Monday, March 10, 2008

Urban Planning, Oil, and Terrorism

FDR, in his fireside chats, buzzing statically on the radio, promised each person a car for every garage and a chicken in every yard (well, maybe not). And Henry Ford turned the automobile from a luxury item to a mass produced necessity. Cars have become an agent of change in the twentieth century, and perhaps it was a catalyst for the mental change in people that brought about suburban sprawl, the rise in gas prices, the housing boom and resulting bust, the war on terrorism, and many other things. Now I'm not blaming the woes of the world on the car, but I am saying that the interests of car makers, and the businesses that support the automobile, namely, the oil companies, have promoted the lifestyle of suburban sprawl that only the car could provide.

Glenn Beck was talking about the recent real estate bust on his radio show a couple of days ago. One of the main points that real estate investors have to get people to sign their lives away on mortgages that will eventually run them bankrupt was that everyone had the "right" to own a house. And Locke would have agreed. The words that the Declaration of Independence copied went something like this, "life, liberty, and... Locke said "property," while our founding fathers said, "the pursuit of happiness." Both statements say something about the attitudes that came out of the United Kingdom. Locke thought that it was everyone's right to own property. A house. A place away from the bustle of London where they could escape the disease and crime that so often hit the city in his day. On the other hand, Hamilton, Payne, and the others changed it to "the pursuit of happiness" because they saw that everyone had to have an opportunity to achieve their goals, if they worked hard. They didn't see owning a house as a part of those goals. But in the 20th century, when material goods have outweighed the need for spiritual and mental growth (although Thoreau would have countered that the need for material goods started back before his time), it has become a "right" for everyone to have a house. As if the house was a part of the "American Dream." Further, FDR put in place governmental policies that started the idea of the Government as a caretaker for all those who live in poverty. It was a form of socialism, but created in a roundabout way so that it was not clearly seen as such (and still isn't) until people became dependent on the government for housing, food, welfare.

Skipping forward to the 1990's, when the economy was good and the real estate market and the feds made it so that real estate interest rates were low, people were talked into getting mortgages on houses that were more expensive than what they probably could afford. They did this by graduating the payments with adjustable rates. But once the introductory rate expired, and people didn't have more money then than they did at the beginning, the house payments doubled, and people couldn't afford the houses. Coupled with the push of credit cards (see my "Consumerism" blog posts earlier) and the changes in the bankruptcy laws which made it harder to declare bankruptcy, people were forced to either declare bankruptcy or lose their houses to foreclosure. (I sped all that up a bit, from the 1990's to present day.)

But back in the 1990's and early 2000's, people were talked into getting houses. They were informed that they had a "right" to own a house. Everyone should own a house, and it should be far away from the noise and pollution of the big city, nestled in some small neighborhood in the middle of nowhere. This is why Newton and Henry Counties exploded in population in the 2000's (counties near Atlanta.) And people were forced to drive 2 hours to work each day, and 2 hours back. People were happy to do so, for it meant that they owned their house and it was their right to do so. It was their right to sit in traffic and waste gas and wear and tear on the car, because they owned a house.

Who, then, profited from the so called "right" to own a house? The companies that sell the houses must not be the only ones that expect to profit off of this financial arrangement. Let's look at the different people that would gain an advantage in this society by promoting the idea of the suburban house as an escape...

The government has always been in favor of adding new jobs to the job base here in America. With the construction of the Interstate system in the 1950's, a continuance of the programs the FDR put together in the 30's, people had jobs, were able to make a profit, and were then able to afford the houses that were built in a constantly expanding system of suburban neighborhoods. When my parents bought the house I was born in, there was nothing out where Westbury was created (near the then rural town of Mustang, Oklahoma). But now, the neighborhood is indistinguishable from the rest of OKC that has grown up around it. And now there are other neighborhoods still farther out that are now taking its place. All these places needed roads built, utilities, cable, phone service, and once the people moved into the houses, they became revenue building places for the cities or counties around them.

Of course, the automobile industry loved the idea of people driving long distances to work. Even a trip to the grocery store might take a half hour. And all that traveling required cars, multiple cars, cars that broke down and had to be repaired or replaced. And all those cars required gasoline, which, at the time, was available and cheap. The depression was not felt quite as hard in the oil rich areas around Oklahoma City, because wealth was to be had drilling for the oil to make the asphalt and to put gas into the cars. This lasted until the 1970's, when, as we became more reliant on the oceans of gas in Saudi Arabia and other countries (and it was cheap, and we were rich, so we bought tons of it), OPEC decided to limit drilling of oil, causing an embargo which made us quickly realize how the dream of an escape home would turn into a nightmare if we had no gas to get our cars from one place to another.

As usual, during the 80's and 90's, we fell back asleep, ignoring the problems of the urban planning systems that made the embargo so much worse. If we had realised the seriousness of that problem, and made greater strides toward working and shopping at places much nearer to where we live, the demand for gasoline would have dropped, and therefore, the high prices of it would not be a problem for us now. But with oil prices rising, and car companies still profiting and the housing boom going, people didn't seem to see these things at all during the 1990's. People could afford it, so they kept moving further and further out into the country away from the cities. What made it worse was that the new technologies that made tele-working possible were, and still are, mostly ignored. Companies don't see the value in letting their employees work from home. Of course, there is also the problem of self-discipline, but that is another post.

It is the oil rich countries of the Middle East that have benefited most from our need to escape to our own little worlds. One could argue that the funding of terrorist groups have in some part been provided by the cars that we drive, since we are so dependent on that oil that we are willing to work with states that have actively supported terrorism in order to obtain the gas we need, at the low prices we are accustomed to.

[All this is a basic run through of what I see based on my general knowledge of the subjects. It would take a much deeper look into the facts, researching studies and history, to make this a work that would stand up in Academia. But for now, this will have to do.]

I do want to look at one more thing, before I wrap this up. Are there places built now that would serve as a model for future cities that would see the problems built around our current model and try to fix it? I think I have found some, and will talk about them in the next post

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