more than most people are willing to pay. Yeah, you could raze parts of Seattle and put up high-rises to meet demand, but that's expensive, and the neighbors would probably object. Nobody would pay the kinds of rents such housing would require to be profitable. On the other hand, there is still plenty of undeveloped land about 20-30 miles from downtown. A new apartment complex and a new townhouse community have been finished on the same road my apartment is on (just north of Lynnwood) since I moved in six months ago. Here is a place where supply can readily meet demand, and demand is obviously high, otherwise they wouldn't have built 200+ units inside of six months.

Seattle proper is surrounded on two sides by bodies of water and by burbs to the north and south. There is basically no undeveloped land here, which is what's really necessary for supply to rise to meet demand. If there's no undeveloped land, then to build more housing you must destroy housing that already exists (which has value of its own) and build upward. The value of the housing destroyed increases the cost of the new housing above and beyond what it would cost to build on undeveloped land, and of course high-rise construction is inherently expensive anyway (not to mention that you must then provide adequate parking, which also adds to the cost). There is probably demand for more housing in the city, but not so much it would be profitable to build this way very often. So the quantity of housing remains static. All that is necessary is for demand to rise faster (even a little) than supply for prices to skyrocket. The comparatively low cost of living in the burbs is a direct result of the ready availability of undeveloped land: supply can easily keep pace with demand out there.
posted by kindall at 11:59 AM on February 6, 2001


not to mention that you must then provide adequate parking

Not actually. In theory, anyone living in as dense an environment as center-city Seattle could (and perhaps, depending on your morals, should) live fine and well without a car. If parking must be built, it's either because of government controls or the perception of your customers. Given adequate incentive (good public transit plus the cost-differential of paying for a parking space, and possibly the availability of services like ZipCar), the latter should be possible to change. The former is probably the harder task...
posted by daveadams at 6:07 PM on February 6, 2001


Not actually. In theory, anyone living in as dense an environment as center-city Seattle could (and perhaps, depending on your morals, should) live fine and well without a car.

You can reduce the amount of parking you must provide, but you must provide some, at the very least -- these people will have friends over sometimes, some of whom will drive, and a certain number of residents will just need a car for some purpose. People don't like to be trapped in one area all the time, and while services like FlexCar will work for some poeple, others will hate the idea of never being able to, say, leave their CDs in their car, or indeed, of always having the same car and being able to get used to its idiosyncracies.

What level of parking constitutes "adequate" will vary, which is why I said "adequate" instead of specifying a number, but some must be provided. I for one would want to have a car, even if I rarely drove it, mainly because I value the ability to go places (even distant ones) when I want to, without having to arrange in advance for transportation.
posted by kindall at 12:38 AM on February 8, 2001


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