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Living for the City

by Samuel Staley
Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities, by Stanley Kurtz (Sentinel, 223 pp., $25.95)

If anyone wondered whether community organizing can be taken out of a man when he goes to Washington, Stanley Kurtz answers the question with a definitive “no” in this eminently accessible look behind the curtain of federal policymaking. Spreading the Wealth builds on Kurtz’s 2010 book, Radical-in-Chief, which connected the dots in Obama’s intellectual and professional past to make the case that he is an unreconstructed leftist. But the analysis in the earlier book was largely speculative. In his new volume, Kurtz surveys the real world of Obama’s presidency to see how the community activist governs.

Kurtz approaches his subject through a discussion of urban policy, which has always been one of the stepchildren of the executive branch. The federal departments of housing and urban development (HUD), transportation, and, to a lesser extent, human services have largely been left to govern themselves as most presidents have focused on prestige departments such as Defense, State, and Treasury, and agencies such as the EPA and the OMB. This shouldn’t be altogether surprising: Health care, urban planning, and transportation were largely within the purview of the states until the 1970s.

But this neglect ended when Obama’s White House began orchestrating a comprehensive, mostly behind-the-scenes effort to redistribute wealth from the relatively wealthy and middle-class suburbs to the relatively poor cities.

Kurtz’s fears are reasonable. He demonstrates clearly that Obama has done more to move a socialist urban agenda forward than any other president since LBJ and Nixon. Kurtz deserves credit for doing something most analysts, pundits, and political observers haven’t: walking the layperson through the underbelly of federal policymaking on issues that don’t attract national-media headlines.

Kurtz starts his journey, appropriately, by examining Obama’s professional roots in Chicago, arguably the community-organizing capital of the nation. Kurtz convincingly shows that Obama has never really abandoned his passion for inner cities, nor — despite the inclusive rhetoric of his 2008 campaign — a political philosophy grounded in left-wing redistributionism. The author also correctly recognizes that much of the community-organizing mindset that informs the Obama administration’s positions on urban policy is an evolved form of political Marxism. On this view, inner cities, and the minorities that reside within them, are victims of abandonment by the wealthy, which manifested itself in the migration of well-off households to the suburbs; thus, redistributing resources back to the impoverished inner cities will solve or at least meaningfully address a number of urban ills.

Kurtz also shows that a range of Obama policies, including the effective collectivization of the automobile industry, the heavy-handed regulation of the financial industry, and green-technology subsidies, are really ideological extensions of his progressive-organizing roots. They are not transient, pragmatic policies designed merely to get the nation through an economic rough patch: They are part of a larger agenda to remake the economy and society.

But this agenda isn’t obvious, because Obama and his administration obfuscate their real intentions — a key tactic of modern-day community organizing, which pursues major long-term goals through highly incremental policy programs. Kurtz argues that these intentions can nonetheless be clearly seen, if one takes the time for a close examination of the administration’s urban policies — which promote a long-term consolidation of local governments, a “quiet regionalization” that will redirect wealth and funds to poorer inner cities. Indeed, he writes, “redistribution is the heart and soul of regionalism.”

Kurtz observes that “the first layer of protection for Obama’s urban policy is that few people know that he’s even got one.” The second layer of protection is the deliberate use of community-organizing tactics to mislead the public about his real goals. When Obama talks about focusing on the economic health of metropolitan areas, for example, he uses the language of inclusiveness to obscure the real intention: to redistribute wealth to the big cities. This misleading language also allows him to avoid the political minefield of local control and federalism.

But look at what the White House is actually doing: encouraging policy changes — including regional planning, tax-base sharing, and boosting public transit — that promote the urban core at the expense of suburbs. Through executive orders and new federal-spending priorities, these “smart growth” strategies sidestep local-community decision-making and end up centralizing control over urban policy at the national level.

Similarly, Common Core educational standards have the effect of rebalancing the metropolitan playing field in favor of the central cities: Kurtz identifies the players, the strategies, and the programs behind this attempt to effectively nationalize education funding through standards for achievement, with the goal of sending more resources to central-city schools and breaking up the “American apartheid” of public education (defined as the inferiority of poor and minority central-city schools to rich and white suburban schools). Here, too, the philosophy is redistributionist: The problem is that urban schools don’t have the resources to provide quality education, so wealthier suburban communities need to divert their resources to the central cities. As Kurtz notes, once the suburbs lose their edge in high-quality schools, a powerful attraction for moving to the suburbs disappears.

Unfortunately, Kurtz’s analysis is incomplete and a bit too narrow. A reader could easily get the impression from his sweeping indictment that regionalism and the attack on the suburbs are the product of the inner-city community-organizing movement. In fact, modern regionalism is merely the latest incarnation of the anti-sprawl theology that has gripped professional planning since before World War II. In the 1960s and 1970s, this ethos morphed into an anti-suburban backlash, which, in turn, provided fertile ground for the community organizers of the 1980s and 1990s. The difference today is that the current president understands the political levers that need to be pulled to carry out a gradualist, stealth campaign against the suburbs in favor of the cities behind the veil of a massive, complex federal bureaucracy.

Progressives have long harbored a disdain for localized Tocquevillian decision-making and the restraints on national power embedded in the U.S. Constitution. Putting well-educated public administrators in charge of community development — through public ownership of utilities and other core infrastructure, land-use planning, and building regulation — meant that the subjective and uninformed opinions of citizens would not hamper the pursuit of socially efficient outcomes. Notably, the first zoning codes were adopted in the early decades of the 20th century, validated by the Supreme Court in 1926, and encouraged by such progressive Republicans as Herbert Hoover.

Kurtz underestimates the degree to which Republicans have been part of the regionalist movement. One of the most successful regional-consolidation efforts was led by then-mayor Richard Lugar in Indianapolis in 1970. The idea, which holds sway in countless Chambers of Commerce across the nation, is that governments somehow gain efficiency through consolidation and monopoly provision of public services: an idea that has gained favor, even as the business groups lambaste the same strategies when used by private corporations. Indeed, one of the greatest redistributions of wealth from suburbs to urban areas may have occurred under Lugar and his Republican successor, William H. Hudnut: Hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in dozens of buildings, sports facilities, and downtown university facilities in Indianapolis. (An important difference, of course, is that middle-class suburbanites may have benefited the most from these investments.) Thus, regionalism is not a uniquely Democratic or community-activist pursuit.

Paradoxically, the very economic crisis that is giving the Obama administration cover for the regionalist agenda behind the veil — the Great Recession — may have also stymied its ability to implement more aggressive regionalist policies. To be sure, government has been greatly strengthened under Obama. The 2009 stimulus, along with its smaller progeny, grew government on the state and local level, including funding for public-school teachers, public services such as Medicaid, and transportation funds channeled to politically favored if underutilized public-transit projects.

A key constraint on the community organizers’ agenda is the U.S. Constitution, and a political culture that still embraces the ideal of local government, citizen participation, and local accountability. Americans are deeply skeptical of higher levels of government, and bureaucracies more generally, and the regionalist agenda runs counter to those deeply held beliefs. Indeed, government overreach — whether it’s the abuse of eminent domain, the nationalization of major corporations, or the dictation of health-care policies to the states — is widely acknowledged as one of the primary drivers of public support for the Tea Party. While the Tenth Amendment seems to be holding on only by a thread, it still exists, and cities remain legal creatures of state governments, not the federal one.

So the situation may not yet be quite as dire as Kurtz suggests. But he has nonetheless provided an admirable addition to the growing literature on Barack Obama and his presidency. Just as he did in Radical-in-Chief, Kurtz knits together disparate yet relevant strands in this president’s past to understand the way he governs; and he provides an accessible look into how a modern-day community organizer works to implement an agenda. For these reasons, Kurtz’s book deserves to be on the shelf of anyone who wants to understand the Obama presidency and how the federal-policy “sausage” is made.

– Mr. Staley is the managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University and a senior research fellow at the Reason Foundation

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