Yglesias Is Baffled

Matthew Yglesias is baffled by reality. At least, he finds the Antiplanner’s post about how zoning codes actually work, as opposed to how Yglesias imagines they work, to be “baffling and bafflingly long.”

He boils his case down to three simple statements:

  1. Throughout America there are many regulations that restrict the density of the built environment.
  2. Were it not for these restrictions, people would build more densely.
  3. Were the built environment more densely built, the metro areas would be less sprawling.

Reality is never so simple. As you can see, it all depends on statement 1: are there regulations throughout America that restrict density? As evidence that there are, Yglesias cited the Maricopa County Zoning Code, which he claimed allows development no denser than duplexes. Apparently, he didn’t read (or was baffled by) chapter 7, which allows housing at 43 units per acre, or chapter 10, which allows anyone with 160 acres to build as dense as they want.

Sometimes I think I have ADD, as I have a hard time reading long, boring articles. Perhaps Yglesias has the same problem (or my article was especially boring), as he doesn’t seem to have read much of my “bafflingly long” post (he actually refers to this one, not the one on the Antiplanner, but they are substantially the same).

The Antiplanner, he says, “seems to want to engage in a complicated counterfactual hypothetical about whether or not most people would still prefer to live in large single-family homes even in the absence of regulatory restrictions.” Actually, very little of my post was about that: my post showed that the regulatory restrictions he reads into zoning codes actually aren’t restrictive at all, since most cities that don’t engage in growth-management planning are extremely flexible about the use of vacant land. And when I did use counterfactual cases (examples of low-density development even when there are no regulations), they weren’t at all hypothetical.

Yglesias, a philosopher by training, betrays the typical planner’s ignorance of economics when he argues that “the high cost of housing in New York, Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Santa Monica, etc. indicates that there’s market demand for walkable urbanism.” I suppose he would say that the high cost of the “I Am Rich” iPhone application — a $999.99 app that does nothing but display an image of a red jewel, and which eight people bought before Apple removed it from its app library — proves there is a market demand for expensive, useless things. In other words, we shouldn’t confuse price with demand — demand is a function that considers both price and quantity.

To the extent that there is a market demand for walkable communities, builders will and do meet that demand. Yglesias claims that “classic tall apartment buildings with no attached parking facilities would be totally illegal to build in virtually ever contemporary American city.” But in fact you can find tall apartment buildings, with parking, in every major metropolitan area, regardless of local parking rules (and most parts of Texas, among other places, have none). To me, this shows not that builders are prevented by regulation from meeting the demand for apartment buildings without parking, but that builders know that including parking enhances the value of their buildings even if a few people want to live without cars.

Perhaps the most anti-car city in America, Portland, has spent millions of tax dollars subsidizing construction of parking for developers in supposedly walkable Pearl District and other parts of the city. There is a Whole Foods on the streetcar line, but the fact that the city built Whole Foods a parking garage has more to do with the store’s location than the streetcar. Meanwhile, as faithful Antiplanner ally John Charles has shown, Portland-area transit-oriented developments with limited parking have high vacancies. The lesson is not the regulation requires parking but that developments of almost any kind won’t succeed unless they have sufficient parking.

I don’t know where Yglesias lives now, but part of the problem may be that he has spent most of his life in New York City, Massachusetts, and Washington, DC, three places (including DC suburbs in Virginia and Maryland) that are heavily regulated. If he lived (as Kunstler does, and who therefore should know better) in upstate New York, Kansas, Texas, or any of at least 30 states that do not have growth-management planning, Yglesias would be less quick to assume that zoning codes control development.

Yglesias chastises John Stossel (whose show that inspired this debate was broadcast last night), the Antiplanner, and other free marketeers for implicitly supporting (by not objecting to) the regulations that Yglesias claims prevent builders from meeting the market demand for dense, walkable communities. In fact, I have frequently expressed an eagerness to dispense with all zoning codes and other government land-use regulation, and to rely on deed restrictions and homeowner associations to protect property values in neighborhoods that are already developed.

I have invited smart-growth advocates to join me in a campaign for such deregulation. Other than Andres Duany, most have rejected this invitation, as they want to make land-use rules as restrictive as Yglesias thinks they already are in order to force the dense development they want and prevent the low-density developments that most Americans want (as indicated both by surveys and actual housing choices). Though he states he does not want to “debate the ‘smart growth’ slogan,” by joining with them in claiming that current zoning forces sprawl, Yglesias is helping their cause by ignoring the facts about just how flexible pre-growth-management zoning codes actually are.


69 thoughts on “Yglesias Is Baffled

  1. Andy

    Hey ws and bennett: Dan has commented 11 times on this AP post alone. Only 3 of them had any minimal substance at all. Are you going to call him out on 8 non-substantive comments on one day’s posting? Otherwise, the rest of us will continue to mock him, and your side of the debate will have to suffer from the collateral damage.

  2. StevefromMKE

    Dan said:

    One wonders why the usual small-minority suspects comically trot out th’ fraydom one moment and comically disparage attempts to bring more housing choice to freedom-loving patriots the next.

    Is it cognitive dissonance or hypocrisy?

    This superior intellect…is laughable…

  3. Dan

    Ah. Cognitive dissonance or dishonesty then.

    Why do the usual suspects trot out th’ fraydom one moment and disparage attempts to bring more housing freedom and choice the next?

    That’s basically the number one consistent issue on this blog. The number one failure of the argument.


  4. msetty

    Ignoring the merits or demerits of any given type of zoning, zoning is a major intervention in land markets, any way you look at it.

    Scott et al seem to be in favor of “democracy” regarding this issue, but otherwise are strongly against other market intervention, consistent with being conservatives or libertarians.

    But if zoning intervention in the land markets is OK by their reasoning, what is their criteria for this obviously major deviation from free enterprise, free market principles? I haven’t see any spelled out yet in this too long thread.

  5. Scott

    Dan, You are showing your misunderstanding of reality by typing, “[pro-freedom people] disparage attempts to bring more housing choice”. Wrong!!! Holy firkin crap! How can you believe such nonsense?
    The statists ignore many property rights, set much land off limits to build, demand high density in many areas where larger lots are preferred. The statist are the one limiting freedom & choice. You are twisting into opposites. Slavery is freedom. One option is choice. Must take transit is choice. Crowdedness has open space.

    Dan continues wild assertions with no support.
    Th death penalty is very good, even for ongoing slander.
    How is advocacy for fewer regs, less zoning, less gov, more zoning, more building, lower pricing, etc…. lead to the conclusion of less “housing freedom and choice”?

    msetty said But if zoning intervention in the land markets is OK by their reasoning, what is their criteria for this obviously major deviation from free enterprise, free market principles?

    False perception. How do you think that free marketers have reasoning for zoning?

  6. Dan

    Maybe Mike Setty has a point that the intellectual quality of the comments is declining.

    Low-quality spam notwithstanding, why do the usual suspects disparage attempts to bring more housing freedom and choice the next?


  7. Andy

    Hey Dan. Due to your reputation, no one reads your normal posts.

    Now no one reads your bold faced posts.

    Try underlining them, using all caps, lots of exclamation points, and frowny faces after your posts. 🙁

  8. t g


    I’m under the impression that you rarely read too far down the comments. In a thread like this it is understandable. As a heads up, your blog reflects on you, and that includes the comment section. Your house is falling apart here, Randal. Control your commenters.

  9. ws

    Maybe this blog’s comment section is a microcosm for unfettered free markets? 😉 Would ROT’s filtering of content go against his beliefs?

    Despite a toxic environment, he does a good job of updated content and letting people speak their minds w/o micromanagement. I applaud him for that…and I have been on blogs before where simply disagree with the blogger gets your post deleted or not posted at all.

    Very annoying.

    Maybe some more rules (clearly visible before posting) would benefit the blog, and we could hopefully abide by them and hold ourselves to a better standard.

    I know I could certainly work on my e-etiquette. It’s easy to talk trash when you’re behind an anonymous veil.

  10. Scott

    So Dan, it sound like you agree with being intellectual?
    Are you going to follow through with support for your vagueness, wild accusations, assertions, labels, etc.?
    And discontinue your immaturity & fallacies?

    It is funny how people want big gov, but don’t give any valid reasons why.
    They often give invalid reasons & false analogies, such as using anarchy as the only other option.

  11. t g


    A preference for government intervention or unfettered markets is ultimately an issue of moral philosophy. Economists agree on this. And the populace is nearly split on how our country should conduct itself.

    Please tone down the rhetoric.

  12. Dan

    I think (for the regular reader) Greasemonkey on the handful of usual suspects would alter the perception of toxicity, and surely eliminate puerile spamming/false statements/transparent mischaracterizations/strawmen to attempt to hide the main points of the thread .

    But GM would do nothing to eliminate spam and drivelous hand-waving for the drive-by reader. But such is the nature of blogs, esp the few on the right that allow comments.


  13. Andy

    To ws, bennett, highwayman, and tg:

    I not only don’t mind criticism of the Antiplanner, I enjoy reading contrary comments. Sure you might make snotty comments that detract from the debate, and I wish you wouldn’t, but you mostly try to debate issues.

    Dan is not like that. He is a troll who wants to submarine this website with snotty comments and yet is too much a coward to try his own website, yet he is by far the most common commenter on this website. Perhaps he has a fetish, or perhaps he is just a cowardly troll.

    Please join us who are isolating Dan as a troll, yet welcome contrary opinions and debate. We aren’t asking that he be banned, only that he be shunned when he acts like a troll.

  14. Scott

    You are way too vague to have meaning & mis-characterize issues:
    Gov & markets & morality?
    Me tone down rhetoric? ???

    I could really tear apart whatever you are trying to say, but that would require speculation.
    You are too broad encompassing.
    The items here are usually about urban issues, mainly about property rights & building, and transportation.
    You seem to be talking about banking, stocks, censorship, medicine drugs… It’s unclear.

    Your linked article, by Mankiw, is 18 months old. It could have relevance, but many now see how they were tricked by BO. Although he is still foling many people. His speeches say nothing, except for him contradicting himself & hoping for better stuff. And people blame the recession on laissez-faire, when it was gov intervention that caused it.

    Dan, the only thing I got out of your comments are things that only apply to you.
    BTW, “spam” for the purpose of selling something; that’s not done here.
    What is a toxic perception?
    Name the false statements, w/evidence.

  15. foxmarks

    Since off-topic stuff has become a topic, count one more vote for the camp that holds Slobbering Dan sux. I don’t bother with the comments here anymore, thanks to that pompous drooler.

    It has been months since I even glanced past AP’s postings and into this cess-pit. Nice to see it is the same as it ever was. Same voices, same arguments, same pointlessness.

    I suppose I could have learned to accept Slobber-boy’s tone as part of his character. But that he was first to snap onto nearly every post and dominated all the threads like a sad lickspittle…

    Well, I guess it is my loss that I no longer bask in his Salivary Glory.

  16. Scott

    Good points. How true.
    I stayed away from this board for almost a year, because there were a few that had no intention of debating/discussing the issues, but just denounced topics & persons with vagueness & loaded words.

    It’s like avoiding a restaurant because there are a few kids there throw food around & are otherwise disruptive.

    Opposing points are fine, but they need to be points. In other words, support your claims with data & logic, and explain why the opposition is supposedly wrong.

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