In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Wal-Mart: The End of Civilization As We Know It? | Main | The Newspaper of the Future »

November 13, 2006

Choice or Not?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Donald's recent posting about Wal-Mart has got me wondering about a question I often chew on.

To what extent is what Donald aptly called the "freewayscape" life a product of people making choices? And to what extent are the people living freewayscape lives simply accepting what the government and the corporations are handing out?

On the one hand: Nobody who inhabits a McMansion, who shops at a big-box store, or who spends hours a day on the freeway is doing so because a gun is being held to his head. On the other hand, in many parts of the country it isn't as though alternatives to the freewayscape life are handily available. A person who might prefer to live in a walkable urban- or town-like situation might very well be unable to find such an option.

Similar questions seem to hold with food, don't they? To what extent are the food processors, distributors, and retailers serving wants and desires, and to what extent are they forcing crap on a herdlike and captive populace? After all, no one is being obliged to shop at any given store, let alone choose any given product. Yet isn't it beyond-naive to think that the food companies aren't doing their awe-inspiring best to get us to contribute to their bottom line, our health and our pleasure be damned?

Sweeteners are one way to focus the question. Americans buy scads of sweetened foods. Sweet tastes good! Yet consuming too many sweets isn't, healthwise, the finest thing. Do we buy so many sweetened products because we're totally-free, well-informed people asserting our Real Preferences? Or are we, to some extent, a busy, distracted people letting corporations (and their government lackeys) take advantage of our biologically-programmed weaknesses?

And what to make of the very awkward fact that corn-sweetener production in America is subsidized by the federal government?

Here's a passage from an article by Eric ("Fast Food Nation") Schlosser that illustrates how messy these questions can become:

Despite a fondness for free-market rhetoric, the country's large food companies -- ConAgra, Archer Daniels Midland, McDonald's, Kraft -- have benefited enormously from the absence of real competition. They receive, directly and indirectly, huge subsidies from the federal government. About half of the annual income earned by U.S. corn farmers now comes from government crop-support programs. Cheap corn is turned into cheap fats, oils, sweeteners, and animal feed. Nearly three-quarters of the corn grown in the United States is fed to livestock, providing taxpayer support for inexpensive hamburgers and chicken nuggets. On the other hand, farmers who grow fresh fruits and vegetables receive few direct subsidies.

Emphases mine, mine, all mine! BTW, if you don't have time to read "Fast Food Nation" -- and it is, IMHO, a good and interesting book if, sigh, far too long -- this article is a swell intro to Schlosser's point of view and information.

Are the food corporations a bunch of nice, hard-working people playing by the rules as they do their best to satisfy customers? Or is the food biz more accurately imagined as an overwhelming juggernaut willing to ruin our waistlines and our health in the pursuit of profits?

This walk through a supermarket in the company of "food ecologist" Marion Nestle seems to me a level-headed look at what we're confronted by when we go shopping for food. A typical passage:

Nestle: We're in the milk section now. It's getting harder and harder to find plain old milk.

Sierra magazine: Look -- fat-free half-and-half! Half what and half what?

Nestle: Good question. Here's the label: "nonfat milk, milk, corn-syrup solids, artificial color" -- yuck! -- "sugar," and then assorted junk.

Sierra: Corn syrup in milk?

Nestle: It's to make it seem like half-and-half when it is actually creamless. This is a sweetened milk product, just like nearly all yogurts these days. They're just dairy desserts with a health mystique.

But maybe this article, like the Schlosser, will strike some readers as over-the-top.

The New Urbanism provides another example of conceptual muddiness. It's quite possible to see the New Urbers as a bunch of Hillary clones, doing their top-down-lovin' best to legislate taste. There certainly are some New Urbers doing what they can to populate government regulatory agencies.

On the other hand: Who are we kidding? For one thing, the already-existing real-estate and housing industries have been complicit with the government for decades. Should the New Urbers be kept from the trough that their competitors are pigging out on? Besides, what most feet-on-the-ground New Urbers are spending their time doing is trying to get locales to loosen up already-existing top-down regulations that make it impossible for New Urbanist developments to be created.

In other words, it's quite possible to picture New Urbers not as Hillary clones but as hard-working merchants trying to introduce an appealing new product into an overregulated, semi-monopolistic market. Perhaps they aren't enemies of the free market; perhaps they're exemplars and champions of it instead. Proof of the pudding: Where they have succeeded in beating back some regulations and opening up market opportunities, the housing product that New Urbers offer -- ie., New Urbanist developments -- have been so successful that the conventional real-estate-and-housing business has begun to copycat them.

Life: She is a complicated thing.

My own small contribution to this perennial discussion is to wonder whether it's profitable to frame and argue the debate out as choice-vs-control in the first place. Isn't that a bit of a childish, black-and-white cartoon? And doesn't it do a severe injustice to the many shadings of reality that we encounter every day?

Maybe we'd do better to think of the matter as one that involves many potential kinds of regulatory schemes. That would seem to leave us examining these schemes one by one, and then asking ourselves which of them might lead to the kinds of outcomes that we might prefer. (Without violating our basic principles, of course.)

Preference: Aha! Looking at these questions through this lens leaves me where I often am on this blog: wanting more people to acknowledge how important the role of preference and taste -- ie., aesthetics -- is in the ways we live. Enough with the phrase "mere aesthetics", sez I! The aesthetics-discussion has no reason to grovel around, acting deferential! Let's stop being so damn apologetic about what gives us real pleasure! After all, if we're going to make the system serve our druthers, we first need to discover and then assert those druthers.

So: Are Americans freely choosing the lives they lead as commuters, suburban-pod dwellers, and ever-blimpier big-box shoppers? Or are they ... 1) Kind of making do with what the powers-that-be offer up? And perhaps even ... 2) Spending their lives as cannon-fodder in the service of big business and big government?

Here's Marion Nestle's website. By the way, I'd never claim that Nestle, Critser, or Schlosser have all the answers. I do, however, think that they all make worthwhile contributions to a valuable discussion.

I blogged about "Fast Food Nation" here and here, and about Greg Critser's "Fat Land" here.



posted by Michael at November 13, 2006


Hey, MB, I was actually going to send you a private email on exactly this topic -- the free choice of a profoundly ugly physical infrastructure in this country. As I see it, your libertarian / capitalist and your aesthetic sides are in conflict in ways you haven't totally worked out. It doesn't take much taste to see how ugly our malled-out, autocentric suburbs are. Yet I think there is a real sense in which they are freely chosen. Most metro areas do have walkable urban-type neighborhoods available *somewhere*; either close to the central city or in "inner-ring" suburbs constructed before WWII. (The latter can actually be very beautiful and are an underappreciated resource IMO). But I think it is pretty clear that when offered the choice the public usually rejects those options in favor of maximally-convenient yet ugly newer construction optimized for the automobile. I have seen data on population growth over the past two decades that shows the overwhelming majority taking place in distant suburbs; inner ring suburbs much smaller; central cities hardly anything. (The data is in a magazine at home, no access to it now). I have seen this same phenomenon in various places I have lived, especially in Northeast and Midwest cities.

Part of this has to do with bad central city government and higher crime rates. In areas I have lived in, there seems to be a very strong effect of raw (usually exaggerated) fear and of minority populations. But that is as much effect as cause IMO. Crime is higher and government is bad in these areas because the responsible middle class doesn't choose to live there. This is where free-market economics starts to show conceptual stress, by the way. Choices about where to live and how to build have massive externalities; they affect not just the individual making the choice but many other people as well. If you want to shift patterns of population location and neighborhood construction you need to coordinate many individual choices at once. Otherwise it will be the best choice to "follow the crowd" even if you wish the crowd was going in a different direction.

I don't think this is solely an American phenomenon, by the way. If you have spent any time in France, for instance, you may have seen the incredibly ugly suburban developments around Paris and other cities. Europe has much better and more desirable central cities than the U.S. because of their historical heritage; the rich often live there. But the new construction is no better.

Posted by: MQ on November 13, 2006 3:31 PM

Oh, we have tussled over this before :) Not everyone shares the same aesthetic. When I leave my Boston-ish neighborhood (which I like, by the way, with it's Howard Zinn toting bookstores and Al Gore movie showing deco theater and Trader Joes) to visit my brother in West Des Moines, I, er, actually really like it too. I like both for different aesthetic reasons. I like the SuperTarget, the 'fancy' WalMart (yes, it's the kind with, like, Nutella and imported/organic food aisles ), the roomy homes and the parks hosting hordes of children. Cornfields are interspersed, I kid you not, and the office park buildings are actually very pretty. Someone thought about what kind of architecture you should put in the middle of Iowa and it is not ugly. It's probably too Frank Lloyd Wright-ish for some of you all, but it's not concrete, it's human and it's got lots of good green space.

So, to summarize: if I leave Boston (and that ain't good, docs are getting scarce in my field around here), it will be to have less traffic, a more roomy home (not McMansion, but not McNugget, either, which is all you get in my Boston neighborhood. I paid a small fortune to hear, "get the fu*k out of my face" screamed by a really strange neighbor"), more SuperTarget and SuperWalmart like choices (I may have a Trader Joes, but there are lots of things I can't get in my neighborhood and it's damned time consuming to hop on the train and go track them down), and to be around friendly people. So, to summarize, it's about space and ease and convenience and friendliness. QED.

Posted by: MD on November 13, 2006 3:59 PM

Oh, and to stress, once more: not all exurbs are the same aesthetically. *Someone* is paying attention and it shows......I forget the cool modern Texas neighborhood I saw advertised (an entire cool conceptual neighborhood, based as much on aesthetics as anything else) in one of my home decorating magazines.

Posted by: MD on November 13, 2006 4:02 PM

The part that is missing from the average informed urban person's understanding of food production is the producer him or her self. THEY aren't the ones who are putting corn syrup in everything or fattening and sickening cows in feed lots -- at least not willingly. By far the biggest percentage of food costs goes to middle men and transportation. And outfits like Swift Meat Packing are busy trying to "stovepipe" by contracting ranchers to raise beef their way, take it to their packing plants, and distribute it through their store chains. They crowd out the little guy, the alternative ag outfit, the organic grower.

UNTIL NOW. With a bit of effort one can find local healthy food GROWERS and buy direct.

There's a greenhouse standing empty in Cut Bank, Montana. I keep thinking how great it would be for someone to figure out the economics of growing fresh produce in there all winter. If I were younger, I'd do it myself. Now that the culprit in the spinach is supposed to be "a wild pig," I'm back to spending $5 for a bag of fresh spinach -- I'll bet $4 of it is for transportation. In a greenhouse there would be no "wild pigs."

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on November 13, 2006 5:20 PM

I actually think America has the best looking suburbs in the world, with the most effort put in to making them aesthetically pleasing. But the central issue to me is that they are not *walkable*. A place structured around the car can be only so beautiful and so relaxing to live in. In my opinion: not very pretty and not very relaxing at the deeper level. The private spaces there can be relaxing, and one's forays out of those private spaces to get more provisions can be easy and convenient, but that's about all I can say for it.

Malls are walkable environments, and IMO that's one reason for their explosion in popularity in suburbia. But they are also frequently cut off from nature, saturated with planned advertising, and totally lacking in the lived organic depth that a place accumulates over time.

Re MD's "strange neighbor" point: a lot of the unpleasantness of central cities comes from some of the social detritus who collect there, and the breakdown of social controls that is sometimes tolerated. But as I said, that is an *effect* as much as a cause of the American middle class giving up on the city. The American middle class does not like cities and what they have to offer and seems unwilling to put in the work to make them all they could be.

Also re MD's Boston experience: I always found Bostonians almost uniquely unfriendly compared to other cities. Hope I haven't offended anyone.

Posted by: MQ on November 13, 2006 6:18 PM

I saw a trailer for a movie version of "Fast Food Nation" just last week.

As for big box stores, I don't think there's always a choice. Lots of people argue that local stores are the way to go, but I live in an economically depressed area that doesn't support a comprehensive local shopping alternative. I was glad when the storefront that was once upon a time Bradlees was filled with a Dick's sporting store and soon a Bed, Bath, and Beyond after over a DECADE empty. The parking lot grew 4 ft high grasses each summer.

Also, I live in a small town, not a suburb. What's not available at Target, Walmart, Home Depot and the like generally isn't available here. There are a some specialty stores, but the selection (even in the box stores) is always better at the shopping centers in more populated regions about an hour away.

Posted by: claire on November 13, 2006 6:54 PM

"Yet isn't it beyond-naive to think that the food companies aren't doing their awe-inspiring best to get us to contribute to their bottom line, our health and our pleasure be damned?"

The technical term for that is "meeting a demand". Of course they aren't particularly worried about your health; why should they be? Frankly, my health is none of their business, none of the city government's business, and none of the state's business. There are many reasons I don't live in NY (city or state).

"It's getting harder and harder to find plain old milk."

Really. Have you ever had a hard time finding milk in any store that you might reasonably expect would have milk? I haven't, and I doubt I could find anyone who has. If you are having this sort of problem, perhaps if you went to a Wal-Mart, you might find a solution.

Frankly, this sounds like yet another attempt to constrain my choices, and I'm agin' it.

"Looking at these questions through this lens leaves me where I often am on this blog: wanting more people to acknowledge how important the role of preference and taste...."

Great! There's this thing called the "free market" that does a pretty good job of meeting demands, including demands for various sorts of preference and taste. I find the whole "organic" foods thing pretty silly, but there's demand for it, so it's available. I choose not to avail myself of the opportunity to buy that product, but would never consider trying to prohibit others from buying what they want. Much the same is true of golf courses, high-density housing developments, and scrapbooking stores.

What the world really needs is fewer busybodies minding other people's business.

Not that I'm pointing at any particular person, mind (unless your questions are simple rhetorical devices, of course).

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 13, 2006 9:42 PM

This is a silly argument. Nobody forces anyone to live in a McMansion or to buy fat-free half-and-half (an oxymoron if ever there was one.) Everybody, doing whatever they do, is getting something out of it, whether it's my wife feeling like she's being healthier with free-range artichokes, or my buddy finally having his home-theatre media room in his McMansion. Personally, I think they're both nuts spending that kind of moolah on inconsequential fripperies, but then, I find a great deal of pleasure in a well-made rifle or a pair of boots that make my feet feel like I'm walking barefoot in a meadow of daisies.

The crazy thing, at the end of the day, is spending 30 seconds worrying about other people's choices. To me, that is. You might find it enjoyable to deeply ponder these things ;-)

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on November 13, 2006 9:46 PM

Mike, accept it. The Free Market Is Not Your Friend. It spits on art, vulgarizes the public square, sends our jobs abroad, imports immigrants to replace our jobs and us too, promotes brain-dead frat-boys to positions of power, and generally is a gigantic arsehole aimed at the public. It's a necessary evil, and it's time we spanked it into place like the Euros did 50 years ago.

Bostonians don't like new yorkers, from what I hear. I think they're bitter we knocked 'em out of first place 200 years ago. Maybe that's it.

Posted by: SFG on November 13, 2006 10:10 PM

Odd -- after about a year of lurking, I'm responding twice in one day. I guess the posts about Walmart got to me. Here's a few disjointed thoughts (I’ve got a sick kid so I’m typing intermittently.)

1) The myth of the ugly suburbs: Characterizing suburbia as ugly is frankly laughable. Compared to what? I've lived in Hyde Park (Chicago), New Orleans and Philadephia and I don't think their corresponding suburbs were worse than their cities on average or taken as a whole. There are ugly and pleasing aspects of urban life just as there are of suburban life. Only an untraveled urbanite would dismiss the suburbs as wholly ugly.

2) Urban and suburban aesthetics: I’m wondering if their difference has less to do with what is built than what is missing, that is, negative space. You can drone on and on about urban v. suburban architecture, but the more important difference between suburbia and cities may be less created than felt -- the space between buildings, or in the case of cities, the missing space.

3) The suburban perspective: It may come as a surprise to those-who-live-on-concrete that suburbanites find cities both repulsive but attractive in the same way an auto wreck grossly intrigues. To some, cities seem less of an ode to human achievement than a dirge to humanity at its worst. Many make the positive choice to flee cities for the beautiful suburbs. Few return.

4) The Western perspective: Only a contemporary, secular Calvinist would think we were predestined to live in a city or suburb. Within constraints of self, situation and time, Americans make choices. I wonder if the urban/eastern regionalism of this blog’s authors has narrowed its POV. In the West, the frontier mentality is alive and well. People migrate here by choice, willingly leaving the security of their pasts behind. The West is growing with gutsy and optimistic people who want to start again. (East coasters, in comparison, are timid, conventional, unwary of expanding government and mentally bureaucratized -- in short, eastern urbanites fearfully cling to the choices of the past.)

5) Walmart: Walmart, though Southern in origin, is Western in mentality. It wants neither a hand up nor a smack down. It is aggressive. Upstartish. Global. And successful. Those who diss Walmart sound a bit like the whiners left behind who snub their smog-filled noses at suburbanites who shop at Walmart without admitting the grossness of their own urban lives.

Posted by: kris on November 13, 2006 10:27 PM

And that's why we have federalism - to let San Francisco be San Francisco, and Utah be Utah. Suburbs and big box stores have a place - they allow people on moderate incomes to raise kids in a safe and materially plentiful environment.

I can afford to live in a high-density area. Then again I'm a single male with few expenses and an OK income and I don't mind bums and high-traffic streets.

The sort of places that high-income, self-centered liberal urbanites like don't fit middle-income, child-obsessed, conservative subrbanites. That's why we fight about "family values" and "smart growth".

I find both groups to be distasteful. I'd rather be away from them, but I would like it if they could live by their own preferences somewhere else, both for their own happiness and so that they don't come to where I am.

San Francisco and Salt Lake City exist as magnets to suck lunatics away from us. Let us be thankful.

Why not allow each state to set its own policies and see where people actually want to move?

Posted by: secret asian man on November 13, 2006 11:26 PM

MQ -- It's hard to know what's genuinely "free market" in the midst of all this and what isn't, no? For example: people "freely" choose to scoot to the fringes and snag big-barn houses for themselves. Yet two of the biggest reasons city life is as unappealing as it is these days are 1) the disaster of "urban renewal" and 2) the orgy of freeway-building that followed WWII, both of them government-sponsored. Which is why I suspect it'd be a help to move beyond the choice-vs-control argument. When things get this complicated and muddy, why be dogmatic? In any case, it seems that many people would find more walkability nice, doesn'tt it? I wonder why the real estate people don't wake up to this.

MD -- It's a good point that there's a lot of variety available when you consider the country as a whole, and it's a good point too that not everywhere should or can offer every possibility. Yet what if only a few cities in a huge country offer genuine city-living experiences? And what if a person who wants a town-livin' experience has to go so far out of the usual loop that it's practically unworkable for anyone who isn't a lifestyle fanatic? And, incidentally, what if this situation is the consequence not just of things falling where they may but of a close collaboration between business and government forces?

Mary -- Another nice passage from the Schlosser:

In 1970, the top four meatpacking companies controlled 21 percent of the beef market. Today they control nearly 85 percent. The industry is more concentrated than it was in 1906, when Upton Sinclair attacked the unchecked power of the beef trust in The Jungle.

A tough business!

Claire -- I can imagine that a big-box store might be welcome in many snoozy small towns!

Doug, Scott - I'm a big fan of the free market myself. But how free is the market when, for example, corn is being heavily subsidized with tax dollars, or when local real estate interests are in cahoots with local construction unions and government agencies? It's possible to accept some of the criticisms of people like Schlosser without going along with all their proposed solutions, no? And, c'mon, food companies aren't merely trying to "meet demand," they're doing their best to create new demands.(Every year, 10-20,000 new "food products" are introduced.) That's part of the game. I certainly don't think it's evil. But what's the point of pretending that pressuring us isn't part of the game? Why else do the food and housing industries bother with advertising, after all? They aren't just politley informing us about availability. They're doing their best to create cravings.

SFG -- Bostonians are strange ones, that's for sure! As for free-marketism ... Well, there are many varieties, no?

Kris -- Thanks for stopping by and joining in. I think your point about negative space is hyper-important myself. The spaces between things don't get nearly enough attention, IMHO. You may have us Blowhards a little mis-i.d.'d, though. Friedrich and Donald have both lived in the West for many years, and though I'm a Manhattanite myself I've been spending most of my vacations in the west for a couple of decades. I apologize, btw, for the way it takes a while for comments to appear. We have to screen 'em in order to combat commentspam, so it'll sometimes be a matter of a few minutes or even an hour or two before your comment will appear.

Secret Asian Man -- Let federalism thrive, sez me too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 14, 2006 1:33 AM

Michael -- government vs. market is too simple, and it does not encompass the question of choice vs. control. Both government and "free market" are forms of control, and I am far from a blind believer in government. As you say, urban renewal was an important moment in the destruction of American cities, and it was fueled by the same worship of bigness that one can see in our malled-out suburbs today. In Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses, I'm with Jane all the way. But it is also the case that the free market could and did side with Bigness, and did not necessarily reflect what people might have truly wanted if they had been able to choose their own ideal. And no, I don't know the social institution that would let collectivities choose their own ideal. Perhaps it is a utopian ideal. A mixture of institutions might be the closest we can get.

Posted by: MQ on November 14, 2006 2:32 AM

Kris, I am very well travelled, suburban and urban, America and Europe, Eastern and Western U.S. And I still say: the suburbs are butt-ugly. Because they are wealthier, they have a surface sheen of attractiveness at the individual building or complex level. And because cities are poorer, there is often dirt or trash around that covers over what beauty is there. But the fundamental problem with the suburbs is the car-centrism of the lifestyle. Human scale is sacrificed to the care and maintenance of the automobile. Sensuality is sacrificed for convenience. Perhaps you need to live there for a bit to really get it. Good greenspace and walking trails can ameliorate this, but they are rare.

Also, I find the argument that the Western U.S. is less bureaucratic than the Eastern U.S. to be a little bizarre. The West is more bureaucratic, since the harshness of the landscape involves a lot of government interference to ration resources. I never encountered my friendly neighborhood water district, with its state funding formulas and committee bureaucracy, till I moved out here. There is more public land and layers of government here than back east. Western states, especially the interior West, get far higher Federal subsidies than Eastern states do. Westerners have an ideal of rugged individualism, but their reality is and always has been something else.

Posted by: MQ on November 14, 2006 2:37 AM

The thing I think a lot of people are missing is that beauty vs ugly is partially subjective. A decaying corpse filled with feces is ugly to most people. There are sound evolutionary reasons for this--it's full of dangerous bacteria!
Beauty is a little more subjective, and when it comes to city vs suburb, neither of which we evolved with, different people think the city and suburbs are prettier. Some people like the suburbs, with all that grass and the neat little rows of houses, some people like San Francisco, with its cute hills and Spanish architecture. Others exult in the grandeur of New York's skyscrapers, or the quaintness of Boston's red brick. I think this has as much to do with someone's own life experiences as anything else: someone who enjoyed a small-town childhood would probably find New York dispiritingly gray and noisy, whereas someone who grew up in a large city would despise the boring nature of the suburbs.

The point is that there are very few places to sell your car. I had to buy one at an advanced age and still haven't gotten the hang of it, but I'm not getting back into Manhattan any time soon.

Posted by: SFG on November 14, 2006 9:36 AM

"Doug, Scott - I'm a big fan of the free market myself. But how free is the market when, for example, corn is being heavily subsidized with tax dollars, ..."

The price of the sweetener is such a small part of the cost of a product that I don't find this point interesting. I'm in favor of stopping the subsidy, though that mostly affects ethanol fuels. I'm also in favor of dropping the tariff on imported sugar. Frankly, the result is likely to be a wash.

"... or when local real estate interests are in cahoots with local construction unions and government agencies?"

Do you have some evidence that the result of this collusion is offering products other than those which would otherwise be offered and which are unwanted? Generally, zoning ordinances are seen as a response to market failures -- keeping factories from buying up cheap land in poor residential neighborhoods, for instance.

I want parking spaces, both at home and at the stores that I frequent. There is a commons/free rider problem with parking in the absence of regulation -- if I open a business without parking spaces, my customers will park in my neighbors' parking spaces. So requiring parking is rational.

The point I think you are missing is that the initial state was the "walkable" neighborhoods that you say you want. Their disappearance has been the occasion of only minor protests, because most people are more interested in other things (like being able to park at the only Delft porcelain store in the city).

"It's possible to accept some of the criticisms of people like Schlosser without going along with all their proposed solutions, no? And, c'mon, food companies aren't merely trying to "meet demand," they're doing their best to create new demands.(Every year, 10-20,000 new "food products" are introduced.) That's part of the game. I certainly don't think it's evil."

Is it your claim that Schlosser (and you) aren't trying to create demand through pressure? Why is that more noble than people doing it for money? (Oh, wait, Schlosser is doing it for money, just like Kraft.)

"But what's the point of pretending that pressuring us isn't part of the game? Why else do the food and housing industries bother with advertising, after all? They aren't just politley informing us about availability. They're doing their best to create cravings."

Certainly. That's all part of the free market. Telling me about things I didn't know that I wanted is a crucial part of the free market. Without marketing, we wouldn't be having this conversation, since without marketing, most people would never have decided that they wanted computers, internetworked communications, or even electricity in their homes*, for that matter.

* My grandfather worked for the REA (Rural Electrification Administration) for a time. Getting people to accept electricity in their homes was a serious sales job.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 14, 2006 11:20 AM

Secret Asian man – Amen to federalism. Federalism allows suburban families to get away from self-absorbed, urban yuppies. People are getting away to the South and West, exurbs and suburbs, and sometimes even cities. Frankly, I think the country is sorting itself out rather well. The old homogenous unit principle never quite dies.

Oh, and there are many of us who could easily afford to live in cities but would much rather live in the burbs. My husband has a flat in Manhattan – he’s based in the Chrysler building – which I’ve visited on occasion and detest. Could never live there. Too gross.

San Francisco has a dearth of children, I’ve heard. Sorry, but it isn’t sucking any away from you. Salt Lake City, perhaps, but not San Fran.

MQ – What suburbs have you seen … more importantly, what suburbs have you missed? Yes, of course there are ugly suburbs (and ugly cities). You seem to have missed the good ones.

And what’s wrong with cars? I’d rather have privacy and drive to the store than be packed like a sardine among people I don’t know without a way to escape. It takes very little time to take care of cars and I walk for miles, alone, in the high desert. Daily. When was the last time you walked for miles in solitude and safety? Most Western burbs have beautiful walking trails, sidewalks, bike lanes and space. This may be why the West – Colorado, in particular -- has the thinnest, most fit people in the country.

Regarding bureaucracy: the only resource we lack is water. As farms get transformed into burbs, water is gained, not lost. The only place I ever “felt” water regulations was in the inner burbs of Chicago where water was rationed occasionally, the odd-even day watering routine. It is true my property is xeroscaped/xeriscaped (spelling?) but this is because I want to have my acreage consistent with the natural surround.

Cities ration something far more precious than water -- space. Perhaps the lack of space is felt more intensely than the regulation of water (which I’ve never noticed)?

One more thing – in the West, most newer burbs are private, not public. Thus, we determine our own rules in small, contained communities. Civility and a sense of participation is enhanced when, for example, 38 people decide to resurface common roads and re-vegetate shared areas, as was done last week where I live. We also permanently set aside more than half our acreage as natural, untouched space without much fanfare or debate. We just agreed.

Government used to be like this: local, communal and small. In my wee opinion, the easiest way to restore/regain self-governance is to pay your way out of the bureaucracy.

Posted by: Kris on November 14, 2006 11:24 AM

You have a point, but at least some of this line of analysis sounds like the old Stalinist "false consciousness" argument - "The Masses only choose Capitalism because they don't know any better, Comrade - but once we re-educate them..." Generally speaking, Donald P. is right - people get the kind of society they want, and deserve, and that's certainly true in modern America. "Spending their lives as cannon-fodder in the service of big business and big government?" Come now - we have Big Business and Big Government because people generally want it that way, or at least want the perceived goods these entities offer, and to maintain that "most people actually would agree with me, but are deluded by (name of your favorite oppressor here)" is juvenile and absurd. Most people don't share your aesthetic preferences, and they are not necessarily morally inferior to you because they shop at Wal-Mart and eat Big Macs. I started out sympathetic to “Crunchy Conservatism” such as is on display here, but it is increasingly becoming a kind of aesthetic Marxism, and I am rapidly losing sympathy.

Posted by: tschafer on November 14, 2006 12:03 PM

It's an intereting conundrum.

However, I must admit, for people who are GENUINELY "concerned" about the corn syrup content of their food, they always seem to find the place to shop where they can get items "corn-syrup-free."

It's the rest of us, who would be "concerned" if someone made it convenient for us to do so, who might be getting a bit "herded" by the price and convenience of certain foods, at the expense of "healthier." (Let alone more humanely produced for a better living wage to the crop-pickers, etc. One interesting point Schlosser makes is how modest the annual increase in grocery prices would be if a slightly higher wage was paid the ag workers, rather than the illegal-aliens-are-necessary argument).

But...for the most part...I do believe people pick the option they like best within their economic range. I don't believe people are totally "herded". It's why, when people put more "intellectual" programming on TV, it often flops and they dumb reality shows flourish. It isn't just because "the reality shows are all that's on"---that's not true.

Just like the most recent election---everybody always Bush had so much money that the advertising could make Americans vote for anything. Obviously...not entirely.

Posted by: annette on November 14, 2006 12:49 PM

An interesting question that branched out of this Vulgar Marxist post is what's worse, the Crony Capitalism or New Age Socialism (which is what Crunchy Conservatism is)?
Or may be I singled it out because I just read this postby Ben H. at Bandarlogs"

...The real power in both cases is wielded by government insiders and they arrogate the fruits of this power to themselves through a variety of channels. Both models feature the picking of winners and losers by the state (or whomever can control its levers), bureaucratic capture , cartelization and mediated competition, and ultimately vast misallocation of resources. The only major differences lie in the nominal ownership of capital assets -- for in both cases, the government really determines their value and controls their disposal and acquisition -- and the relative share (within a small margin) of labor's share in national income.

Posted by: Tat on November 14, 2006 1:31 PM

Ah, but that's exactly the point! If you can increase labor's share of national income you can really improve a lot of people's lives!

Incidentally...there's a doctor shortage in Boston? I thought you had more per capita than anywhere else...they all cleaning beakers at Dana Farber or something?

Posted by: SFG on November 14, 2006 11:59 PM

SFG -- It's been more than 25 years since this Manhattanite has owned a car -- scary! Unamerican! And I agree that beauty is partly (and maybe even largely) subjective -- I think I might go further and tentatively argue that beauty is more of an experience than it is a somehow-out-there fact. Hmm.

Doug -- I'd like to hear more about your grandfather's experience with REA. That's got to have resulted in some fascinating experiences. As for the rest ... Well, aren't you being a bit slippery? As in, "This is people expressing preference in the free market! And even if it isn't a free market it doesn't matter"? I'm not really sure how I can respond to that. I have no interest in imposing taste on anyone, btw.

tschaefer -- I nowhere write that "most people actually would agree with me, but are deluded by (name of your favorite oppressor here)" because I seriously doubt it would be true. I've known since, oh, the age of two that many of my tastes are hyperminority tastes. On the other hand, I'm not sure I follow your argument that the reaosn we have a the big-govt/big-corporation culture that we have is because people like and want that combo. I can see no proof of this anywhere. Meanwhile, living and working among media and cultural elites, I witness a lot of crap being put over at the expense of the mainstream. FWIW, and not that anyone should care, I'm no Crunchy Con, though I liked Dreher's book and have a few Crunchy sympathies.

Annette -- Yeah, I'm mezzo-mezzo on it too. People tend to pick from what's semi-conveniently available, so there's both an element of real choice involved, but there's also the open question of who exactly is defining what's available? I think you're right too that the convenience factor is huge. How much trouble are most people willing to go to in order to have a slightly classier or more vivid experience than the one that's shipped directly to them? Some people just won't budge from the easy chair. Others will go to a lot of trouble. The "long tail" thing is interesting in this context, ins't it? The big hits are still the big hits, but the web makes so much more available that all of sudden these micro-niches -- never before witnessed -- are emerging, and taken all together represent quite a market.

Tat -- Crony Capitalism vs. New Age Socialism sounds like a good description of our current Repubs vs. our current Dems!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 15, 2006 2:11 AM

But what's the point of pretending that pressuring us isn't part of the game?

Is there anybody pretending? Not really, not in 2006.

You can press back by not buying, you know. I do it every day and it's not hard at all.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on November 15, 2006 2:16 AM

I was in San Marino, south of Pasadena, CA, recently and its aesthetic superiority to my native San Fernando Valley, the prototypical modern suburb, is striking. It reminds me of what a disaster the Depression was for architecture and urban planning. San Marino / Pasadena were built up during the confident, elitist era from 1890-1929 while the San Fernando Valley was built up from 1946-1975. The San Fernando Valley was built quick and dirty to house vast hordes of lower middle class people like my parents. While I approve of this egalitarianism in principle, I wish people back then had realized how rich the country was going to become one day so that they had realized they could afford to invest more do a better job.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on November 15, 2006 3:43 AM

A reader above noted the influence of car travel in the design (and the woes) of suburban living. There's no danger of anyone missing this point; it's a natural cue to open almost any discussion of contemporary culture. But I don't think it can possibly be overstated.

I am looking now at two residential lots filled day and night with cars and two streets lined with commuter vehicles. The nearest is parked about 30 yards from my office window across a quadrangle of hard-packed dirt---for our campus, that's a large open area. Likely, it has been eyed for new parking space.

In 25 minutes, the northbound lane of the street will be filled with idling minivans and SUVs piloted by mothers of children attending the University lab school. My kids go there. My wife will be in that line, waiting.

Like ourselves, most of the parents will be associated with the university, either employees or their spouses. A good many will have driven 45 minutes from outlying neighborhoods; we did that for several years until a closer home opened and we took it.

I started biking to work after about two years of thinking maybe I could. I began with baby steps, which, despite much "Just do it" advice, is the better way. Now I bike in daily (it's just four miles), except that I draw the line at biking in a lightning storm.

My point here, if you're still with me, is not to prove that we just need to make better choices about our car use, or our places of employment or residence, and all will be well. My point is that by-in-large, biking to work in Baton Rouge sucks. Big time.

Like most towns everywhere, BR is built for cars only. There is virtually no pedestrian or bicycle infrastructure. What little exists is poorly maintained. This is apparent only to walkers and bikers; in a car things seems pretty well designed. Furthermore, the Wal-Mart is closer in a car, as is the Home Depot. As is my office and everyone else's. The distances we travel to meet our basic needs are literally super-human. They require a car, which is the problem and also my point.

Nothing would be the same without mechanical, high-speed, personal transportation. Gas power is irrelevant---any fuel will serve the same purpose. If there is a simple choice we are looking to make, to rid ourselves of "Wal-Marts, etc.," it's one we'd ALL have to make simultaneously.

I am looking now at the northbound lane, a string of red lights inching forward. I see no one made that choice today.

Posted by: Matt on November 15, 2006 8:34 AM

Nobody pretends that choice is "free" in the sense of costless. But compared to most of the world, the options for going the McMansion route or staying in the city are many.

Anyone able to afford a McMansion can probably arrange (or could have arranged his life) to live on a much lower income in a less cushy job in one of the cities. He could move to a different city. He could choose to delay children or not have kids at all. The US is probably better suited for changing your job and place of residence than any other country in the world. Students routinely choose to live in places like NYC or DC when they get a first job, then move to the Burbs as they get older. They could have stayed in those places and made sacrifices to stay in the cities -- as some of their peers do. They might have been poorer and have fewer or no kids -- but hey, that's exactly the lifestyle practically forced on most urban elites in Europe. In the US you have a [costly] choice but you still can move.

Indeed, one could probably move to a different country. That's what bright immigrants do when they come to the US.

For the most part, Americans like the burbs. And there are enough cities to support those who think otherwise. They just can't and shouldn't impose their nouveau urban preferences on everyone.

Posted by: ghost on November 15, 2006 9:51 AM

Yeah, Ben H. is brilliant in his definitions.

Posted by: Tat on November 15, 2006 10:37 AM

Scott -- Not buying is an excellent strategy, I do a lot of it myself. But I'm curious about something. I could be mistaken, but I'm guessing that you and Doug are arguing not with me but with some imagined opponent -- someone who would like to A) notice things and B) then pass laws. You seem to have me confused with a lefty lifestyle Nazi, which I'm anything but. I'm not proposing passing laws, just having a discussion. Local governments are often in bed with local real estate interests; some people in the federal government are in bed with cattle raisers, corn growers, and meat processors; and much mainstream culture has grown more corporate in recent decades ... None of this is especially controversial, none of it represents anyone's idea of the free market at its finest, and it has some consequences for all of us in terms of what we run into, what we pick from, and what we contend with. What's not interesting about discussing these topic? Lifestyle Nazis be damned, of course.

Steve -- San Marino and Pasadena are bee-yoo-tee-ful. Interesting that you relate the way suburbs became uglier later to the Depression. The usual way to see the plow-it-under / spread-it-out housing and roadway developments of the '50s and '60s is as a consequence of the Greatest Generation's WWII experience. "We beat the Hun using massive engineering, now let's address our own country's challenges and problems using the same military-engineering approach." Efficiency and cost (in a short term sense) went into the ascent, while homey and aesthetic values took a nosedive. But maybe the Depression experience played a big role in this attitude change too.

Matt -- That's a vivid evocation! I'm often amazed that more provision isn't made by local governments for pedestrians and bikes. People seem to like bike paths and sidewalks when they're around. I wonder why more locals don't get worked up about this. Too much trouble? Too bad. Without some agitation, local pols, unions, and traffic departments will concern themselves with nothing but deals, and vehicle-traffic-flow figures.

Ghost -- No one around this blog would propose legislating taste, or imposing tastes on anyone else. On the other hand, discussing tastes and pleasures (and what we encounter, and how we manage, and how we respond, and what we'd like to see, etc) is something we most definitely encourage. I like your "for the most part" -- people's feelings about suburban life seem to be very mixed, don't they? I'd love to see surveys about what people like about their suburban lives and what they're less happy with. I do recall some polls showing that one of the big frustrations suburb-dwellers have is the lack of opportunities for walking. I'll see if I can pull that poll up ...

Tat -- Ben H. is a find, tks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 15, 2006 12:06 PM

Evidence that the big business-created mainstream culture does not provide enough choice is right before us - the web. When people are free to create what they want, and distribute it via the web, they produce a very different kind product than "the suits" do, free market or not.

It would be nice if the unbridled creative freedom of the web could be translated somehow to the built environment - what would that look like? I have no doubt it would be a much richer experience.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on November 15, 2006 12:26 PM

"I'm often amazed that more provision isn't made by local governments for pedestrians and bikes. "

There is no constituency for it. I don't count, and neither to the other couple-dozen people who (voluntarily) bike to work in this town. We are thrown in, I guess, with the many hundreds or thousands who INVOLUNTARILY bike or walk around. And THOSE folks sure don't have much truck with city hall.

Posted by: Matt on November 15, 2006 3:24 PM

The thing with the web is it costs very little to set up your own web page. Land is very expensive.

Posted by: SFG on November 15, 2006 10:54 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?