At the End of the (Commuter) Line, It’s All About the Money [II]

by Martin Harris

We are in debt to turn-of-the-20th-century Chicago Progressive columnist Finley Peter Dunne for a number of quotes still in use today. Usually proffered in the then-recent-Irish-immigrant dialect of his fictional Mr. Dooley, they include such well-known items as the (often attributed to H.L. Mencken) advice-to-Fourth-Estaters that the job of newspapers is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” . Less well known is Mr. Dooley’s acerbic comment that “the Supreme Court follows the election returns”. In recent history Mr. Dooley was quoted frequently, as the legal ripples from the Brown v. Board of Education 1954 school-integration ruling led cities to attempt, in the 60’s and 70’s, to re-capture their then-new suburbs so as to capture the public schools and their enrollments for the necessary racial balancing. The first SCOTUS decisions on the subject were anti-forced-bussing; then, later ones were pro-; still later, as popular discontent grew –think Boston in the early 70’s and Kansas City in the late 70’s– the Supremes “followed the election returns” and re-adopted their 1954 (Brown v. Board) concept of limiting government mandates to the ending of de jure segregation but not interfering with de facto school enrollment percentages deriving from residential housing patterns. All this somewhat-ancient history may soon re-surface as urbanists pursuing “Regional Equity” will seek the ultimate legal justification, from SCOTUS, for enabling their cities to annex suburbs and exurbs, possible only by court rejection of predictable resistance by the “unfairly-undertaxed.”

You haven’t read much about the Regional Equity doctrine recently: author Stanley Kurtz argues in his new “Spreading the Wealth” book that its proponents are silent by design as they quietly put into place legal structures for restoring the powers-to-annex which cities enjoyed, primarily with State Legislature support, during most of the 19th century. But then middle-class urban flight, begun in the late 19th and early 20th, soon resulted in the new suburbanites doing their own incorporation to prevent urban re-capture. The Census Bureau, which has tracked Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (core population over 50,000) for a century, has now begun tracking “Micropolitan” or Core-Based Statistical Areas as well (core population over 10,000) , and for both categories the inclusion of adjacent counties is measured in terms of commuting intensity. In or adjacent to Vermont, typically counted as the most (or second-most) rural of States, there’s one SMSA (Burlington plus Chittenden, Franklin, and Grand Isle Counties) and five CBSA’s (Barre, Bennington, Berlin NH, Lebanon NH, and Rutland), which include six more VT counties, for a sub-total of nine. Only the five remaining VT counties of the 14 total are, by these measures, still truly rural. Now that Beyond-the-Urban-Boundary non-farm economies have, by clear statistical majority, divorced themselves from central-city locations, jobs, services, and commerce, and most BUB residents don’t commute downtown any more, Census Bureau re-definition of SMSA’s and CBSA’s is inevitable. Then even rural counties will be deemed targets-of-taxable-value by urbanist politicians eager to capture non-urban wealth wherever they can find it, not just in the commuting-defined SA counties which, under present rules, are at more legal risk of forced annexation by central cities than rural counties. The “Regional Equity” campaign is all about the money, even though it’s phrased in terms of re-distributive fairness/“equity”. To disguise the money-pursuit, it’s also about the benefits of suburbanization for selected urbanite populations: think adult housing-seekers and juvenile school-students. The Supreme Court never ordered BUB counties to provide jobs for urbanite job-seekers, but it frequently ordered and/or enabled local judges to order BUB counties to provide dispersed K-12 classroom seats for non-BUB students and dispersed subsidized housing for non-BUB adults. With that legal history, it’s understandable that “Regional Equity” is frequently demanded in terms of school-enrollment management; no longer the popularly-reviled forced bussing of the 70’s, but this time by means of regional-government power to urbanize BUB populations and suburbanize selected inner-city populations so that their children will enroll in urban and suburban schools in proper percentages. Yes, RE is about capturing and re-distributing money; in its execution, it’s also about capturing and re-distributing power.

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For the urbanist RE argument to prevail, it must convince audiences that cities and suburbs are inseparable; that BUB-dwellers are permanently central-city dependent; that BUB-dweller seeming independence is at best non-existent and at worst selfish and racist; and that Regional Equity via regional governance will benefit both urbanites and BUB-dwellers. All these assertions are in such pro-RE books as “Place Matters” by Peter Dreier et al, and “Cities Without Suburbs” by David Rusk. Dreier p. 75 writes that “it makes no more sense to talk about suburban independence from central cities than it does to talk about the head being independent from the stomach.” Rusk p. 104 writes disparagingly of “little boxes” (town governments) and that such local control results in “little or no net increase in resources for central cities”. On p.108 he writes that “it is important to have good municipal annexation laws as tools to improve a city’s elasticity” because, otherwise, there’s “ a very severe limitation placing a city’s expansion at the mercy of suburban developers and residents.” Both authors accuse suburbs of white-flight racism, and both choose to acknowledge (albeit briefly) the black middle-class flight pattern without acknowledging the racism-argument problem it creates. Both mention the “culture of poverty” phenomenon –various anti-social behaviors more prevalent in under-class societies than in middle-class ones– and both deny its existence. Therefore, neither mentions the many charts and tables in Charles Murray’s books on class and behavior which disprove their denials and explain middle-class departure for suburbia –first white, then black—in irrefutable statistical terms. But both recognize the “culture” in arguing that it is altered for the better in mixed neighborhoods, where a governmentally- introduced under-class will be behaviorally-improved by adjacency to the mores of a middle-class population. The pioneering effort began in the lame-duck months of the Carter Presidency, when for the first time the Justice Department linked school and housing discrimination in one 1980 case: the demand for dispersal of public housing out of downtown Yonkers, NY (a close-in NYC suburb in southern Westchester County) and into its more affluent middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods. The Court Plan was enacted; the targetted Yonkers-ites fled, taking their school-children with them. More next week.