WNC Citizens Blog

The Political Economy of Growth

I have found an interesting post over at Bacon's Rebellion that sheds light on the results of the anti-growth movement in western North Carolina in general, and Asheville and Buncombe County in particular, because the denied urban growth just spills out into the surrounding countryside:


Back in 1976, Harvey Molotch, a University of California-Santa Barbara professor, wrote an essay, "The City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place." Molotch argued that coalitions of business elites dominated metropolitan-level politics across the United States. They harnessed the power of government to promote regional growth and development, mold land use outcomes, and increase the value of their real estate interests. Noting the similarities between Molotch's thesis and my observations in "Who Rules Virginia?", blogger Richard Layman ("Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space") brought the essay to my attention.

"The City as a Growth Machine" helped clarify how I look at the political economy of growth in Virginia. Three decades later, many of Molotch's observations still ring true. I would modify his thesis, as I will note below, but I think it's worth reviewing the highlights.

Writes Molotch: "The political and economic essence of virtually any given locality, in the present American context, is growth." The desire for growth creates consensus among members of the politically mobilized local elites, however split they might be on other issues, and gives rise to a spirit of civic boosterism.

"The clearest indication of success at growth is a constantly rising urban-area population," followed by the expansion of basic industries, a growing labor force, a rising scale of retail and wholesale commerce, more far-flung and increasingly intensive land development, and increased levels of financial activity. Members of the growth coalition augment their wealth by increasing the value of their real estate and enjoying the benefits of an expanding market for their products and services. In addition to the obvious suspects -- developers, bankers, construction companies, utilities and the like -- Molotch notes that local newspapers and universities often are part of the growth machine.

Molotch doesn't seem to regard growth as inherently bad, but he observes -- rightly, I believe -- that there are both costs and benefits associated with it. As a rule, the growth machine manipulates the political process and levers of government to capture as many of the financial benefits of growth as it can while passing on as many of the costs as possible to the taxpayers and general public. That's why in Virginia, developers, home builders and contractors dominate the donations to political candidates.

As growth accelerates, however, liabilities become visible in the form of traffic congestion, increased air and water pollution, the overtaxing of amenities, and, I would add, fiscal stress in the form of overcrowded schools and escalating taxes. Those liabilities, in turn, give rise to anti-growth movements.

In my observation, anti-growth movements in Virginia have consisted of a splintered and uneasy alliance of taxpayers, NIMBYs and environmentalists bemoaning taxes, congestion and loss of open space. Responding to oft-inarticulate cries of frustration, elected officials have enacted zoning "protections" that have given rise to the scattered, disconnected, low-density pattern of development. "Sprawl" has then created entirely new sets of problems such as unaffordable housing, even more dysfunctional transportation networks and even more pervasive damage to the environment.
Source: Bacon's Rebellion


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This used to be one of several political commentary blogs I ran until I got tired of updating several blogs, and consolidated them on Thunder Pig, and moved the group blogs to a Ning network.

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