This week the United States celebrates its 300 millionth resident. Never in human history has one nation achieved such a high standard of living for so many people. Today, American average incomes are a third higher than that of the EU-15, the European Union before expansion to Eastern Europe.
All of this has been achieved as our people have pursued the American Dream of homeownership and personal mobility. Nonetheless, a powerful special interest lobby is doing all it can to make sure that the American Dream becomes the province of the few, not the many.
But first, a summary of what has been accomplished. Since World War II, home ownership rates have increased 75 percent and now more than 90 percent of households have access to cars. Home ownership has made it possible to build up capital, through equity, that funds new business start ups and finances university for the kids.
The car has made it possible to work nearly anywhere in our now larger urban areas and still spend a minimum of time traveling to and from work. Despite the frequent publicity accorded traffic congestion, American urban areas are the least congested in the world. Even in the most congested urban area, Los Angeles, average work trip travel times are a quarter less than in Paris or London, despite the clear superiority of their mass transit systems. It is not surprising that virtually every first-world nation has followed a suburbanization model similar to that of the United States (though it is not obvious to tourists whose foreign visits tend to be limited to historic cores).
Moreover, the American Dream is spreading throughout the population. African-American and Hispanic home ownership rates are growing faster than the White-non-hispanic rate and there is the potential that they will continue to converge. A Swedish research institute found that average African-American incomes are as high as average Swedish incomes.
Once smog ridden urban areas have seen massive improvements in air quality – so much so that mountains hidden for much of the year by pollution before can be seen much of the time in Los Angeles. American urban areas are among the cleanest in the world, and will continue to get cleaner as more efficient air pollution reduction technology plays a greater role.
In short, the modern American urban area is an "open city" in which individuals, communities and the nation have prospered as households have been permitted to live and work where and how they like.
Regrettably, many urban planners are threatened by this success – out of a misguided fear for the future or perhaps a compelling urge for control. The result is imposition of authoritarian planning policies and practices (mislabeled "smart growth") that would circumscribe the growth of urban areas into carefully confined spaces, so as not to occupy any more of the more than 97 percent of the nation’s land that is not in urban development.
But there is a bigger reality than a compulsion to hem in the growth of urban areas. The result is clear from places where authoritarian policies have been imposed with the greatest vigor. It all has to do with a simple economic concept – that rationing raises prices. And so, in places like Portland (Oregon), San Francisco and San Diego, authoritarian planning policies have severely rationed land for development, driven the price of land through the roof and seriously retarded housing affordability. For example, in the San Francisco area, the cost of a median priced house has gone up so much that the average household would have to pay an additional $600,000 over a 30 year mortgage. Not even Hugo Chavez or OPEC can compete with this – their price increases over the past five years would add little more than $10,000 to the average household’s budget over 30 years.
Authoritarian planning policies and practices are robbing many households, present and future of the potential for home ownership and joining the economic mainstream. Because of their disproportionately lower incomes, this burden will be born most by African-American and Hispanic households.
Fortunately, most of the nation has not opted to destroy home ownership through short sighted authoritarian planning. In places like Kansas City, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Cincinnati and many others, the open city prevails and housing remains affordable. Thus, for most, the American Dream remains alive and well. It is not surprising that recent census data shows a strong out-migration from metropolitan areas with authoritarian planning and high housing costs to metropolitan areas with lower prices. The American Dream is still alive, though not as widely available as before.
Census Bureau projections indicate that sometime around 2025, the nation will celebrate its 350 millionth resident. The nation will be far stronger and more socially cohesive if most of those new residents live in suburban houses they own and have the mobility only the car can provide to employment, shopping and other destinations they find make their lives more rewarding.