Lit Crit

The Rent May Be Too Damn Low

March 14, 2012

Multiple Pages
The Rent May Be Too Damn Low

On May 14, 2011, Matthew Yglesias, a prominent Washington, DC liberal blogger and proponent of urban living, was walking home alone after a dinner with fellow pundits when he became the victim of an apparent anti-white racial hate crime. In what sounds like a game of Knockout King or Polar Bear Hunting, “a couple of dudes ran up from behind, punched me in the head, then kicked me a couple of times before running off” without stealing anything. This shameful attack happened merely a mile from the US Capitol Building.

Four decades ago, a popular witticism was that a conservative was “a liberal who got mugged the night before.” Today, the rules of crimethink have grown rigid enough that even getting mugged doesn’t seem to have put much of a dent in Yglesias’s worldview, judging from his new e-book The Rent Is Too Damn High.

This is a downloadable file priced at $3.99 for what’s in effect a long magazine article without the slick graphics that would accompany, say, an Atlantic  cover story. Yglesias offers a lucid technocratic argument against the ever-growing web of government regulations—zoning, environmental, preservationist, and parking—that retard the construction of apartment buildings, especially high-rises, in America’s most desirable locations, even in Yglesias’s beloved native Manhattan.

“The trouble with living in a low-rent neighborhood is having low-rent neighbors.”

Iglesias seems to think that if only real estate developers were freed to Build, Baby, Build, we would enjoy a low-rent golden age.

Like David Brooks, Yglesias is a member of what might jokingly be called the Shadow Steveosphere: public intellectuals who find themselves both intrigued and troubled by my contention that public discussion of the patterns we all notice in our daily lives should inform even the most august policy debates.

Much of The Rent Is Too Damn High is thus influenced by my articles on affordable family formation: how the increasing cost of the old American Dream of a home in a decent school district discourages marriage among all but the upper middle class. Hence, I’m sympathetic and mostly impressed. 

Still, the fundamental reason that Yglesias’s white progressive friends will never pay more than lip service to his policy prescription is so palpable—but goes largely unstated in his e-book—that The Rent Is Too Damn High is most interesting as a symptom of the growing emasculation of intellectual discourse. 

Consider gentrifier’s guilt. This is the oft-expressed complaint among affluent whites moving into DC’s once-black neighborhoods that the diversity that attracted them in the first place is disappearing, and that, really, something ought to be done about it before every black household in Washington, other than maybe the Obamas, has moved to Baltimore. 

Yglesias comes to their rescue with a logical solution for his friends’ laments (and with a Harvard degree in philosophy, he’s good at logic): There’s room in the sky for everybody! Presumably, those guys who brutalized Yglesias could have a cheap 47th-floor apartment with a killer view of the National Mall.

And what about the School Achievement Gap? 

But we only rarely ask why it is that poor families can’t afford to move to nice suburbs. It’s not because construction costs are higher in the suburbs. It’s because it’s frequently illegal to build the kind of dense apartment buildings that could accommodate lower-income families.

Just think how these good schools will be able to salve their scholastic goodness all over the poor children who have moved into the new Blade Runner-like tower blocks in once exclusive suburbs.

It’s easy to make up other reasons for implementing the Yglesias Plan, such as the Obesity Crisis. As you may have noticed, the typical resident of high-rent places such as San Francisco, Santa Monica, and Park Slope is more slender than the diabetic denizens of Nowheresville. It’s a national tragedy that the poor slobs can’t afford to move to Georgetown, Cambridge, Palo Alto, or Aspen.

And what about the 165 million foreigners who according to the Gallup Poll want to immigrate to America? Have you noticed that “if the Golden State were as dense on average as New Jersey over 188 million people would live there?” Think how much global carbon emissions would be reduced by importing vast numbers of Third Worlders and stacking them high. (We wouldn’t have to worry about them trying to get away, would we? Mexicans love high-rises, public transportation, and vegetable oil-powered Priuses, and they hate exurban sprawl and gas-guzzling pickup trucks, right?) 

So why haven’t nice, well-educated white liberals told the hinterlands to give them their tired, their poor, their Size XXXL masses yearning to live cheap? Why instead have they erected countless roadblocks to cheap housing?

Because the trouble with living in a low-rent neighborhood is having low-rent neighbors. 

Therefore, most of the bugs that the Yglesias Plan intends to fix are instead its features.


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