Capital Letters: Linear Thinking

In which our man in Washington contemplates the virtues of urban planning, literacy, and marriage


Date: Sat, February 20, 1999 4:49:49 PM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
Subj: TOD Declared DOA in D.C.

A few days back, I received an e-mail: "After reading Virginia Postrel's recent editorial on smart growth," a transit expert named John Niles cryptically advised, "I'm pretty sure you'll find this briefing…interesting."

"This" was a seminar on sprawl, sponsored by the Denver-based Center for the New West. So there I was at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) building, clutching a cup of Starbucks and staring down at a sign-up sheet listing names from the Federal Transit Administration, the American Planning Association, the Sierra Club, and a pile of unfamiliar acronyms, such as CUED and FHWA. No sign of Al Gore, America's new urban-planner-in-chief. I was thankful for that.

Sprawl, as you know, has become one of the hottest new national issues. In an era without a cold war, where everyone who wants a job has one and the government even takes care of the erectile problems of poor men by passing out Viagra, I guess it makes sense that hard-to-find parking places in suburban malls would catch the attention of the would-be next president.

Deconstruct the issue: People who complain about sprawl, insofar as they live in it, are people who have fled crowded cities, where they hated their small houses, had to fight for parking, disliked their neighbors, and couldn't stand the schools. Now they are upset that others, who hated their small houses, had to fight for parking, disliked their neighbors, and couldn't stand their schools, did the same. Why move to the suburbs if the problems of the city follow? It makes a sort of sense.

It's the "proposed solutions" that leave me scratching my head. We have plenty of open space. Anyone who ever climbs off a bicycle and boards an airplane knows this. So let's break out the dozers, scrapers, and backhoes, and build some housing pads and roads, and make this suburban thing work. Unthinkable.

Instead, the pony-tailed planning crowd wants to turn the suburbs into the city by building small houses, one on top of the other, with little parking and narrow roads. And since bus stations have long been the focal point of communities everywhere, they imagine people will gladly give up their suburban ranch houses for 19th-century row houses so long as they have a transit station in the neighborhood. This is called the New Urbanism or, in bureaucratic speak, Transit Oriented Development (TOD).

Hence yesterday's presentation, "Measuring the Success of Transit Oriented Development: Retail Markets and Other Key Determinants." As I waited for it to start, it struck me that I was covering not Washington politics but a city council meeting in some granola-infested town, like Davis, California, where I spent my childhood. The room was filled with 40 or so bureaucrats looking for any relief from their drab cubicles and busybodies who live to enlighten others through regulations. A mustached man in a dark suit, his graying hair pulled back in a ponytail, pranced about the room, sporting a large white button proclaiming "Mass Transit." (This fellow owns a bike that folds into a G.I.-style duffel bag and, I would later learn, has a broad vision for humanity: "We can be more than commuters.")

The presenters, Dick Nelson and e-mailer John Niles, were consultants from Seattle. "We are not professional planners," said Niles, "but policy wonks. …We are here for feedback." While they never actually came out and said it, Nelson and Niles had one message for this crowd of professional planners: Americans are a wealthy people, shops are located in many places, and we like to drive to them. So TOD, like most of your other bright ideas, will fail.

Niles' main evidence for this claim, which formed the bulk of the presentation, concerned the locations of popular retail stores. Only 20 percent of car trips are for work. So to cut out trips, one must locate everything on a transit line, which must also be located close to residential housing. Niles calls such things as good restaurants, price clubs, and Home Depot "trip generators." And "trip generators" ruin planners' schemes.

Niles and Nelson knew the crowd was hostile, so they stuck to graphs, charts, and maps and let audience members form their own conclusions. (The presentation can be downloaded at www.globaltelematics.com.) Some listeners just didn't get the point.

One woman interrupted toward the end to ask what category they put gourmet-food chain Trader Joe's in–big stores or specialty stores? Mini-superstores, they said, precisely the type of shop that is a "trip generator." People drive to Trader Joe's, as I did in San Francisco even though I could have walked to a half-dozen other stores to buy similar products. This behavior never occurred to the questioner. She felt that Trader Joe's might cut down on traffic because they are a "progressive" company, meaning that people like her might convince them to locate near bus stations.

The TOD people want to "shift paradigms," so Americans give up the convenience of their cars for the stench of the bus or the crowd of the commuter train. A fellow with a pinky ring and a patch over his left eye said we have to "up our ambitions by a factor of 10." A particularly agitated fellow from Metro called the presentation of facts "counterproductive." He declared, "If oil goes to $20 a barrel, people will have to go back to the inner city."

The bike-in-the-bag mass transit enthusiast was soon up. He's a classic type–a true lunatic who can never quite believe that he isn't asked to present on the hundreds of panels he attends each year. He puts up with the experts as the price of getting his hands on the microphone in the Q&A period. He rambled about bicycling in the suburbs, told of a girl upset by a fender bender that could have been avoided if she'd just grown up without worries on a bus, and decried how business exists only to make a profit.

Near the end, Phil Burgess, president of the Center for the New West, obviously couldn't stand it any longer. He grabbed the microphone and gave a little speech himself, one grounded in a reality that escaped many in the room and was being actively wished away by the others. His message was simple: The cost of commuting in cars is lower than ever, with gas cheap and wireless phones allowing work while stuck in traffic. This means that the benefits of mass transit must become even greater to compete. By this time, many of the bureaucrats had left.

I told Burgess afterward that his point was well taken. I then headed to the Metro station for my subsidized ride back to the office.

Date: Tues, March 2, 1999 2:03:14 PM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
Subj: Child's Play

I didn't know the National Education Association was involved. I didn't know it was a national pseudo-event. All I knew was what the first few lines of the Speaker's Media Advisory told me: "As part of an effort to increase literacy in the classroom, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on Tuesday will read the Dr. Seuss classic, Green Eggs and Ham to a class of kindergarten children at Peabody Elementary School in Washington, DC." This, I didn't want to miss.

Education is a pressing matter. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the vehicle through which Washington distributes a portion of our tax money to government schools across the country, is up for reauthorization. The president has proposed a $1.2 billion increase in federal spending, to bring the total to just under $35 billion, or roughly $350 per American household.

Long gone are the days when Republicans felt the need to make the principled case against federal meddling in education. Now we get Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) attempting to outspend the president. "This president will be labeled the education president of the United States, having spent less money to get that label than anyone in America knows," Domenici complained in February. He wants Republicans to bump the money up to $40 billion.

I climbed out of the cab at 11:50 a.m. and gazed at the four-story faded-brick building. The white trim of the window frames dripped downward from the corners, like tears. It seemed dilapidated enough to be a D.C. school. A sign in front confirmed my suspicion: "Peabody Early Childhood Campus."

I headed into the press-filled room where the reading was slated to occur. Six TV cameras were mounted and ready to capture the moment, which I discovered was just one event in the National Education Association's "Read Across America Day." Jesse Jackson had, just that morning, read to 300 kids at the NEA's Washington headquarters.

At 12:05 p.m., a voice announced through the intercom, "All students who will be participating in the reading by the speaker, will you line up outside the door, quietly."

The 30 or so children were soon escorted in and seated on the floor, and each was handed a white and red striped Cat in the Hat hat. A man in front quipped, "It's like herding cats." He laughed. The woman doing the herding didn't. As photographers swarmed around the children, another fellow said, "They get a 10 on the cute-o-meter." The two women in front of me, both reporters, were gushing.

The kids soon got tired of wearing their hats, and took them off to hit each other. As Speaker Hastert stood on the side with a dumb smile, the kids responded to questions posed by reporters: "I'm 5." "I'm in kindergarten." "I'm 4." "I'm 6." "I'm in pre-kindergarten." The woman in charge quieted the room. "Can you say Speaker Hastert?" she asked. In not quite unison, the reply came, "Speaker Hastert."

As soon as Hastert sat down, it was clear that this man was in his element. He started by showing the kids his tie, which had a large picture of the Cat in the Hat. He did stumble a bit early, telling the kids, "You're going to be able to read The Cat in the Hat all by yourself. But not quite yet," when some of the older ones already can read and told him so. And one of the kids outflanked him technologically. When Hastert announced that he would read Green Eggs and Ham, an adorable voice announced, "I have the CD."

But the speaker recovered quickly. "Let's read," he began, ending the small talk. "The first page says, `I am Sam,'" to which the kids responded, anticipating the next line, "Sam I am." Hastert is a pro at reading to kids. He read slowly, never tripping over a word or breaking the cadence. He swiveled in his chair, providing a panoramic view of the pictures, pausing at times to editorialize on their larger meanings. He was patient. When the kids got excited and started to jabber on loudly, he would simply hold up his thumb like an ace pilot, which calmed them down. Unflustered, he'd continue.

I wasn't the only one to notice his skills. One woman there for the event, Noel Brazil, was particularly impressed. Her son, now a sixth-grader, was once among the 200 at this school, and she liked how Hastert dominated the kids with his thumb. "I hope he can go back to Congress and do it," she told me.

As Hastert finished, the Cat in the Hat himself entered the room, bumping his head on the doorframe. The Cat delivered a plate of green eggs and ham to Hastert, who quickly announced that there was enough for all. The Cat bobbed behind Hastert, grasping its tail, while Hastert passed out plates of green eggs and ham.

A little girl started to howl with horror. "Don't worry, he's not going to bite you," her mother said, holding 4-year-old Aniya close. "He's just a storyteller." As the howls turned to cries and the cries gave way to hushed sobs, I asked the mother who had frightened her little girl: Hastert or the Cat? She said it was the Cat, and that Aniya liked to read and was a good student.

As the children handed green egg-filled plates back to Hastert, I asked Miles Johnson, age 5, what he thought of the food. He claimed not to eat pork, and he didn't much like the color of the eggs. "Why couldn't they have red eggs, or yellow eggs?" he kept asking, not quite grasping the theme.

As a final act, the ample Hastert accepted a shirt and a certificate from the NEA and the Cat. After assuring the children that the large shirt would fit, the speaker made a gracious exit. Back to the work of the American people.

Date: Thurs, March 11, 1999 10:00:50 AM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
Subj: Shacking Up

Shacking up was the subject. The Heritage Foundation was the location. "Should We Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage," a report from The National Marriage Project, provided the evidence.

The report's conclusion, according to my luncheon invitation, is that "living together before marriage increases the risk of breaking up after marriage." This is completely counterintuitive. It's akin to a market research firm claiming that individuals who test-drove cars before purchasing them are less satisfied with their vehicles than individuals who made the commitment to 60 monthly payments after viewing only the shiny exterior. When I explained the idea to my lovely wife, she said, "That's ridiculous."

It's less ridiculous, however, if you consider the source. If the marketing firm were working for a Web-based retailer that maintained neither an inventory nor a showroom, one might expect the anti-test-drive finding. Similarly, an institution dedicated to virgin nuptials might find cohabitation deleterious. Or the claim could be true. To investigate, I once again found myself in the Heritage Foundation's Van Andel Center for a luncheon presentation.

David Popenoe, a Rutgers sociologist and the report's co-author, led with a few jokes. "The only people who seem to want to marry today are Catholic priests and homosexuals," he said, to a room of chuckles. He then told us both his daughters had cohabited before their still-successful marriages and thought he was "nuts" to do this study. He also tried to distance himself from claims of bias, saying he'd once been banned from a Catholic radio station because in his book, Life Without Fathers, he'd given a muted endorsement to shacking up, recognizing that sex outside of marriage is a fact of life. Back then Wade Horn of the National Fatherhood Initiative, who sat two seats over today, had asked him, "Why are you so in favor of cohabitation?"

Well, Wade, he's not any more. According to Popenoe's report, which assembles the findings of prior studies but includes no original research, shacking up leads to broken marriages, beaten women, and abused children. Popenoe called cohabitation a "stealth trend," noting that 30 years ago nobody was cohabiting "except people maybe in a trailer park." Today, it's over 50 percent of the people who eventually get married, and climbing.

The divorce statistic, near as I can tell from reading the report, is based on a 1992 study that itself was based on a 1987 data set that found a 46 percent higher risk of divorce for couples who shack up before marriage. In his talk, Popenoe claimed it was a "confirmed empirical generalization that cohabitation leads to an increased risk of divorce." Yet his study says merely that it "is beginning to take on the status…of an empirical generalization"–a difference with a distinction, and here we see how advocates work.

I do not doubt the figure from the 1987 data set, but it's not too relevant to the report's purpose, which is to tell young adults not to shack up lest they wind up divorced. The study didn't single out young adults, or look at young adults who cohabited vs. those who didn't. It compared a broad cross-section of people who lived together to an equally broad pool of those who didn't, mixing widely different populations. Popenoe and co-author Barbara Dafoe Whitehead even admit that as more young adults cohabit, the risk of divorce among those who've lived in sin is falling.

As I listened to Popenoe, I wrote a series of questions: "How many cohabitors have been divorced already before cohabiting?" "Are there different groups cohabiting: young, never-married adults; middle-aged; already divorced, etc.?" "Are there differences between men and women?" "He says divorce rate is related to age of marriage. But might the age of marriage be related to cohabitation?"

His answer to my first question was that he didn't know. Second: definitely, but the groups weren't broken out in studies. Third: didn't know. The last question was the real stumper.

Why do we care about the issue at all? For many in the Heritage room, it's disgust with premarital sex, homosexual sex, sex which leads to an orgasm but not a child, erections outside of the bounds of wedlock, short skirts in the workplace, etc. According to the study's authors, however, it's because of divorce.

And both Whitehead and Popenoe agreed that the biggest factor affecting risk of divorce is the age of first marriage–the later the wedding, the longer the marriage. It stands to reason, although I am told it hasn't been empirically tested, that cohabitation for at least some young adults is a short-term substitute for marriage and works to push back the age of first marriage. But if marrying later mitigates divorce, and cohabitation enables people to marry later, it's hard to see how cohabitation increases divorce.

The reason both relationships could be true, I imagine, is that the studies are dealing with disparate groups: Older, poorer, already divorced folks who then live with someone else are more likely to divorce than non-cohabitors. Younger people who live together and thereby postpone the age of first marriage may in fact be less likely to divorce.

What social scientists refer to as the "selection effect"–that people who cohabit are, as a group, more adverse to commitment that the population at large, and therefore more likely to split up–is no doubt also at work. This, Popenoe explained, has been the chief area where other academics have focused their attacks on his report. In retrospect, Popenoe allowed, he wished he had used more ink addressing this issue.

In the Q&A period, Wade Horn attacked the authors for obscuring the issue of sex outside of marriage. "It's just easier to have sex a lot if it's OK to have sex before marriage, if you're living with the person, than if you have to take them out to dinner first," he said. I turned to the woman to my left, and embellished, "Even better, you can have them make you dinner first." She didn't find any humor in my thoughts and soon left the room.

A red-faced fellow jumped in, complaining about the lack of focus on the real problem: premarital sex. My notes read, "People were pissed that they didn't piss on premarital sex."

What do these people hate more, premarital sex or divorce? Divorce, for very good reasons, many of which were first articulated by folks such as these, is out of fashion. So to be sure that they only walk down the aisle once, individuals put off marriage as they establish themselves financially and personally. But individuals also feel the urge to merge–consider it a biological thing.

The choices for young people are early marriage, cohabitation, casual sex outside of cohabitation, masturbation, or complete celibacy. Early marriage leads to divorce. So, in social scientific terms, it's bad. Casual sex is out, on any number of grounds. We know, thanks to Joycelyn Elders, what people think about public policy discussions of masturbation. Complete celibacy? The report itself raises this idea in a dismissive way: "Cold showers anyone?"

The preferred prescription for the Heritage crowd appears to be young marriage, driven by the desire for sex, and no possibility of divorce when the couple finds the sex has gone flat and they don't really like each other any more. But this idea, in the words of Popenoe, is not "saleable." So we get thin social science.