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Harry Moroz

The Planner’s Mentality

The economic downturn and the resultant federal intervention in the financial sector and “real” economy have yielded a healthy crop of complaints about an overzealous Washington eager to stomp out the last embers of free enterprise. The more zealous call this policymaking socialism or dirigisme, an unleashing of zombie bureaucrats on the unsuspecting American people.

A particular strain of such thinking warns of a creeping planner’s mentality: a fear that some nest of civil servants – in Health and Human Services and in Treasury but particularly in Housing and Urban Development and Transportation – is meticulously outlining a new geography for the American public. The implication, though rarely expressed, is that soon enough President Obama will ban salt and select which flavors of Crest the local CVS keeps in stock.

Nowhere is this tendency to conflate planning with command and control more evident than in the reactionary wing of urban thinking. There, the Obama administration’s appointment of a “cities czar” is taken as evidence of a return to the “urban renewal strategies” of the 1960s and 1970s that we associate with drab and monolithic public housing, no matter whether such structures housed families who could scarcely afford to live anywhere else. Economic stimulus, in this view, is risky because of its very ambition: empower the public sector to build and it will do so indiscriminately.

In contrast, leave “planning” to the market and keep public plans mediocre and a thousand flowers will bloom. Slate’s architecture critic Witold Rybczynski writes that:

The important lesson is not that city planning is unimportant but, rather, that urban development should not be implemented by the public sector alone and that in a democracy, a vision of the future will best emerge from the marketplace.

Yet, surely most “champions of liberty” insist that the market’s defining characteristic, the quality that imparts its very superiority, is its blindness. Indeed, no “vision of the future” can ever emerge from a marketplace that is rife with competition and overflowing with freedom. Rybczynski is right that the direction of urban development has shifted- the public sector now reacts to the plans of the real estate developer. But does this make the public guardians of a city’s integrity – of an economy that creates good jobs and of a culture that promotes good living – any less important? Without the articulation of public plans for the type of city that is desirable, for the public goods (ambitious as they may be) that are desirable – in other words, without planning – there is no vision of the future city.

Perhaps more seriously, hints that the country is being taken over by scheming bureaucrats has had a pernicious effect on the recovery of the American economy. Of all the methods to stimulate the economy, aid to state and local governments is one of the most effective, immediately preventing cuts to important services, firings, and delays in infrastructure projects. But so toxic has public employment become – so impossible the productiveness of public sector workers – that this option is dead before consideration. Rep. George Miller’s Local Jobs for America Act, funneling money to local governments to save one million public sector and nonprofit jobs, will rot in Congress while newspapers brim with stories of budget crises and hatchets taken to education, health care, and transportation.

The demonization of planning not only endangers the evolution of cities that expand opportunity but has put economic recovery at risk.

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Posted at 4:42 PM, Apr 02, 2010 in Cities
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