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Zoning, race, and ideology

Summary:
Matt Yglesias has a post that discusses the history of zoning laws. He cites a study by Christopher Silver that shows how zoning was introduced as a way of preventing minorities from moving into white areas. Then he has this to say: The reason I’ve found myself recommending Silver’s piece is that the people I am trying to convince are generally ideologically motivated college-educated professionals. They instinctively dislike libertarian arguments and would hesitate to identify themselves as “pro-business.” They conceive of urban land use politics as pitting activists or regulators against developers and are disinclined to side with the developers. The “Racial Origins” story is, I think, a good way to try to create a permission structure for progressives to embrace

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Matt Yglesias has a post that discusses the history of zoning laws. He cites a study by Christopher Silver that shows how zoning was introduced as a way of preventing minorities from moving into white areas. Then he has this to say:

The reason I’ve found myself recommending Silver’s piece is that the people I am trying to convince are generally ideologically motivated college-educated professionals. They instinctively dislike libertarian arguments and would hesitate to identify themselves as “pro-business.” They conceive of urban land use politics as pitting activists or regulators against developers and are disinclined to side with the developers.

The “Racial Origins” story is, I think, a good way to try to create a permission structure for progressives to embrace a deregulatory cause. But the lever here is not mass opinion, but the internecine fights of the progressive nonprofit world.

Free market policies are generally in the best interest of society.  Unfortunately, terms like ‘neoliberalism‘ now have such a bad connotation that the policies need to be disguised in some way in order to make them palatable to the left.  As soon as someone points to the racial justice aspect of zoning reform, however, the right turns against the idea:

One problem here is that elite politics exist on both sides. . . .

Certainly on the housing front, the problem with Sameerah (one of the aforementioned YIMBY state legislators) framing his deregulatory proposal in racial justice terms is it got him denounced by a Daily Caller writer. Similarly, when Biden included an effort to reduce housing regulation in his American Jobs Plan, he got denounced by Stanley Kurtz in National Review. In both cases, you have right-of-center housing specialists saying that the Democratic proposal is directionally correct. Ed Glaeser, a Republican economist, critiqued Biden’s housing proposal on the sensible grounds that it’s not as strong as it should be.

The problem is that the very same racial angles that help zoning reformers win intra-progressive arguments have the opposite impact on the right. I wish congressional Republicans would listen to Glaeser or my friends at the Mercatus Institute. But Tucker Carlson has come out swinging against zoning reform.

During the 2020 campaign, Trump warned that zoning reform (once a Republican idea) would lead to undesirable people moving into nice suburban neighborhoods.

This is where we end up when both sides of the political spectrum adopt identity politics. In this case I agree with the left. But I fear that presenting the zoning issue as one of racial justice will make it politically toxic.

I wish I had a solution.  Martin Luther King’s vision of a colorblind society seems to be ever further in the distance.

Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment". In May 2012, Chicago Fed President Charles L. Evans became the first sitting member of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to endorse the idea.

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