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Jewish World Review /Feb. 23, 1999 / 6 Adar, 5759

Ben Wattenberg

Ben The sprawl brawl

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com)THERE IS A LONG AMERICAN TRADITION of "burb-bashing". After the Depression and World War II, when young folks finally had a chance to get a little house with a yard to raise the kids, their self-styled intellectual betters characterized the resulting suburban communities as "sterile," "conformist" and "ticky- tacky." This, mind you, coming from people who lived in identical cubicles stacked high one upon another, called apartments.

It's back, camouflaged, flying a seductive new political banner modestly inscribed "Smart Growth." The movement is appropriately headed by Vice President Albert Gore, who is very smart. It includes the Clinton-Gore "livability" program, which is part of the grand green movement called "sustainable development." A hot item on the Smartie agenda is a campaign against "suburban sprawl."

It's hard to oppose. Are you in favor of dumb, sprawling, unlivable and unsustainable growth?

Moreover, the specifics sounded by Gore are even yummier than the abstractions: No more traffic jams, no more road rage, plenty of parks and green space, and more time. Yes! Al Gore will give you more time! And it will all be done -- by YOU -- certainly not by the federal government, which Gore says, should never be a "beauty commisar." Smart man, that Gore; legitimately so, and perhaps sometimes to a point where he insults our intelligence.

The Gore plan, announced on January 11, is a "bold new initiative," designed to "support remarkable smart growth efforts." It is codified in President Clinton's budget proposals. Despite denials, it surely appears to be a big step toward federal zoning of local communities, and often idiotic zoning at that.

Now, zoning is important. I don't want a nightclub next door, nor a steel mill, nor, I confess, a low-income housing development. I like parks and open space. But zoning should fall under the doctrine of keeping government as close as possible to the governed. Let local government do it if they can. Let state government be the next recourse, as necessary. Let the Feds do what only they can do. Each has a serious role.

How to judge what the Smarties are up to? Mindsets matter. Mindset determines how any legislation is guided and enforced. Consider that word "sprawl." Not a nice word. What is a slob with a big belly and a beer can doing when he is draped across the sofa watching wrestling? He's sprawling.

Listen to how the Smart ones describe sprawl: Strip cities with garish neon, tacky malls with sullen teenagers, no farms with cows that go moo (you may live nearby). Gore can fix it and so can the smart people from the President's Council on Sustainable Development.

More people should live in revitalized "vibrant" cities. Fewer people should drive cars. How do you make that happen? By closing off new peripheral growth with "a meadow, that child's paradise," as Gore says. And by building more mass transit. To only begin a mind-boggling list.

The billions of dollars involved in such programs will only "encourage" lesser forms of government to act green, the way the Godfather encouraged his clients. Smarties will give you back some of your tax money if you do things their way. If not, they'll just take some of your money and give it to folks who wise up and go green.

Just don't ask questions about it. Don't ask if mass transit really saves precious time so that a commuting parent will be able to get home in time "to read a child a bedtime story," as Gore says. Does walking to a bus or light rail, waiting for the bus or train to arrive, taking the trip, with many stops, walking to your office -- take less time than driving there?

Don't ask where young couples of limited means will be able to raise two kids with a backyard. If you limit new suburban growth, won't the price of existing suburban homes go up? Fear not, there will be "affordable" communities for all, "encouraged" by an out-of-town jasper from Washington, played by Al Pacino...

These are complicated problems, in life and in politics. Who will make the needed decisions? You, or Feds with mindset?

Politically, green sounds too good to be true. It may be. It messes around with two great American liberation movements: personal transportation and a spread of your own.

Mindsets matter. Consider Gore, who in his passionate 1992 best-selling book "Earth in the Balance" wrote, from his heart and mind, that automobiles have "a cumulative impact on the global environment (that) is posing a mortal threat to the security of every nation..." And who wrote of his environmental views that "every time I pause to consider whether I have gone too far out on a limb, I look at new facts... and conclude that I have not gone nearly far enough."

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank."


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