Central Planning in America

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Dec. 12 2013 8:02 AM

Central Planning in America

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Parking

Photo by Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

Most people think that they think that Soviet-style economic central planning is a bad idea. They generally think it's not just a bad idea but a discredited idea. One that has almost no support in America today. But there are important exceptions to this rule. There is an overwhelming unquestioned bipartisan consensus in the United States of America that the correct way to decide how many parking spaces new developments ought to have is for the zoning code to specify a quantity and then for developers who want to build a different quantity to go begging to politicians for relief.

Are members of the Rockville, Md., town council experts in real-estate development? In parking management? Are they putting their own money on the line in the success or failure of projects in the center of their town? Of course not! Nonetheless:

Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton said she attended the Christmas tree lighting recently and was unable to find a parking space in Town Center. Councilman Tom Moore said he would like to get a briefing on Town Center parking from city staff before making a decision.
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And:

Councilwoman Virginia Onley said the proposed parking reduction was her biggest concern with Duball’s plan. In Petworth, she said, some apartment residents have a Safeway downstairs. In Rockville, Town Center residents have to get in their cars to go to Safeway.

Suppose other kinds of business decisions were made this way. Maybe someone wants to open a burger joint in Rockville, but he doesn't want to serve milkshakes. One councilman says the last time he wanted to get a milkshake there was a very long line, so obviously the new burger place must serve milkshakes. Another councilman protests that he doesn't even like burgers. Aren't more people vegetarians these days?

Market forces aren't good at everything. But striking a balance between the demand for some service (parking) and the cost (including opportunity costs) of providing it is exactly what market forces are good at. And yet somehow when it comes to parking spaces no politician in America is radical enough to suggest that the solution is to build as much parking as people want to pay for.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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