The Scourge of New Jobs

Steven Hayward

June 11, 1999

The news that officials in Portland, Ore., have imposed a $1,000-per-job “growth impact fee” on Intel if it creates too many new jobs confirms that America has arrived at an unprecedented social moment. It is surely strange when a state director of economic development says (as Oregon’s did), “We aren’t just interested in jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Portland’s ambitious crusade to stop “sprawl” is behind the effort to discourage job growth. To be sure, people everywhere are rightly annoyed at the increased traffic congestion and loss of open space that come with rapid suburban development, but the case of Intel points to something much more profound at work.

Try out the following thought experiment: Imagine that you brought back some New Deal architects, showed them photos of new suburban developments and explained that neighborhoods like these were going up all over the country. You would also inform our New Dealers that the home ownership rate in America was approaching 70 percent—a rate no other nation in the world comes close to matching—and that minority groups were the fastest-growing segment of new homeowners.

Our reincarnated New Dealers would puff with pride and say: “By golly, we did it. Our goal of expanding prosperity and extending it to the working class has met with success.”

But then you would reply: “Oh, no, you don’t understand; this is nowadays called ‘sprawl,’ and it’s a huge source of controversy and discontent. Lots and lots of people want to stop the spread of suburban housing.”

How would you explain this baffling state of affairs to New Dealers, or even early Great Society liberals, for whom growth of all kinds was the most stubborn challenge of their respective generations?

One answer can be found in a 1976 book called “The Social Limits to Growth.” Its author, Fred Hirsch, wrote in response to the infamous Club of Rome report that suggested Western civilization was bumping up against the physical limits of growth because of scarce resources, pollution and the population bomb.

Mr. Hirsch said this scenario was nonsense but thought it possible that comfortable middle-class people might come to doubt the utility of growth for other reasons. This, he thought, would represent a fundamental change in the social outlook of modern middle-class democracy.

At the heart of this attitude is cognitive dissonance. All of us naturally want the fruits of growth for ourselves individually. We all want more income, more education and other personal amenities. This desire used to lead people to support growth, which meant that everyone was happy to hear about a new factory. Somehow or other, we all understood that in a dynamic world, growth would benefit each of us, even if we were shopkeepers or insurance agents not directly employed at the new factory. But at some point, Mr. Hirsch predicted, the nexus between general growth and our own personal well-being would break. Growing traffic congestion, he predicted, would be one of the first causes of this shift.

Rapid growth brings not only congestion, but also dramatic change. People move to the suburbs looking for some sense of permanence but instead find its opposite every time a farmer sells land to a developer or a stand of trees is cut to make way for a strip mall. As Mr. Hirsch put it: “This process of movement will in turn change the characteristics of suburban life, at first to its net benefit but after some point to its detriment. With a declining city on its inner side and another suburb rather than open country on its outer side, the essential character of a suburb will be altered and in part destroyed.”

Portland at least can be credited with a crude consistency. After all, growth comes from two places—the bedroom and the boardroom—and controlling building permits alone doesn’t really slow growth. Limiting jobs will certainly preserve the city’s quality of life—for those who already have jobs. But are we so affluent and happy today that we can be indifferent to those without jobs or workers who aspire to move up? In Portland the answer, apparently, is yes.

Steven Hayward is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, based in San Francisco, and an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.