Jasper Smith

Commentary on politics, economics, culture and sports.

Archive for the ‘Cities’ Category

Progressive Hicks in the New England Sticks

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Via Yglesias, here’s a cool map demonstrating granular county level voting patterns. Matt writes:

…the Republican parts of the country form a largely contiguous bloc while Obamaland is an incredibly fragment archipelego…it’s an interesting dramatization of the Democrats’ base in cities and inner suburbs. I wonder if anyone’s familiar with any good work on what accounts for the anomalously progressive views of rural New England. What’s the matter with Maine?

I think one way to answer that question is to look into who really is “rural” in New England and who isn’t. Maine certainly seems a pretty rural place when you’re driving through it, but Portland, Augusta, Lewiston, Bangor etc are perhaps more accurately described as urban — even though individually they’re pretty small urban areas. Heck, I suspect something like half of Maine’s population is within plausible commuting distance to greater Boston (not downtown Boston, mind you, but an office park in Andover, MA is a feasible commute for someone living near Kittery or York). This is doubly true for New Hampshire, whose southern portion — where nearly everybody lives — really is a bonafide extension of the Boston suburbs.

My point is, northern New England appears rural, but its genuinely rural parts are home to vanishingly small numbers of voters. The vast majority of voters in the region actually reside in small cities, or liberal college towns, or in the exurban spillover of Boston.

Even highly dense Massachusetts is a good example. The portion of the state west of Worcester makes up something like half the land area, but something like 10-15% of the population. If you remove Pittsfield, Northampton, Springfield and Amherst, you’re down to what, two or three percent of the state’s population? You’ll no doubt find a decent number of Limbaugh fans from amongst this small cohort, but they’re not sufficiently numerous to nudge Western Massachusetts’s political culture rightwards.

I know the image of the reasonable, centrist/liberal, libertarian Yankee living in the wilds of New England is a comforting one to us liberals, but as a life long New Englander, I doubt it’s a very real image.

Written by Jasper

November 11, 2008 at 3:58 pm

Planes, trains and automobiles

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Ross reacts to Huckabee’s pander to suburban voters proposal to double the width of I-95:

…America’s transportation infrastructure simply hasn’t kept pace with our population growth, our average commuting time has tripled in the last twenty-five years, and our country needs those extra lanes of traffic. Families need them. Businesses need them. Suburban and exurban voters – the swing vote in elections these days – need them. I understand all the “bridge to nowhere”/Big Dig fears on the porkbusting right, but his is an issue that a sensible pro-business, pro-family Republican Party ought to own – particularly since transportation earmarks, which blossom in the absence of a concerted strategy for improving national infrastructure, are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Ross’s thoughts got the inevitable thread going on the evils of the automobile, and the superiority of trains. But I’ve tended to be of the opinion that choosing between the two is, well, a false choice.

I’m all for congestion pricing, carbon taxation, and sundry other schemes to account for externalities and reduce cost shifting. It seems to me however, that to a large extent, we need not choose between better highway infrastructure and more and faster trains. We can have both, given a sufficiently robust financial commitment.

Now, obviously not every part of the country is a suitable candidate for inter-city fast trains. And not every part of the country needs major highway improvements, either. But my sense is the denser parts of the country need and could make use of both. Because the thing is, in many of the parts of Europe that have excellent rail service (I’m thinking Germany, the Low Countries, Britain, France), they also have superb highways.

Given enough density, it makes economic sense to have both great highways and great trains. In America we’re simply too averse to a robust, well-funded public sector for there to be a realistic chance at emulating our across-the-pond cousins.

Written by Jasper

January 25, 2008 at 1:44 pm

Declining cities and vicious circles

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There’s been a lot of talk lately — indeed it’s renewed talk as we slide into hard times and deal with the foreclosure crisis — about the decline of American rust belt cities. I’ve long held the view that we truly exacerbate our urban ills with bad public policy choices — or at least bad public policies born out of accidents of history.

It’s clear to me that, in America at least, local governance — and especially the way local governance is financed — contributes to the sort of longer-term, truly pernicious urban decline apparent in places like Detroit and Cleveland, or in some of the smaller cities in my own backyard such as Lawrence or Brockton. I would argue it is bad policy to require a municipality to raise the bulk of its revenue from its own local economy. It would be wiser for all revenues to be raised at the state level; the economy of an entire state is larger than that of a municipality, after all, and therefore subject to less volatility. Raising all local governance money in a centralized fashion at the state level — and then distributing funds back to municipalities on a per capita basis — would help deteriorating cities resist decline. Under status quo arrangements (which typically require municipalities to rely heavily on the property values within their borders to finance local services), once economic decline sets in, it is often next to impossible to reverse, as a vicious circle is set off: A flagging economy and declining population reduce property values, which in turn decimates tax collections, which in turn makes it difficult to pay for adequate schools, infrastructure and public safety, which in turn exacerbates the economic decline and population exodus…

Centralized, state-level funding of local governance isn’t a magic bullet. But it is a concept that ought to seriously be considered as a means of arresting the seemingly inexorable decline of America’s hardest-pressed cities

Written by Jasper

November 18, 2007 at 11:51 pm

Posted in Cities, Economics, Policy