Joel Kotkin's Jihad on Logic

In some urbanist circles, the name Joel Kotkin prompts groans and grimaces. Kotkin - a frequent writer for Forbes, the executive editor for the website, Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University (the credentials go on...) - is occasionally derided as someone who glosses over concrete statistics to prove points about broader trends that make his cases compelling, as Florida Coastal School of Law Professor Michael Lewyn vividly illustrated in his rebuttal of Kotkin's "The War Against Suburbia." Seen as a sprawl supporter or even worse, an apologist, this perceived bias can deflect urbanists from Kotkin's analysis and detailed demographic studies. Kotkin often tries to juxtapose his "everyday man"-isms against the "creative class"-isms of Richard Florida, as Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institute remarked in a New Republic article from last year. Yet, even as both urban theorists paint incomplete pictures of cities that rest on somewhat easy, homogenous models, they usually push a dialogue forward.

Some of Kotkin's more recent work does this successfully, such as when he gives careful consideration to the factors that shaped the unexpectedly suburban tilt of the 2010 Census. Articles such as "The Dispersionist Manifesto" and "Cities and the Census: Cities Neither Withering nor Booming" posit forth a legitimately sound version of urban demography that seems cut from the cloth of the Mike Davis/Los Angeles School of Urbanism, which deserve discussion at the urbanist table. Of course, it's just as easy to take the other side of the argument. One could point to the 2010 census and note the demographic shifts that have revealed tremendous population growth in innermost central-city cores from Chicago to Detroit to Philadelphia to Los Angeles. There's always another side to the story to be examined. 

This duality is what makes discussion about dissecting cities, states, their populations, and the local, federal, and state policies that inform their shape, design, and viability so essential. Unfortunately, Kotkin's latest piece for Forbes and New Geography, "California's Green Jihad" leaves little room for duality and spurs very little actual thought for enlightened conversation. Rather, the article - whose basic premise is that the over-regulating environmental czars of California are enacting energy policy regulations in the disinterest of its people, and have developed a theocratic zeal for green energy that is on par with the Iranian government's Islamic fundamentalism   - is a slipshod construction of ill-formed metaphor and mismatched thought. While there's certainly a case to be made against the unintended consequences of heavy state interference in a market economy (Disclosure: I've even written about such for New Geography in the past), Kotkin's comparison of theocratic thugs operating under the guise of some Bay Area greenies is disingenuous.  

Kotkin opens his article by stating "Ideas matter..." Well, so do semantics. Iran is an authoritarian, closed state that restricts the actions of its populace under the guidance of a small cabal of individuals who operate under divine mandate. As the Green Revolution revealed - just as it seemed so when the U.S. was embroiled in an Iraqi quagmire when governed by someone seemingly responding to the above - there is not much room for debate when channels to God are concerned. 

Kotkin tries to draw a line between the heavy-handedness of the Iranian and the California governments and their devotion to their respective dogmas (Islam for Iran, green energy for Cali) as the reason why their respective economies perform so poorly. But the causation of why and how these poor conditions developed couldn't be further apart. Kotkin doesn't get this. Kotkin writes, "As with its Iranian counterpart, California’s green theology often leads to illogical economic and political decisions. California has decided, for example, to impose a rigid regime of state-directed planning related to global warming, making a difficult approval process for new development even more onerous." If the intent behind the statement is to illustrate the foolishness of central planning, the confusing introduction of theology does Kotkin a disservice and makes his argument moot. How one gets from misguided economic regulations that play out poorly in the market from codified political and social stratification mechanisms is beyond a stretch. Iran terrorizes its citizens. It is engaged in warfare against its own people by disallowing the development of ideas, and therefore, the production of industry. The State of California is an inept manager that shortchanges its citizenry through bad politics. Both may be painful to bear, but one is not oppressive.

In fact, with a little further research, the Californian Kotkin could have found a better source to make his point about the dysfunction of meddling California policy, although it would move him even further away from the Iranian metaphor. Recently, The Economist devoted a cover story and special report on "Where It All Went Wrong" in the Golden State. And where exactly do most of California’s systemic problems stem from? Not from an iron-fisted, autocratic regime, but rather from the messy, Switzerland-on-steroids version of direct democracy practiced there. As Andreas Kluth writes, "California’s democracy is not at all like America’s, as conceived by founders such as James Madison. The federal constitution is based on checks and balances within and among three and only three branches of government—executive, legislative and judicial. That is because Madison feared that popular 'passions' would undo the republic, that majorities might 'tyrannise' minorities, and that 'minority factions' (IE, special interests) would take over the system. America’s was therefore to be a representative, not a direct, democracy." The "rugged individualists" who settled California held tightly onto their autonomy though, and hence "instinctively embraced a direct and participatory form of democracy," resulting in a "fourth branch of government." A little more than a century into its being, this fourth branch - the people at large - is ultimately responsible for what is widely acknowledged as the first domino to drop in what is now California's monumental fiscal mess: the anti-property tax measure Proposition 13.

A great example of that golden rule of unintended consequences, Prop 13 was put into place in 1978 as a way to prevent property taxes from rising at an accelerated rate, even though the attendant rise in property values merited such. What was seen initially as a locally-driven, populist initiative actually had the not-so-surprising paradoxical effect of sapping resources away from municipalities, preventing them from delivering essential services without first having to turn to the state for assistance. In an effort to exert more local control, Prop 13 established a system in which Sacramento in effect became larger and larger. The see-saw effect has been in full swing ever since. As more direct democracy measures have arisen against the actions of the state, more control is ceded over to it. California suffers from political problems that have enlarged its centralized power that makes it decisions all the more meaningful for the economic well-being of its populace. Unlike Iran though, it is trying to respond to laws that were placed upon its legislative body by the voting public; it is not keeping a lid on revolution through intimidation and force.

And while it may be a basic tenet that many taxing laws and regulations will end up having the opposite outcome of their intent - curbing over-regulation to allow for the free flow of ideas, cash and businesses is a good thing - the move towards developing green infrastructure projects is positioning California to recapture wealth and sustain itself long into the future once the current economic doldrums subside. Will people lose jobs and be hurt in the short-term as Kotkin theorizes by the regulating of certain types of industry? Yes. Is Kotkin right that some businesses will move to less-regulated states? Sure. But if California, and the nation at large, is to fully emerge from the lingering limp economy, it will require moving beyond the short-sighted obsessiveness of obtaining immediate gain through quick fixes. What we need to take aim at are Right Fixes that set up the foundation for places to reset themselves and move ahead with long-term solutions that ensure security and viability when our current slate of resources finally become too volatile, scarce, and expensive to use. 

Like Prop 13 itself, California's direct democracy model may have devolved into something unintended and unknown. The state's finances are in shambles and the California legislature's unenviable position of having to respond to laws and limitations placed upon them by extending a heavy-hand into the marketplace makes for an untidy Hollywood drama that may very well get a little worse before it gets better. But by being dedicated to green infrastructure - soon to be simply known as "infrastructure" - the state is actually positioning itself to emerge as a leader in the new economy when other places may still be fumbling about for businesses to poach. This is hardly illustrative of a restrictive, authoritarian system in which little movement of ideas is permitted. This is an example of a place figuring out how best to unravel its mistakes and learn from its past while painfully preparing for its future. Kotkin, who pays the future much attention in his The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, is too intelligent not to recognize this.  Whereas Iran is on the precipice of a complete economic, social, and cultural revolution, California needs to iron a few shirts.





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