Conservative Urbanism

 

shutterstock_153379958Over at Politico, Ethan Epstein of the Weekly Standard writes that Mesa, Arizona may be the model for conservative urbanism:

While it’s willing to make investments, Mesa is also lean in ways that more bloated liberal cities can’t boast. Take the City Council. Despite Mesa’s hefty population, council members are part-timers who have day jobs in fields from education to copper mining. City leaders also pay themselves considerably less than those in other cities do. Mesa City Council members make only $33,000 a year, and the mayor is paid only $73,000. (And those salaries represent the fruits of a big raise: Before last year, city councilmembers made less than $20,000 a year and the mayor earned only $36,000.)

But Mesa isn’t the only big city embracing conservative policies on a municipal level. Across the country, innovative mayors are showing that Republicans can govern urban areas effectively and innovatively—and indeed, that oftentimes they can execute traditionally “liberal” policies with greater discipline and efficacy than Democratic-run cities can manage.

Though I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting Mesa, I’m sure we have Ricochet members who either live there or are familiar with it, including our own Jon Gabriel. I’d love to hear more.

Some naysayers in the article’s comments point out that the town wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Hoover Dam, a large federal project. Ergo, the residents are hypocrites for living their small-government lives compliments of a large government project. My own very conservative, southern Appalachian area would likewise be different without the Tennessee Valley Authority, another big FDR project.

I once heard James Howard Kunstler — possibly the country’s most famous urbanist writer — describe Savannah, Georgia as his favorite American city (the only downside, according to Kunstler, is that the heat makes it feel like living inside a dog’s mouth.) I believe Savannah is relatively liberal despite being in Georgia, but it is interesting that these reddish states have acknowledged enclaves of urbanism.

Is conservative or libertarian-leaning urbanism different from its liberal counterpart? Should it be a bigger part of the movement?

Image Credit: Tim Roberts Photography.

There are 12 comments.

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  1. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    It’s great to see conservative/libertarian principles put into action.

    We also really need to figure out a way to appeal to urban voters; pastoralism isn’t a winning political strategy.

    • #1
  2. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    Some naysayers in the article’s comments point out that the town wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Hoover Dam, a large federal project. Ergo, the residents are hypocrites for living their small-government lives compliments of a large government project. My own very conservative, southern Appalachian area would likewise be different without the Tennessee Valley Authority, another big FDR project.”

    According to this train of thought, you would have to live in a hand-hewn log cabin using home made candles for lighting in order to not be a hypocrite. It’s truly amazing how stupid some arguments are.

    There is infrastructure there. Use it.

    • #2
  3. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Like.

    • #3
  4. Matty Van Inactive
    Matty Van
    @MattyVan

    Obviously I ‘like’ too. Waitin’ on all y’all’s thoughts on conservative/libertarian urbanism. Tom’s right. Pastoralism isn’t a winning strategy.

    • #4
  5. Mark Belling Fan Member
    Mark Belling Fan
    @MBF

    So far as I can tell from reading the Epstein article, the definition of “conservative urbanism” is direct democracy in the form of bond referendums for infrastructure projects. It’s hard for me to objectively judge the approach because I live in an urban area in the Midwest where general property taxes are already obscenely high. As a result, I am reflexively opposed to bond referendums that would get tacked on top.

    • #5
  6. user_75648 Thatcher
    user_75648
    @JohnHendrix

    MBF:So far as I can tell from reading the Epstein article, the definition of “conservative urbanism” is direct democracy in the form of bond referendums for infrastructure projects. It’s hard for me to objectively judge the approach because I live in an urban area in the Midwest where general property taxes are already obscenely high. As a result, I am reflexively opposed to bond referendums that would get tacked on top.

    My take is that citizens can be willing to tax themselves for specific projects. As Jonah Goldberg pointed out, citizens rationally resist tax increases when–in their experience–their leaders dissipate their tax money on, say, low-value projects that mostly reward political constituencies. Put another way, citizens just want to obtain some value for their tax money and–in defense of bond referendums–at least bond referendums give the citizens control over how the tax increase will be spent.

    That said, control doesn’t equal wisdom; citizens can decide poorly. That said, being a free people implies they have the liberty to mess-up their own societies.

    The light-rail station in the Epstein article is Exhibit A in the argument that the citizens of Mesa are capable of poor decisions. I will spare everyone the detailed explanation as to why light-rail is a fiscally terrible idea in every urban area that is not named Manhattan, but on just the money Mesa’s citizens are going to be losing on their light-rail service I could provide superior express bus service–complete with WIFI, TV, more frequent sorties and stewardesses–for the same fare as light-rail and STILL make the kind of financial killing associated with an inside job.

    • #6
  7. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    John Hendrix: I will spare everyone the detailed explanation as to why light-rail is a fiscally terrible idea in every urban area that is not named Manhattan, but on just the money Mesa’s citizens are going to be losing on their light-rail service I could provide superior express bus service–complete with WIFI, TV, more frequent sorties and stewardesses–for the same fare as light-rail and STILL make the kind of financial killing associated with an inside job.

    Reason had good looks into that a few years back and came to much the same conclusion: rail is often far too expensive and inflexibe compared to other options.

    • #7
  8. CuriousKevmo Member
    CuriousKevmo
    @CuriousKevmo

    I have been to Mesa on several occasions. Lovely place considering it is essentially an oven. The Hoover dam argument strikes me as somewhat specious….because these cities benefited from the Dam they are obligated to be liberal enclaves? How far from the Dam — geographically and/or temporally — must I be before I can manage my city frugally?

    Love the idea of a part time council. If I’m not mistaken that is how the Texas legislature works as well.

    Read not long ago that a city here in the east-bay-area of California having about 35,000 mostly affluent residents pays their mayor in excess of $300,000 /year. That seems insane to me.

    • #8
  9. user_216080 Thatcher
    user_216080
    @DougKimball

    Actually, Mesa benefits not so much from the Hoover Dam. They must be thinking Vegas, Baby. In any case, Mesa benefits from the Salt River Project. It is much the same as the TVA – a series of dams on the Salt River in the Superstition Mountains which provide power, flood control and water to the Valley of the Sun. About half the metro area gets its power from a public utility, APS, and the rest buy juice from SRP. Mesa gets most of its water from its own wells and the rest from SRP. SRP’s water was more important to Mesa some 30 years ago when it was rural and a big citrus and cotton producer. Those orchards are now developments as Mesa has become a city. It is not a suburb of Phoenix, but it’s own nexus just east ot Phoenix. The Central AZ Project (which brings water from the Colorado reservoirs north of the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams) provides water to the cities around Phoenix as well, but the western municipalities are more reliant on that source. Actually, Mesa, Chandler, Tempe and some other east valley cities paid to renovate and raise the Roosevelt Dam (the largest SRP dam) some 20 years ago and hence have priority with SRP for H2O.

    • #9
  10. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    The arguments about “dams” etc make little sense. The role of the government is to precisely provide for such “public goods”. No one is arguing that if there’s any role of government, then there can be no “conservative” policies.

    But of course, it only reflects the Left’s inability to understand the most basic argument: limited government. Not “no government”.

    Phoenix (and by extension Mesa) is the perfect example of a city which boomed because of pro-market conservative policies which attracted businesses and people to the middle of nowhere. Policies which didn’t start recently, but have been pretty steady over nearly a century.

    PS: I’m curious if the people who make the “dams and roads” argument are familiar as to who actually…pays…for those dams and roads (i.e. the taxpayers, i.e. people who work in companies and businesses), who build the machinery to build said dams and roads (Caterpillar isn’t a government owned enterprise last time I checked), and who provides the labor for these projects (private construction companies). All the government does is…coordinate all of this. So by what logic do they think that it is “government” that is responsible for all this?

    • #10
  11. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Admin
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.
    @jon

    Thanks for posting, Randal! I am a proud resident of Mesa, Arizona, and once upon a time worked for the city’s tiny communications shop. I even hosted a fascinating public affairs program on Mesa Channel 11 where I would give all the highlights of the biweekly City Council meetings. Never have zoning updates been quite so sexy (don’t worry, I kept the nudity tasteful).

    Although I didn’t support recent mayor Scott Smith in his gubernatorial run, he did an excellent job luring businesses and schools to the sprawling Phoenix suburb. The previous mayor was a skinflint libertarian who cut budgets to the bone and beyond just before the real estate bubble popped in 2008. While every other Sun Belt city spent the boom years accumulating staggering debts, all the tough choices had been made when Smith arrived. This allowed Mesa to handle the lean years far better than her neighbors.

    Smith did pursue public funding for things like the Cubs’ spring training facility. My libertarian impulse doesn’t care for such things, but unlike most pols, Smith insisted on a public vote before allocating a dime. He was honest every step of the way, bringing business, community and grassroots leaders on board. The Arts Center also was put to a vote where all the numbers were transparent.

    The light rail (which I also oppose) actually isn’t a bad financial deal for Mesa, all things considered. By paying for just a couple of miles of track, downtown Mesa will be connected to the rest of the region. We let our neighbors pay ~98% of the expense for a service we’ll get to use.

    There is no doubt that all city services are under much tighter control in Mesa than in union-run metropolii elsewhere. Since I returned to the private sector, there have been several city layoffs and I know of several subpar employees who were fired at other times.

    And for those saying it’s an oven here, you’re right for two months of the year. Mid-July to Mid-September is hellish but I love it the other 10 months. As do our many, many winter visitors from Canada and the Midwest.

    • #11
  12. Randal H Member
    Randal H
    @RandalH

    I grew up in mostly rural and small town areas. In high school, my goal was to move to Alaska and live in the sticks. I’ve always loved the outdoors, as my parents were frequent campers and my dad an avid fisherman. However, in college I spent a year as a work/study student in Germany and I discovered that I also loved urban life. I didn’t get the sense during that time that the urban environment was a conservative/liberal issue. Regardless of political leanings, urban life was considered the good life by most I came to know while there. I wound up marrying a German, and she still misses the ability to carry out her day without getting into a car. She’s not anti-car, it’s just that it has its place and that doesn’t include every activity that she performs. And I’m not even talking about things like light rail; I’m talking about walking as an integral part of daily life and the health benefits that come from not being sedentary.

    Still, we are happy with our living arrangement despite the fact that we would like to see more alternatives. I would like to think we could offer more traditional living arrangements for those that want them without all the corruption and expense that we currently experience in many urban areas. A significant portion of younger people, including my own two sons who have moved into a nearby moderately-sized downtown environment, are seeking those areas out. I’d rather they have alternatives beyond those offered by the Democrat/union spoils system.

    • #12

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