The Corner

A Pox On American Society

The first hit-piece-style review of my new book, Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities is out. It’s from Ben Adler, a left-leaning writer who sees “suburban sprawl” as “a pox on American society.” Adler wastes a lot of effort fighting the straw-man-claim that I believe Obama will literally “abolish the suburbs” in a second term.

The silliness here is Adler’s. In the conclusion of Spreading the Wealth I sketch out a range of plausible scenarios for America’s suburbs in a second Obama term. There I say we’ll most likely see, not literal “abolition,” but a new kind of national battle over a novel set of anti-suburban issues, with wins and losses on both sides. That alone would be a huge step forward for “regionalist” efforts to undercut the suburbs.

Yet there is every reason to believe that formal or de facto abolition of America’s suburbs is the ultimate goal of both the president and the “regional equity movement” he supports. Regionalist organizers see their project as generational. Their time-lines run well beyond any single presidential term. Knowing their long-term “abolitionist” goal is crucial, however, since it allows us to make sense of incremental policy proposals whose implications aren’t always obvious.

I didn’t invent the phrase “abolish the suburbs,” by the way. I took it from friendly reviews of the book that arguably gave birth to the modern regional equity movement, David Rusk’s Cities Without Suburbs. Rusk’s title describes his goal, which is to fold cities and suburbs together into a single governmental entity, through outright annexation when possible. Friendly reviewers summarized Rusk’s argument by saying he wanted to “abolish the suburbs.” They were right.

Rusk has never abandoned this vision. Recognizing the legal and practical obstacles to outright annexation of suburbs by cities, he has merely emphasized a series of incremental steps leading toward his larger goal. Since Rusk and his fellow activists are shaping Obama administration policies right now, it is perfectly reasonable to hold Obama to account for their vision.

More than that, Obama himself has supported the regional equity movement for decades. Not only was Obama trained by the very same regional equity activists he works with today in the White House, he was a major source of foundation funding and a partner for their efforts from his time in the Illinois State Senate, through his service in the US Senate, right through to the present. As I show in Spreading the Wealth, moreover, Obama’s Dreams from My Father is itself a sort of regionalist document. Obama was a charter member of the regional equity movement and has done as much as anyone in the country to support its goals. Voters would be fools not to take Obama’s regionalist history seriously when considering his plans for a second term.

#more#There’s much more going on here than what Adler dismisses as “a few speeches” by administration officials. (Is there anything wrong with holding high administration officials to account for policies they announce and embrace in their speeches, by the way?) Top regionalist activists–David Rusk included–are shaping Obama administration policies right now. Rusk’s close colleague, Myron Orfield, has advised the Obama White House on a wide range of initiatives. The White House has lent its prestige and facilities to the organizing efforts of Mike Kruglik’s Building One America. Then there’s Obama’s attack on Westchester County and the promise to expand that policy nationally in a second term, not to mention Obama’s ambitious education plans. Adler doesn’t begin to give an honest account of my case.

Obama’s regionalist pals want him to condition future federal aid on local adherence to recommendations made by regional planning commissions under the Sustainable Communities Initiative. Obama has already used that strategy to impose a Common Core K-12 curriculum on the states. Given Obama’s regionalist history, his record of high-handed regulatory pressure, and his extensive cooperation with the very same activists who are calling for regulatory hardball on these issues in a second term, it’s naive to believe that Obama would forgo harsh regulatory tactics at the very moment he was freed from electoral constraint.

Evidently not a close reader, Adler says I provide no evidence to back up my claim that the government’s alleged role in creating the suburbs has been vastly exaggerated. Actually, I invoke and discuss the work of Robert Bruegmann, who makes a persuasive case on this point.

Why, Adler asks, would Obama wait to act on his regionalist passion until his second term? Well, he hasn’t waited. One of my points is that Obama’s policies on a wide range of issues have a too-little-recognized regionalist aspect. Obama’s second-term regionalist agenda also depends on legal and policy groundwork he’s already laid. Quite a bit of the president’s agenda, from Obamacare to Dodd-Frank, leaves the most controversial bits to be filled in down the road (think IPAB).

The funny thing is that Adler himself has pointed to the stealthy nature of Obama’s regionalist tactics. In a piece called, “Inside Job,” Adler explains that Obama uses an “inside” strategy for his regionalist policies, tackling “urban policy reform with a series of behind-the-scenes initiatives rather than with flashy public reforms.” Why? Obama works on regionalism behind-the-scenes, Adler says, because the president doesn’t want to “put out proposals that will turn into giant targets.” So Adler himself claims that Obama has intentionally kept his regionalist initiatives under the radar. (See “Inside Job” for Adler’s “pox on American society” remark, as well.)

Adler says we needn’t worry anyway, since Obama and the Democrats wouldn’t be able to roll a Republican Congress on regionalist policy, even if they wanted to. Yet Spreading the Welath shows how Obama aims to make an end-run around Congress through direct political and regulatory pressures on localities and states.

I’m always leery when people who actually favor some leftist policy tell conservatives not to worry because, after all, Republicans will block it. Adler and his regionalist buddies regularly moan and groan in public that Obama needs to do more for them. That’s their job, which means they downplay or take for granted the considerable amount that Obama already has done, and can do.

As states and cities hit their own financial walls in the years ahead, Obama’s ability to force local compliance with his initiatives by withholding federal funding will only grow. Four more years to stock the courts with liberal judges, and his regulatory overreach won’t be as stoppable as it was with the recent judicial repudiation of the EPA either.

Adler’s misrepresentations notwithstanding, the tone of my book is even. It’s Adler who’s hysterical, although perhaps for good reason. Should suburban swing voters get wind of what Obama has in store for them, they just might go Republican.

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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