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Wendell Cox's Version of Dune

Josh Stephens on
May 25, 2015

When I consider Wendell Cox's ideas, I remind myself that I am taking in not just a series of ideas but rather a whole worldview. It's kind of like reading Dune, the famously comprehensive desert world imagined by sci-fi novelist Frank Herbert. 

Cox spoke the other day to ULI's Los Angeles chapter along with USC demographer Dowell Myers. The two weren't exactly adversaries, but they were a study in forms of reasoning. Cox is all induction, beginning with theory and explaining how the facts match it. Meyers is deductive, presenting the facts and going from there. 

Cox's a worldview that does not, I think, correspond well to reality -- certainly not the reality of California -- but it's a nonetheless a complete, mostly consistent view. An analysis of Cox, then, relies on finding those moments when his world matches up with the real world just closely enough to make a comparison. 

Cox's narrative is a familiar Libertarian one -- and it's fine, as far as it goes. Rather than belabor it, I'd like to pick out a few of Cox's claims, all of which are worth considering if only because they are provocative. 

In no particular order (numbered for future reference): 

1. The US average for home purchase prices is three times annual household income. California is north of 5x and climbing towards 10x.

2. On a ranking of average commute times in world megacities, Los Angeles ranks last, with 28 minutes. The top city clocked in at 1 hour, 15 minutes. 

3. It's sexy to tell stories about how milennials love living in center cities. But not nearly as much as everyone else loves living in suburbs, with 90 percent of new households forming on the fringes. 

4. Anyway, even hipsters are going to move away once their kids are old enough to go to school. 

5. The Los Angeles region has plenty of land on which to build. 

6. The dispersion of employment centers in concert with the dispersion of residential areas has led, on average, to shorter commutes. 

7. Construction costs are the same as they are in center cities as they are on the urban fringe, but land costs are lower, and there's less opposition. 

8. Cox says that he helped pass the funding legislation for the Los Angeles subway. He's not a fan of subways, but he'd do it again because otherwise the RTD (predecessor to LA Metro) would have squandered money on something else. 

9. SB 375 will "force" developers to reduce suburban greenfield developments but will not, because of "regulations," promote much infill. 

10. Accounting for housing costs, the poverty rate in California rivals that of Mississippi. 

11. Cities with regulations limiting land development have the worst ratios of purchase prices to annual incomes (Hong Kong is the worst globally). 

(No offense to Myers, who had a great presentation on demographics, but, you know, if you're not willing to say that Mojave should become the next great L.A. suburb then, well, you're not going to get as much press.)

Some responses. See which one of us you agree with. 

1. If you compare California to the entire rest of the country, you end up comparing it with many places that aren't nearly as prosperous, not nearly as appealing, and, therefore, not nearly as expensive. With that said, yes, we have a housing crisis

2. Rankings depend on the objects being ranked. The No. 1 city on Cox's list was Jakarta. Does anyone think that Jarkarta is relevant to a policy discussion about Los Angeles? 

3. True enough. It is a sexy story, and we shouldn't be seduced by anecdotes. But you know what's a salient, if less sexy, story? That of all the people forced into the suburbs -- not by choice but by necessity -- because of lack of supply in the center cities. 

4. We do need to fix the schools. Before we do that, we need to fix the funding schemes that hurt urban schools. Prop. 13, I'm looking at you. 

5. Here's where Myers and Cox got into it. Myers helpfully pointed out that Los Angeles has some pretty significant barriers to development, one of which is called the Pacific Ocean. That's when Cox gestured towards the desert. I'm still having trouble figuring out why it's more preferable to build houses Victorville and Palmdale, which have more meth labs than offices, than it is to build apartments in Santa Monica, which has twice as many jobs as it has bedrooms. 

6. Surely this claim is spot-on for some people. If you live in Upland and work in Claremont, more power to you. If you live in El Monte and work in Century City, not so much...

7. This got me thinking. It's true that land on the fringe follows different economic rules than that in the center. Land is dear in the center, so landowners can estimate highest and best uses and charge accordingly. The cagiest landlords effectively suck up all the economic rent. On the fringe, one parcel is a lot like the others; it's a buyers market, and the buyers can bid land costs down. Oh, and there's Prop. 13 again, which encourages landlords to hang on to their properties, sans improvements, indefinitely. 

8. 150,000 daily riders thank him. So do the drivers aboveground on Wilshire Bl. (If only we had sandworms to dig tunnels for us!)

9. Most of Cox's arguments are based on passionate readings of actual data and are supported by theories that carry some glimmer of truth. This one, however, nudges discomfortingly into Tea Party / Agenda 21 conspiracy theories. 

10. This is a crime and a travesty. See responses to 1 and 11. 

11. I've saved the richest one for last. Over and over and over we hear free-market advocates and/or fans of sprawl decry the constraints and distortions of regulations. I'm not unsympathetic, just as Cox isn't, to be fair, a raving maniac about it. But the effect of regulations depends in large part on where you stand: one person's restraint is another person's savior. I'm also tired of wholesale condemnations of "regulations." That does two things: first, it enables conservatives and aggressive developers to nod knowingly and self-satisfyingly; second, it prevents us from actually enacting regulatory reform. See, "regulations" can mean anything you want it to mean -- usually CEQA, sometimes AB 32, sometimes SB 375, lately AB 779. Prop. 13 isn't a "regulation" of course, because it's all about property rights and freedom. I challenge Cox and his fellow travelers no longer to refer to "regulations" but instead to refer to the specific regulations that they want to change. That approach with force them to explain why the regulation is bad and maybe to propose a solution. He also might consider whether regulations precede or follow the enormous demand that may have pushed up prices in the first place. 

Interestingly, Cox aimed his critique largely at regulations that complicate the development of greenfields. I did not hear him express support for, say, looser restrictions on density in urban areas. Houses will solve our real estate crisis, but, somehow, apartments will not. Regulations that protect virgin land are bad, but regulations that constrain the highest and best use of infill parcels � be they height restrictions, density restrictions, or parking requirements�are, I guess, fine. 

It's worth noting the location of this event: Century City. We were on the 22nd floor of an office building, 50 miles from the nearest desert, with westerly and northerly views of single-family homes, the Los Angeles Country Club, and the Santa Monica Mountains. The audience consisted of developers who have probably never heard of Victorville, much less been there. They're all trying mightily to develop in Los Angeles � higher, denser. The jobs are already here and the demand is already here, whether Cox likes it or not. 

I left the presentation at 9:30 a.m. and crawled westward on Olympic Boulevard. I was caught in the morning traffic. Everyone at that hour is trying to get into Santa Monica, from the east. They can't come from the west. There's an ocean there. Valet, please bring me my sandworm... 

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