A Consumer's Republic

Suburban Snow Job
New books dissected over email.
Feb. 19 2003 2:35 PM

A Consumer's Republic

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Dear Jim,

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It might be worth noting for our readers that you and I are snowed under at opposite ends of an infrastructure-debilitating blizzard. I've been through half a dozen of these in my life, and every time, I hear the same near-unanimous opinion: Whatever the inconvenience—the soggy tramping to public transportation to get to work, the dragging back by sled of (precious!) staples from the (nearest!) grocery store—the suddenly carless snowstorm existence is a social improvement on the day-to-day life we lead in normal weather. You spend time with your family, and you meet your neighbors (enriching the ones who own stores and their children who own snow shovels). Granted, I have always lived in small towns or cities, places where a blizzard is survivable. This snowstorm might look different if I lived in a subdivision off an eight-lane highway. But that's just the point Philip Larkin makes when he writes:

... all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.

Most things are never meant.
This won't be, most likely: but greeds
And garbage are too thick-strewn
To be swept up now, or invent
Excuses that make them all needs.

I bring this up because at heart Cohen's book is an attack on suburbia, an attack to which I'm sympathetic on urban-planning grounds. What I'm less sympathetic to is her conviction that this new landscape requires a brand-new politics, a "citizen consumer" politics. To my mind, such a politics would merely plop a whole new dangerous layer of unintended consequences on top of the ones to which suburbanization itself gave rise.

In today's opinion climate, it is easy to sneer at the suburbanites who fought to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods. The more so since Cohen shows the texture of these racial confrontations in a way that is deeply embarrassing to a complacent Northerner like myself. It's curious, for instance—without being surprising—that the most ferocious opposition to racial integration, at least in New Jersey's Essex County, came in "affordable" suburbs like Clifton, which remained 99.9 percent white.

But I think that federal programs, more than residents, are to blame. One of the results of that raft of initiatives we described yesterday (not to mention the mortgage-interest tax deduction) is that virtually the entire middle class wound up with all its financial eggs in the basket of its mortgages. This vulnerability focuses the mind, and not in idealistic ways. When a middle-class black family tried to move into Levittown, Pa., in 1957, one neighbor said of the father, "He's probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him I see a $2,000 drop off the value of my house."

It must be stressed that these suburbanites were playing for high stakes under ironclad rules that were brand-new. To ask these new New Jerseyites for an idealistic response was to ask that they gamble their life savings on the social "vision" of well-connected political activists like Cohen and the pressure groups she supports. Maybe that was a reasonable thing to ask. But this looked like a bad financial bet, and in fact it was. To leaf through Jonathan Rieder's Canarsie, which describes demographic change in Brooklyn, or  Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon's The Death of an American Jewish Community, which does the same for Boston, is to learn that those who hung in there against the incentives to white flight could suffer horrible consequences, financial and otherwise. (As did Swede Levov in Philip Roth's American Pastoral, to take a novel that Cohen cites admiringly.)

Let's admit, too, that there was very little residential racial integration in America at war's end—so the subsequent segregation in new communities is better thought of as a tragically blown opportunity than as a regression. The same cannot be said of the class centrifuge through which the postwar suburbanites were whipped. Cohen is right to mourn the disappearance of neighborhoods where employers lived side-by-side with their employees. (Although we should not ignore that this is occurring in cities and small towns, too, for a variety of unrelated reasons.) That this was a regression is something it often takes a blizzard to reveal, as stockbrokers and chiropractors pay the price of not living within walking distance of a corner grocery run by Italian immigrants.

Since New Jersey in the 1940s and 1950s was in the midst of a political and demographic cyclone, the key question about Cohen's homeowners has to be the same one Richard Hofstadter asked about Populist farmers in his magisterial Age of Reform: whether they were unreasonable because they were vulnerable or vulnerable because they were unreasonable.

Cohen is to be faulted for assuming the latter. She refers to the activity of school boards and planning boards and local taxation authorities as "localism," even picking up Robert Wood's description of a "cult of localism." Localism, she notes condescendingly, "has a long history in the United States"—as if she were discussing some rustic curiosity like dandelion wine or clog-dancing or scrimshaw, and not the constitutional pith of our existence as a free people.

Cohen is good at picking instances in which localism has been used to dodge, not impose, political accountability. Look at her account of how mall-building interacted with provision of public services in Paramus and Bergen. A community can build stores that suck customers away from other communities, pocketing tax revenues for itself while drying it up elsewhere, while proclaiming that paying for the traffic problems the mall creates is someone else's business. And even in abstract terms, we can see the strength of her idea of the marketplace as an alternative political space. Capitalist models assume that people never operate in a market collectively, and they never operate in it consciously—i.e., to game it or to reform it.

But to start using the marketplace for politics is the surest way to enter what you have called a "vicious circle." You asked yesterday what I thought the conservative view of the GI Bill's family-orientation was. If you were asking whether the "conservative" support of the untrammeled free market is at odds with much of its "values" agenda, I'd say definitely yes. (In fact, I wrote a column to that effect in the Financial Times this morning.)

But I tend to think that hard-line supply-side free-market thinking is more a fad than a necessary constituent part of the conservative agenda. We've been subjected to a lot of George Gilder-style talk over the last quarter-century about "unleashing" this and "liberating" that and "freeing" the overburdened entrepreneur. Such economics probably can't be imposed on Really Existing Capitalism without catastrophic fallout, and the number of rank-and-file conservatives who believe it can is dwindling toward nil. The great argument in favor of not mucking about with the marketplace—and this can be a linchpin of conservative politics—is that such forbearance insulates us against the kind of unintended consequences that are visible all over New Jersey.

(And, having said that, I cannot close without adding that New Jersey has always been one of my very favorite states in the union. It is rich, it is pretty, it consistently produces interesting, elegant, and well-educated people, and the high level of local control in its political institutions strikes me as more boon than bane. It is clearly doing something right.)

It's been a pleasure.

All best,
C.

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