Friday, August 9, 2013

If Howard Jarvis Had Been Less Judgmental, We Might Be Better Off, but Probably Not

In a recent post, I suggested that the underlying issue behind the taxpayer revolt of the late 1970s and 1980s, headlined by California’s passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, might have been incorrectly ascribed.  It’s interesting to question what might have happened had one of the generals of the revolt possessed a more open mind to alternative explanations.

Contemporary observers and most voters believed that Proposition 13 was a reaction to an inefficient and excessively expanding government.   But looking back from the 21st century, the concerns that led to Proposition 13 may have instead been a warning that we were rapidly building a world we couldn’t afford to maintain.

StrongTowns argues that our experiment with drivable suburbia, which began in earnest after World War II, was funded for its first 35 years with accumulated capital.  The next 35 years, up until today, were funded with debt.  The bill on the debt is now coming due, which explains the increasing problems with infrastructure maintenance and looming municipal bankruptcies.  Major dislocations may be in our near future.

But dislocations would have also occurred 35 years ago at the transition between capital-financed and debt-financed growth.  Which was just about the time of the taxpayer revolt.

The concurrence is reasonable.  In the late 1970s, taxes would have been increasing as government was looking for ways to maintain all the new stuff that we’d built and to provide services to our newly far-flung and still growing cities.  At the time, there would have been two options.  We could have reached the conclusion that we’d built too much stuff.  Or we could have decided that government was inept.

Into the moment of history stepped Howard Jarvis.  (For those who weren’t alive during 1978, which to my chagrin may include a great many readers, Jarvis was a key instigator behind Proposition 13, which is also known as the Jarvis-Gann Initiative.)  By all accounts, Howard Jarvis was a decent, clean-living individual.  He also came pre-wired with the assumption that government was grasping and fundamentally flawed.

Had Jarvis been a more thoughtful, curious person and one less likely to automatically put the cloak of evil on all government workers, he might have looked deeper in the tax issues of his time and realized that the problem was actually how we were building our world.  But that wasn’t in the nature of Howard Jarvis.  He assumed that government must be flawed and the taxpayer revolt was on.

One result of the revolt was the proliferation of financial measures, such as impact fees, by which government gets near-term revenues in exchange for long-term unfunded obligations.  It is one of the debt mechanisms to which StrongTowns refers.

It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had Jarvis been slower to jump to his conclusion and had instead let the facts guide him to a different conclusion.  Perhaps new urbanism would have been given an earlier kick start, much to the betterment of our world.  But what is more likely is that Jarvis would have been deposed from his role in the taxpayers’ organization and someone else with less intellectual curiosity would have taken up the reins.

In the era of the taxpayer revolt, the general public wasn’t ready to believe that our pattern of land use was deeply flawed.  Today, there are hints that more people are willing to be educated, but there’s still much ground to cover.  At the same time, we need to stifle the new Howard Jarvis’s offering simple but wrong and ultimately harmful solutions.

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


  1. Very insightful! This concept that we overbuilt and can't afford the maintenance is what is fueling my desire to see Green Streets policy implemented in Petaluma. Visit for more information and a very good short video on why we need Green Streets and Clean Water.


    1. Tiffany, thanks for the comment. I certainly concur with the aim of Green Streets. However, I have questions. Are you arguing that a Green Streets approach, funded by homeowners, reduces the financial burden on cities? Or are you arguing that cities can afford to assist homeowners with a Green Streets approach and still spend less money for the same result as the historic approach? - Dave