Monday, July 29, 2013

Did Rain Follow the Plow?

As Americans spread into the Midwest in the 19th century, the belief grew that “rain follows the plow”.  The settlers had faith that sufficient rain would fall onto their new farmsteads for their crops to succeed.

For some, the belief was that divinity would show beneficence toward American expansion.  Others of a more scientific bent believed that the increased dust from plowing would bring rain.  (There was valid science to the latter expectation, although the effect wasn’t nearly as big as needed.)

Both types of believers were soon disappointed.  After a period of above normal precipitation, long-term norms were reestablished.  Wells became necessary for many farms and marginal farms were abandoned.

To the extent that any of us remember the 19th century belief that rain would follow the plow, it’s with a condescending acknowledgement of the gullibility of our forbearers.  We’re sure that in our time we aren’t nearly as susceptible to wishful thinking detached from reality.

Except that we’re just as susceptible and perhaps more so.  And we’re doing it on a subject that may be more critical to our future than a false belief in rainfall.  Furthermore, we’re clinging to the belief even as the facts pile up in opposition.  At least our forbearers had the common sense to surrender the farmsteads when the rainclouds didn’t gather.

For the past seventy years, we’ve built our cities and towns in the belief that property tax revenue from new development would be sufficient to service and to maintain the new development.  That incremental property taxes would be adequate to pay for police and fire services, to provide the other services of civilization such as parks and court systems, and to maintain and periodically to replace the infrastructure.

There was no particular reason to believe that this would be true.  We had 4,000 years of history in which we generally allowed cities to disappear if they couldn’t meet that standard.  There were exceptions to the rule, such as capital cities relying on support from the countryside in exchange for governance, but most cities had to comply with the rules of Darwinism, to successfully adapt or to succumb.  A great many cities did the latter.

But then we made a mass commitment to an alternative and experimental model in which we encouraged a vast spreading of our cities and towns.   The experiment assumed that the growth would be financially sustainable.  And as StrongTowns points out with tongue in cheek, we didn’t just try this experiment in New Jersey, we rolled it out nationwide.

Furthermore, we took an unscientific approach to the experiment.  There are two critical elements of a good experiment.  First, the experiment should be constructed such that the results are clear and unequivocal.  Second, if results begin to show that the experiment is doing harm, the experiment should be ended and remediation begun.

We did neither.  At the same time we embarked on the drivable suburban experiment, we increased the transfer of funds from state and federals governments to local government, masking the results of the experiment.  In many ways, we separated the financial sustainability of cities from their financial viability.

And when the citizenry began to chafe under the tax burden that was required to sustain the experiment, embarking on the taxpayer revolts of the late 1970s and 1980s that reduced property tax revenues, we allowed ourselves to go further into the hole rather than ending the experiment.

And now we’ve reached 2013.  It’s clear that we can’t sustain the experiment.  Our public amenities are badly underfunded.  We have a backlog of infrastructure maintenance and replacement that we can’t begin to tackle.  But the cost to repair the damage done by the experiment is more than we want to pay.  So we engage in a frenzied attempt to attract more development, using the impact fees to remedy the worst of the budget shortfalls.  StrongTowns is correct in calling it a Ponzi scheme.

It makes the whole rain/plow thing look like a warm-up exercise in self-delusion.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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