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The Promise of Technology
Driving is Dying, But That Doesn't Mean the Suburbs Have To

The death of driving doesn’t mean the end of the suburbs. A splashy new report out on driving patterns suggests that the recession isn’t the only reason Americans have stopped driving. By controlling for unemployment across areas, the US Public Interest Research Group reached some interesting conclusions. WaPo: 

There is a shift away from driving,” said Phineas Baxandall, an analyst at PIRG. “The cities in this report are home to most of America’s population and are engines of the economy. Policy leaders need to wake up and realize the driving boom is over. Instead of expanding new highways, our government leaders should focus on investing in public transit and biking for the future.”

The PIRG report debunks the belief that recent declines in driving should be blamed primarily on the recession, with data that show the cities with the biggest drop in driving suffered no greater unemployment peaks than those cities where driving declined the least.

Most responses to this report so far have emphasized the need for smart new urban transit and housing policy. Matthew Yglesias, for example, argued for shifting money away from highways to urban transit systems and reducing obstacles to “multi-family apartments.” The assumption here is that the decline in driving is mostly about people moving into cities, and so studies like this reinforce the need to think about urban policy.

But, in fact, new technology means that people don’t necessarily need to move to cities to reduce their dependence on cars. With telecommuting’s popularity on the rise, families can live out in suburban or even rural areas and work “in” urban ones, while boutique online shopping can supply you with everything from clothes to meals without a trip to the mall or the supermarket. Technology is enabling more and more Americans to spend more time with their families and in their communities, instead of in cars. Given that commuting is one of the biggest killers of social capital, declining driving mixed with increasing teleworking means that we are finally finding a way around one of the 20th centuries worst socio-economic rituals.

But it doesn’t follow from this that people should live in the suburbs, nor does it mean they should live in cities. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and we’re agnostic as to where Americas choose to make their nests. The important thing is spending more time together with those you care about and building communities, be that in the country or in a city neighborhood. The takeaway from the PRIG is not that it’s time for politicians to become hyper-obsessed with urban policy. It’s that, thanks to computers and mobile devices, that kind of social capital density is more possible in more places than ever.

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  • Kevin

    I would doubt sun rises in the east if PIRG put out a press release saying it did.

  • Jim__L

    PRIG is made up of the worst kind of self-righteous policy wanks who think that everyone must live in a world organized according to their oh-so-perfect designs.

    The fact that Millenials are losing the ability to afford homes, families, personal space and yes automobiles is a sign of things taking a turn for the worse, not the better.

    • Ann_NY

      I agree, if driving is dying than so is independence and freedom as well. What a pity.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “Instead of expanding new highways, our government leaders should focus on investing in public transit and biking for the future.”
    Why do they think this? Isn’t the public transit system facing reduced demand as well? Are there really traffic jams on the bike trails?
    People are doing a lot of things online that they used to have to travel for, because it’s faster, cheaper, and more convenient. I used to go to book stores and video stores several times per week, now I just walk though the video and book depts at Wal-mart, when I’m there to buy food and drink. I used to shop for everything by going from store to store, now I shop online for practically everything non-perishable, and have it shipped to me.

    • Jim__L

      Remember when “picture of Beijing” was synonymous with “picture of lots of bicycles”? It wasn’t so very many years ago, back when most of China’s billion was mired in poverty.

      Bicycles are not a step up, in the grand scheme of things.

    • Andrew Allison

      Exactly. This is a transparent plea for investment in transit schemes like the CA Superboondoggle which have limited usefulness. Any such proposal should be accompanied not by pie-in-the sky projections but on the actual results from like projects. From “approximately two-thirds of a light rail’s operating expense must be either raised through local taxes or subsidized by the government.”. Etc.,

  • Anthony

    “Inequality is one of those issues that tend to unite Democrats, alarm independents and divide Republicans.” Inequality is meme for moment but as Thomas Piketty lays out it’s functional feature of capitalism and has historic trends. Meanwhile, WigWag is on to something (and it’s a pleasure to have him back in rare form). The Left and Right may be morally justified to feel politically irked; inequality, commoncore curiculum, social decadence, transitional societal change, etc. may be motivators. But how one behaves rationally or otherwise is determined by one’s intellectual analysis and program for eliminating or avoiding felt difficulties. Herein lies crux of both WRM and WigWag’s overarching theme – how to bring warring tribes together under anxious circumstances. In particular, objective factors are present (WRM implies and cites many) that have both left and right, democrat and republican feeling askew (something not right). Although this may be true, the aims of both political parties, declared and achieved, are to maintain the existing politico-economic system and the same relative distribution of its rewards. So can populist et al find salvation chasing that venue? By degrees, the common citizens who seeks antagonisms where they don’t exist ends up inevitably as essay describes seeking alternatives that have historical antecedents no longer applicable (“a left pinning for the 1930s and a right pining for the 1890s” that can’t deliver the improvements they long for). On the whole, the outlook doesn’t change. On the other hand of all the good created by capitalism, one of the most important remains knowledge – change is inevitable.

    • El Gringo

      “On the other hand of all the good created by capitalism, one of the most important remains knowledge – change is inevitable.”

      Indeed – this is the very change that has so many Americans truly frightened. “The transition from late industrial society to an early stage information economy is hugely disruptive and painful. At the moment, it is easier and more natural for many people to worry about what is being lost than to look forward to the new possibilities that technological progress is creating for our future.”

      Liberals are terrified because the blue model which has sustained the country since FDR is falling apart. Conservatives are equally terrified because the blue model (that woolly old sheep) is falling apart. The Blues are seeking solace in more government while the Reds are seeking solace in Jesus. Humans, by their very nature, are terrified of change. And, unfortunately for Americans, at this moment of crisis and uncertainty, they aren’t looking for leaders to show them the way forward but, instead, to show them the way back.

      • Anthony

        Your second paragraph sums it up nicely but I like the 3rd too (where the public goes wrong).

      • Episteme

        It’s interesting to note how both Liberals and Conservatives are reacting to the transition to the change from late-industrial to early-information with actual similar splits, but the left happens to currently have a dominant group in theirs. On the blue side, you have what currently appears to be in America a well-managed split between Liberal-Populist and Progressive-Technocrat groups, while the Right is more openly conflicted between Conservative-Populist and Conservative-Libertarian groups. However, the same split on the left has been in conflict over their major techocratic project in EU of late, so it’ll be interesting to see how current issues with the ACA’s troubles affects the Progressives’ control over the left’s coalition on this side of the Atlantic in the next few years. Similarly, I wonder how changing social mores might affect the libertarian/fiscal side in terms of the Cold War “Fusionist” Bucklerian coalition (the Right’s post-Goldwater version of the FDR or LBJ teamups)…

        • Thirdsyphon

          I think the blue split isn’t well-managed so much as *easier* to manage, because liberalism in its current ideology isn’t really about much more than defending the status quo. The goals of modern conservatism are much more ambitious, and one suspects that there are plenty of people who are willing to sing in the chorus of, say, entitlement reform for only so long as they believe it has no chance of going through.

  • RobM1981

    Inequality is an effect, not a cause.

    Inequality happens because of other policies – it doesn’t start them.

    So, what drives inequality? Oh, I dunno… let’s say Unemployment. People who don’t have jobs tend to fall behind people who do.

    Or… hmmm… how about underemployment? People who can only get 20 or 21 hours of work a week? Yeah, they fall behind those who work full time.

    Or, on the flip side, what about unequal inflation? Like, for example, if someone poured money into banks. Or poured money into the money supply, which also goes to banks (first). Do we have any Ph.D’s here who can figure out where that money went? Did it go to those unemployed people, or did it get used to bring those 20-hour workers into full time? Or did it go to the banks, the stock market, and other such things?

    Because people who work as executives at banks tend to make more money than other people. And people who own stock and see it inflaaaate like a bubble… well, yeah, they tend to be on the “have” side of the have’s versus have-not’s.

    Now… is there one common link in all of these things? Is there one person, leading an administration of folly, who has driven all of these things?

    Why, yes! Yes there is! It’s a person, if you can believe it. He lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, when he’s not jetting around on important missions and vacation and fund raisers. I’d say “ask him,” but he’s a well known liar, so you really won’t get the truth from him.

    Which doesn’t mean that the truth doesn’t exist. It does, and it’s simple: Barack Obama and everyone who works for him and/or voted for him did this. If you voted for him, this is what you asked for. You did this.

    And, believe me, it was completely predictable. 100%

    • Curious Mayhem

      Of course. One major source of *income* inequality these days (not wealth inequality) is the dropping labor force participation rate. It slowly fell after 2000, but then fell off a cliff in 2009 and later. It’s not due to retirement either, as the rate is rising for age 60+ and has fallen the most for 16-34-year-olds. **Most of the drop in the unemployment rate since 2009 is due to this, NOT new jobs.**

      Well, where do all those people go? First off, they’re no longer counted as “unemployed,” because they’re completely out of the labor force. Presto — the official unemployment rate drops, even though it’s not at all for the reason many people think. (Although many have gotten wise to this.) How do they live? They are beneficiaries of “income transfers” — the dole. The proportional of household income coming from transfers has risen by about 40% since 2007. The point is to hook people on the dole, then they’ll vote reliably for Democrats. That’s theory, anyway.

      When Romney was going on in 2012 about “recovery, not dependency,” this is what he meant. His only failure was just not going far enough or starting early enough in talking about this (planned) disaster or assigning blame where it belongs.

      Another aspect of *wealth* inequality that is rarely mentioned is the aging of society. While the overlap is not perfect, an on-average-older society has a larger skew in wealth distribution, because older people have more assets. (Until they retire, they also have the highest incomes, by age.) It would be fine for younger people starting out, but only if they can get jobs (see above) and avoid getting into hock for student debt. (And see other fine comments here about the stalling of economic growth.)

    • bannedforselfcensorship

      I would like to see some research on a Fed that used direct money creation sent to each citizen instead of being laundered through the banking system.

      I think that would be far more democratic. I’m not sure its possible, though.

  • Andrew Allison

    “The bitter rivalry between ‘establishment’ and ‘Tea Party Republicans” which is raging across the Nation, from Alaska to Florida has nothing to do with the history of the South and everything to do with the disgust of the Republican rank-and-file with an establishment which no longer represents them. See–Alaska-Republican-Rift for a graphic example: the establishment is not merely out of touch, but determined to hang onto power at all costs.
    Could we also be more specific about “inequality”. The current political posturing is about income inequality, just one of the many inequalities that have always, and always will exist. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need was tried on grand scale in the 20th Century, and failed spectacularly as such efforts must (the proletariat in the USSR had a different slogan: you pretend to pay us and we’ll pretend to work).

    • Boritz

      Makes you wonder where a comma could go in his phrase: “…low country plantation owners…”
      Is it low country, plantation owners or is it low, country plantation owners. I vote for the latter if this is the group that is supposed to be analogous to the establishment Republicans.

      • Farmer_Joe

        It is the plantation owners in the low country. “Low country” being distinct from from the more mountainous areas.

        • Andrew Allison

          I think Boritz knows that (he wrote could, not should). But, low (adjective) country plantation owners (noun) is as good a description as any of the GOP establishment. [/grin]

    • Curious Mayhem

      Yes. It’s all across the country — it’s not in any way specific to the South. It’s tension between Main Street and Wall Street. The latter benefits, at least for a while, from insane monetary policies that starve savers, lead to capital misallocation, discourage productive lending, and promote asset bubbles and speculative frenzies.

      Greenspan and Bernanke are both Republicans of this type. While Yellen is a Democrat and dovish on interest rates (another source of massive distortion), she does seem wary of money printing, which is why it’s coming to an end here. It’s still going on in Japan and about to start in Europe.

  • Anthony

    WRM, conceding markets (capitalism) have played a central role in the stunning increases in productivity and standards of living in the past two hundred years (increases that exceeded the past two millennia), your inequality essay appears to have hit a soft spot. Your exposition on some whys and wherefores concerning inequality elicits ( ). I think your underlying thesis is that we are paying a high price for inequality (using Piketty’s working definition) in that people live their lives in the here and now. And the changes working there way through the system – a system perceived to be less stable, less efficient, and with less growth (for them) – give a contemporary pause (perhaps peril) to our Democracy as average citizen remains flummoxed and anxious by societal reconfiguration.

    • Andrew Allison

      As noted above, the underlying thesis that we are paying a high price for inequality is nonsensical. The gulf may (doubtful) be wider than, say, the Industrial Revolution, Ancient Rome and Egypt, etc., but consider the lot of those at the bottom end. Which is not, I hasten to add an excuse for the absolutely ridiculous width of the gap, but let’s keep a little perspective here.

    • circleglider

      Inequality only has traction when economic growth stalls. When economic growth ceases to be a goal shared by all Americans, it is only natural that the focus will shift to inequality.

      • Anthony

        Economic growth using what metrics and defined within what dominant policy paradigm. Hopefully, you allude to an economic growth in accord with our theoretical fundamental values (more opportunity, higher national income, stronger democracy, and finally higher living standards for most Americans). Now, influencing our micro and macroeconomic policies to get there will require investing in our society. Then inequality becomes subsumed.

  • Andrew Allison
  • Fred

    My take is more a spengleriad than a jeremiad. A profound cultural rot set into this country in the 1960s. Two decades of conservative government temporarily obscured the rot, but really only put a Band-Aid over it. Beneath the Band-Aid it continued to fester. Now a combination of financial crisis, recession, and the Obama administration’s incompetent leftism has ripped the Band-Aid off, revealing the rot in all its pestilent ooze. But there’s no going back. Entropy goes in only one direction–from order to disorder, concentration to dissipation, organization to chaos–and entropy is a law of culture as well as physics. Spengler was wrong about a lot of things but right about two: civilizations have lifespans, and ours is near the end of its. Jeremiads are wasted. Optimismus ist feigheit.

  • Anthony

    Whether one calls a thing nonsense does not make it so. I think WRM as well as Nobel Economics Laureate Joseph Stiglitz are both applying thesis (high price for inequality) with perspective and and analysis grounded in valid concern for America’s future (see: The Price of Inequality). Any ancient references may in this case be categorized as distorting the facts (false analogy and irrelevant thesis).

  • circleglider

    Tarnishing classical liberalism with the pejorative populism does little to advance understanding. So does a mostly backwards-looking perspective that inaccurately credits “social conservatism” as such a potent force in today’s politics.

    Once again, Mead reveals himself captive to the milieu in which he operates, which is solidly Democratic and Progressive. Unlike this piece, his earlier incantation of the “Left Liberal Narrative” is at least honest and accurate. He will not be showing us the way to a new social model with writing like this.

  • vepxistqaosani

    I have proposed a simple solution to the inequality problem: Take all the excess wealth from the rich and divide among the poor, so all have the same. Then do the same with incomes.

    Oddly, though, those who complain most loudly about inequality protest that that’s not at all what they mean to happen.

    But does not simple logic demonstrate that if inequality is the problem, then equality must be the solution? And, contrariwise, if equality is not the solution, then inequality cannot be the problem.

    • bannedforselfcensorship

      I suspect that if we agreed to a 5% extra tax, with the proviso that it was distributed via checks directly to all citizens that many on the Left would balk.

      They want to play with that money, not solve the problem.

  • teapartydoc

    The only way to make this go away is to abolish privilege created by connections to government, and the place to start is licensing.

  • bill

    I still have my copy of Atlas
    Shrugged I purchased in 1957. It was
    the first adult hard copy book I bought.
    Those “producers” of goods and services are not disappearing,
    as in Atlas Shrugged, they’re just
    moving their billions overseas and this is because those we sent to Washington
    are all making the easy choices and not looking out for the country. There are millions living well over the
    poverty level with every modern convenience who are not working and have no
    intention of working. This is
    unsustainable. But the most frightening
    thing I’ve heard this week is that China’s economy could soon surpass that of
    the US. Historically, no country has
    ever rebounded when that happens. This
    is something else that Obama can blame Bush for.

  • Curious Mayhem

    I clicked on this article because I’ve had to endure several weeks of that idiot “economist” from France, Thomas Pikaninny, or whatever his name is, being quoted as an expert on inequality.

    So, he *is* an idiot. His supposedly deep research is just a rehash of discredited theories and assertions about economic history, all of the refuted decades or centuries ago. The wealthiest don’t just exponentially accumulate wealth over generations without a break. Fortunes are made (or stolen), but then dissipated, squandered, and misspent, as well as wisely cared for and grown. They are subject to wars, revolutions, and inflations, as well as innovations that make old technologies obsolete, and so on: time and chance happen to them all, as the Good Book says.

    The average material circumstances of even a poor person in the developed world today are so far above what constituted a typical standard of living five or ten centuries ago, that it’s hard to even make a comparison. It is true that, in relative terms, certain genetic lines persist in standing out in a society. OTOH, who listens to the music of Mozart or Bach’s great-grandchildren?

    His arguments are not Marxist, so much as Malthusian-Keynesian in nature. There are periods of fallow economic growth and demographic slowdowns — like the 1930s. But the present-day massive appreciation of fortunes at the high end has everything to do with asset bubbles created by central banks and other government entities. The last 20 years had featured three broad asset bubbles (we’re near the end of the third one) that inflated the wealth of the wealthiest and made inequality more extreme. Artificially low interest rates and constant “liquidity” from central banks makes it very easy for those with a lot of assets to create the illusion of asset prices just going straight up, without a pause. These are all results of bad policy and form the backbone of the cronyistic relationship between governments and their financial industries that dominates developed world politics these days. We’re not richer for these asset bubbles; we just suffer from an illusion of being richer. A lot of paper or electrons is shuffled around, faster and faster, to make it seem so.

    The real story here is something entirely different and has nothing to with inequality or growth. His point of view is that of smug French bureaucrat horrified by how economies actually work and feeling the itch to centrally plan everything, which of course is impossible — but that won’t stop him.

    His proposal to tax wealth (not income) is just as transparent. Across Europe and the developed world, governments and their banking systems are insolvent: that’s the key to understanding why hordes of private wealth “need” to be seized by desperate governments. The “bail-in” of depositors in Cyprus in 2013 is just a foretaste of what is to come. And it won’t stop with just the “wealthy,” my dears. Remember the case of Argentina, in the 1930s one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Where is Argentina now, and how did it get there? Decades of ruinous Peronist populism, backed up by pseudo-intellectual Peronist hacks.

  • bannedforselfcensorship

    I’d imagine one way to reduce income inequality would be to eliminate the tax-free status of muni bonds.

    This would mean people like Sec. Kerry would have to start paying taxes on their fortunes.

    But I guarantee you that the Left will never, ever support this reform. They will claim the cities need that tax-free bonus to their bonds.

    So, guess what? Trust-funders will always have a way to avoid taxes. And it will be paying for the expansion of government.

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