February 09, 2005

State senator has brilliant insight

I got an email a few days ago from Ken Gordon, the Colorado State Senate majority leader (I'm on his listserve). He's got a fantastic idea to help wean those upper-income suburbanites off the government dole.

One of my favorite criticisms of many of the folks who live in the suburbs and vote Republican is that they demand subsidies from the government that they aren't willing to pay for.

One example of this is transportation. Let's say a guy has a job downtown, but he doesn't like the city life, so he decides to buy a big old house 35 miles away in some brand-new suburb. Now he has to drive his SUV seventy miles round trip to work each day. Which is fine, except that he immediately starts complaining about highway congestion. It's as if he was completely unaware that this is one of the consequences of his free decision to buy a house way out in the 'burbs.

What's worse, he seems to think it's the government's job to fix his transportation problem. Often these suburbanites are the loudest supporters of huge highway-widening projects funded by state and federal revenues, and they see no contradiction between their support for highway projects and their opposition to urban mass transit.

The point is not that suburbanites are often ideologically inconsistent--that should surprise no one, because most all of us are inconsistent from time to time. The point, rather, is that the real costs of moving to the suburbs and living the commuter lifestyle aren't accurately reflected in the prices these people pay.

Regardless of what you think about the virtues or vices of suburban sprawl, the fact is that it's subsidized by the government. Transportation is just one example. Another example, at least in dry states like Colorado, is water.

Douglas County, just south of Denver, is one of America's living museums of upper-income suburban sprawl. It's a real David Brooks kind of place. Anyway, Douglas County's subdivisions have to depend upon non-renewable underground aquifers for their water supply, and these aquifers are drying up.

Sen. Gordon tells us in his email of his meeting with a geologist about the future of the aquifer:

He told us that the water level is dropping about an inch a day. That works out to about 30 feet a year. He showed us diagrams of the thickness of various aquifers in the Denver Basin. He was careful to not give any particular time for when the water will be gone, but it seemed to me that someone who bought a house in Douglas County today, with a 30 year mortgage, might be making house payments longer than they are taking showers.unless we start thinking, planning and investing.

There is water in Colorado for these houses, but it will cost money to buy the rights and get it to Douglas County. A water expert told me that a current estimate is $32,000 per house. In places where some infrastructure is already in place, it will be less. But right now people who are buying houses are getting an unreasonably low price because they are not paying for the costs of infrastructure and water rights that will be needed to replace their current water supply.

Usually in the West, when an aquifer runs dry because some developer has put a subdivision on top of it, the government will bail out the residents with some huge water-diversion project, like a pipeline, canal, or dam. The bill is charged to the taxpayers generally.

Sen. Gordon not only sees the problem, he also sees a possible solution:

I have carried legislation in the past that would have required the seller of a new home whose water supply is a depleting aquifer to tell the buyer. Last year the proposal passed the Senate and was killed in the House Agriculture committee, chaired at the time by Diane Hoppe, who voted against it. The Home Builders and the Realtors had concerns about my bill.
It's easy to see how daunting the task of weaning the suburbanites off of subsidies is going to be. Even requiring that they disclose their future need for big water projects is a tough sell, let alone making them actually pay for these projects themselves. But we've got to start somewhere.

I'm sure there would be problems with actually determining which houses are supplied by aquifers that are being depleted, and of specifying what kind of disclosure is required. But surely these pale in comparison with the problems posed by our current practice of pretending that private homebuying decisions have no consequences for the general public.

Posted by Carey at February 9, 2005 09:01 PM

The problem, in the end, is that people want free lunches. This is why (when I want to feel sad about politics) I think the Democrats won't be a majority party again until there is an economic crisis. Looking back, it seems the consistent winning strategy in national politics is to promise a bigger free lunch than the other guy. And so while (at a policy level) I am happy about the party's (relative) embrace of fiscal responsibility (though that isn't hard compared to the alternatives), I can't help but be concerned about the cost of that positioning for all the other issues I care about...

Posted by: Ravi at February 15, 2005 08:03 PM

For years (pre-Reagan) the Republicans criticized the Dems for promising free lunches. Now it might be reversed; the Republicans are the pandering party.

The stagflation of the Carter era really left the Dems vulnerable to Reagan's responsibility rhetoric. You're probably right that it will take another economic crisis to turn public sentiment against the Republicans. We know now that a foreign policy crisis is not enough...

Posted by: Carey at February 16, 2005 08:41 AM