A filing cabinet of human lives
Where people swarm like bees in tunneled hives,
Each to his own cell in the covered comb,
Identical and cramped — we call it home.
– Apartment House, by Gerald Raftery
The conventional wisdom among America’s liberals, often seconded and almost never challenged by conservatives, is that population growth in the United States should be channeled as much as possible into the footprint of existing cities. Surrounding cities should be “greenbelts,” suburban growth should be rejected as unsustainable “sprawl,” and human settlement in areas defined as the “urban/wildland interface” should be discouraged and whenever possible reversed.
This movement towards increasing the population density of cities and reducing population in rural areas is already enshrined in numerous state laws in California, and is quietly rolling across the rest of the nation. It is marketed as enlightened, environmentally sustainable urban planning, but this moral pretext obscures a self-serving density agenda that is shared by several powerful special interests. Among all the misanthropic trends in public policy that threaten the freedom and prosperity of ordinary Americans, the density agenda is probably the least discussed.
Before considering how population densification serves the interests of America’s economic and political elites, it’s important to recognize how it will fundamentally undermine the ability of American individuals and communities to retain their freedom and independence. You don’t have to reference Agenda 2030 – about which it is now almost impossible to find any negative commentary online – to understand how easily a population can be controlled when it is relocated and concentrated into a handful of megacities.
Back in the 1990s, a few years before the end of apartheid in South Africa, I remember speaking with someone who had just returned from a tour of that country. He commented on his impressions of the densely populated black townships that were adjacent to every major city.
“They’ve got them all bottled up tight as sardines in a can,” he said, “nice and neat, so whenever they want, they can zap them all.”
This image, which corresponds to a population density exceeding 20,000 people per square mile, reveals how blacks in Soweto were pushed into packed neighborhoods where they could easily be contained in the event of mass civil unrest.
In America, even this population density is frowned upon by enlightened environmentalists. After all, these people lived in “single family dwellings,” which are themselves “exclusionary” and “unsustainable.” In California, and against the odds, politically connected developers are still able to continue to build limited numbers of single family dwellings, because if they can afford them, free standing individual homes are the overwhelming choice of families.
Featured below is an aerial photo of such a development in Sacramento, California’s state capital and one of the citadels of green extremism. Note the lot size. These 40′ x 80′ lots are precisely the same size as those in Soweto. How they are evaluated by mainstream commentators bespeaks a blithe hypocrisy. In Soweto, such neighborhoods were variously described as concentration camps where people were confined and subjected to inhumane crowding. In Sacramento, these neighborhoods are under attack as environmentally incorrect “sprawl,” as laws and zoning increasingly favor multi-family dwellings.
It is economics that drive the density agenda, however, not concern for the planet. Chief among these economic imperatives is to render housing barely affordable. By reducing the supply of housing at the same time as the U.S. population is relentlessly increased via loose immigration policies, a shortage is created which drives up prices. In turn, by perpetually inflating the value of real estate, new asset collateral is created. This helps balance the U.S. trade deficit, as foreign investors repatriate dollars by buying expensive American real estate. It also enables an ongoing U.S. trade deficit, as homeowners are seduced into borrowing against their home equity in order to purchase imported consumer products. The macroeconomic scheme whereby Americans retain the unique ability to print as much currency as they want and monetize the world with dollars purchasing foreign goods is sustained, in large part, by keeping the value of U.S. real estate artificially high.
That isn’t the only reason to cram people into the footprint of existing cities and jack up the cost of all housing through engineered shortages. Another powerful driver of these hidden agenda behind density policies is the interests of public sector unions and public utilities. Public sector unions always benefit when public infrastructure spending is restricted because of environmental concerns. Instead of investing public funds to build and upgrade reservoirs, aqueducts, and freeways, public agencies can allocate more of their budgets to increasing the pay and benefits for public sector workers. Local public sector fiefdoms also benefit when the population is increased in existing jurisdictions; in the past, the integrity of existing suburbs would not be violated, and instead, new cities outside established jurisdictions would gain those new residents and collect the new tax revenue.
Public sector utilities have a powerful financial incentive to embrace the density agenda, and its intimate sibling, the renewables agenda. When people are forced to ration energy and water, at the same time as more people are crammed into existing neighborhoods, the same utility grids – water, power, and wastewater – can be employed without costly expansion. Never mind that residents will now be restricted to 40 gallons of indoor water use per day, or pay to have expensive dual water meters installed so bureaucrats can impose and monitor an outdoor “water budget.” Never mind that renewable electricity flowing through smart meters will cost households $.50 cent or more per kilowatt-hour during peak demand, or that there will no longer be enough wastewater flowing through the sewer pipes to move the effluent. Public utilities will deliver less units of everything, but charge far more. Their revenue will go up even as their deliveries go down, and since their earnings are restricted to a regulated percent of total revenue, they will make more profit than ever.
The density agenda is the product of intersecting benefits that attract a powerful coalition of special interests. In almost every sector of the economy, monopolistic corporate special interests have navigated a profitable path that furthers the shared agenda. When environmentalist inspired regulations make it almost impossible to get building permits, public entities collect higher fees and favored developers build homes they can sell for more money and more profit. When environmentalists litigate to stop construction of a new reservoir, public agencies retain the funds for more internally remunerative uses, and the possibility of new home construction is diminished because without access to water, new homes cannot get built. When homes are too expensive for most families to afford, institutional investors roll in and buy whole subdivisions and rent them all, depriving Americans of what throughout our history was the most reliable way to build generational wealth.
It is crucial to understand the collaborative role of the high tech industry in all this. Property management by institutional investors, along with operation of modern appliances by individual homeowners, will be facilitated by appliances connected to the internet and algorithmically monitored. Tech firms will secure perpetual and lucrative new revenue streams supplying hardware components for this entire surveillance panopticon, along with collecting fees for mandatory and frequent software updates. Remember the bored Maytag repair man? Those days are done. Technological “upgrades” to enable ultra-efficient appliances means you’ll replace your refrigerator, washer, dryer, dishwasher, hot water heater, and every other durable good as often as you replace your smart phone. Planned obsolescence, masquerading as green and empowering, is the new normal.
Rationing, in all its forms, and seldom ever referred to by that name, rewards the entrenched elite and harms everyone else.
Banks, institutional investors, mega housing developers, international corporations, tech heavyweights, public utilities and public agencies all prefer high density. Environmentalism provides cover.
None of this is meant to disparage legitimate expressions of environmentalism. If one wishes to ignore the economic reasons for the high density movement, and ascribe to density proponents purely enlightened motivations, then this comes down to two competing visions of environmentalism and sustainability.
One of them recognizes the importance of building enabling infrastructure so small investors and individual families can afford to live however they wish. Some will prefer the amenities of a densely populated urban core, and others will prefer the ambience of spacious suburbs. But the notion that Americans are running out of the room or resources to build new suburbs is as delusional as the notion that only a “smart” appliance can achieve acceptable levels of efficiency and sustainability. All too often, these are merely opportunistic lies, endlessly parroted by journalists who have never examined the objective facts.
The prevailing vision of environmentalism today, unfortunately, caters to a global oligarchy. They have decided it is in their interests, along with the interests of the planet – most definitely in that order – to preach imminent doom. Stack and pack, do it for the earth, and laugh all the way to the bank.
This article originally appeared on the website American Greatness.
Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Greatness, and a regular contributor to the California Globe. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, and other media outlets.
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