It’s not often that you read an article that makes you look up three words in the dictionary. What makes it more impressive is that the words in question weren’t even in the piece itself. I must admit that the subtle distinctions between sophistry, casuistry, and obscurantism are such that I needed a refresher after reading Joel Kotkin’s meandering column in the Washington Post. It winds ’round and ’round itself and, not surprisingly, ends up in a cul de sac.
Fortunately for me Ben Adler at Grist does the heavy lifting in his response to Kotkin, and points out the flaws in the analysis of the data which Kotkin uses. Adler is too grown up to go into detail when it comes to the deceptive nature of the data Kotkin selects however, so allow me.
Sprawl is the reason Salt Lake City is a leader in the production, as it were, of children. (The Mormon church’s views on being fruitful and “multiplying” just might play a role there.)
People having more children is more indicative of the quality of the environment for raising children than…data demonstrating where children have the highest quality of life. (Hint: It’s the northeast.)
Auto-centeredness is the reason Texas is seeing a flood of new immigrants. (I’ll let you work that one out.)
Better government is the reason for job growth in regions tied to the energy sector. (True, Boston, New York City, and San Francisco were offered enormous shale beds and chose not to get into the fracking biz ’cause they’re just too snooty.)
That Mr Kotkin has no interest in helping anyone, even himself, come to a better understanding of the actual situation on the ground is made clearest by his cherry picking of the data. He bounces back and forth between things like total growth or percentage growth, large cities and small cities, metro areas and cities proper, and alters his time frames based on a clear effort to make the data say what he wants it to say, and not to find out what it might really mean:
2001 is a significant year if you want to show that Houston has led the nation’s LARGE metropolitan areas in NET growth in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields (The recent energy bubble is called a “recovery”); but 2008 is the operative year when comparing NET job growth to New York City (Did something happen in 2008 to jobs on Wall Street?); GROWTH in the PERCENTAGE of the foreign born is key when touting Charlotte and Nashville over cities in the northern tier (“Golly, why would you choose percentage growth and not net growth to compare Charlotte and Nashville to NYC?”) or FASTER GROWTH in the PERCENTAGE of college graduates of the same cities to Boston. (Yea, Boston needs to get with it on the “Higher Ed” thing. Open a college or something. Maybe the folks from Charlotte and Nashville could come up and help ol’ Bean Town out!)
The amazing thing is, all of these things are not even the primary flaw of Kotkin’s piece. The bottom line is that he is right when he says that a great many Americans like sprawl, want suburban subdivisions and want to live car-centered lives, but he is as wrong as anyone in the field of urban studies could be when he analyzes the current situation and concludes that the risk to freedom of choice is that struggling cities, like the one I live in, will opt for a New York, Boston, San Francisco model of development and close out the possibilities for people who want to live “The American Dream”. The truth is that struggling cities must follow the path of salvaging walkability, density, and transit or the only viable middle class option will continue to be sprawl, which will eviscerate those communities economically and have potentially ruinous consequences for society and the environment.
In Part II I will lay out a coherent argument which will reveal and not obscure the reasons for arriving at this conclusion.