Not so fast, Blue America. This is our fault, too.
Here in the nation’s knowledge centers, polite opinion is aghast at voters in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin for plunging the country into four years under Donald Trump. Alas, enough Americans sense that things have gotten stuck, and somehow need unsticking, that even an erratic celebrity dilettante with scary white-power connections can get elected by tapping into public anxiety.
When millions of Americans think their paths are blocked, we should ask: What are the actual obstacles standing in their way?
Not long ago, two friends of mine down South came really close to moving to Massachusetts. They’re married. One of them had a great job offer. But the stratospheric cost of housing scared them away.
It’s not just Boston. They’d have run into similar problems in any of the country’s so-called superstar metros, like New York or San Francisco — which won’t allow enough housing to accommodate all the people who could live there happily and productively. In all these places, new construction lags because of endless permitting processes designed to protect existing residents from any future inconvenience, real or imagined. The diminished views, the shadows, the parking crunch, the din of new neighbors, the cost of educating other people’s children — there’s always some reason to turn new housing down.
Historically, Americans have viewed these issues as purely local concerns. For ambitious reporters, covering the zoning board is a starting point, not a destination. But what if our local policies are stinking up our national politics?
My two would-be Bostonian friends in Dixie aren’t Trump supporters, and they’ll fare just fine. But if a well-to-do professional couple like them — double income, no kids — can’t afford to relocate from the red states to the thriving coasts, what hope is there for underemployed workers who want to move closer to the action? As economist Matthew Kahn asked in a recent blog post, “Did California Zoning Cause the Trump Win?”
Americans used to move far more than we do now. According to a recent analysis of census data by economist Jed Kolko, overall mobility is at a record low. The rate of cross-state moves by adults of prime working age has rebounded since the recession, but it’s still considerably less than in the 1990s. This decline has many causes. Beyond the allure of home and the support system it provides, there’s real pain in pulling kids out of familiar schools. For dual-career couples, it’s tough to find two new jobs, not just one, in a distant city.
Yet it’s also true that, with the notable exception of Texas, the country’s most vibrant, tech-forward places keep putting up “keep out” signs.
It’s a huge stretch, of course, to blame zoning alone for the national mood, when a slew of other policy choices creates a feeling of paralysis. Occupational-licensing rules that were enacted in the name of public safety, in blue states and red states alike, make it harder for people leaving one career to enter another. Noncompete agreements that are supposed to protect intellectual property also keep people locked in jobs that don’t suit them and make it harder to negotiate for better wages.
Meanwhile, vital infrastructure doesn’t get built or updated because the approval process for big jobs is cumbersome. Also, there’s not enough money for it; today’s wealthy and upper-middle-income earners bristle even at tax rates far lower than when America was, in Trump’s view, still great.
But whose fault is all this? Mexico and China didn’t impose any of these policies on us. We did.
So what now? Late in President Obama’s tenure, his economic team embraced some ideas of the yes-in-my-backyard movement, which urges local governments to permit more housing. And of all people, a real-estate-developer-turned-president-elect should understand the need to make it easier to build.
Alas, the conservative populist revolts of yesteryear, such as California’s Proposition 13 and our Proposition 2½, have squeezed local governments in ways that make them less, not more, open to new housing construction. So far, Trump has been more prone to blame external enemies for the malaise he sees everywhere than, for instance, to ask people in nice neighborhoods to tolerate a few more housing units for the greater good.
Meanwhile, we blue-staters get to give ourselves a pass. Anyone lucky enough to own housing already gets to sit back and watch its value rise, even amid the uncertainty created by the shifting allegiances of Midwestern voters. In our reckoning of what happened this month, we can theorize about their anxieties over globalization, changing demographics, and the relentless march of labor-saving automation.
But let’s not forget the role we play, too, when we exercise veto power over other people’s futures.