Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Peter Brown's Lessons

Councilman and Mayoral candidate Peter Brown has posted a series of "Lessons from U.S. cities" on his web site. The lessons he has learned are quite revealing regarding the direction he would like to take Houston.

From New York City, he learned:
Government services in New York are delivered from 59 “Borough Districts”... Each District has a Board appointed by the Mayor and an Executive Director with a small staff, which facilitates high levels of citizen participation.

Categorical performance standards are set for each District. Citizens therefore have real access to their government, with direct contact and coordination among the various city agencies at the “street” or grass-roots level, where it counts. Efficient government is all about “making connections,” rather than just dealing with crime, education or job training separately from a central “command” station.

What this means in actual practice is that NYC is composed of separate fiefdoms, with local special interest groups imposing their values upon their "Borough District". Rather than protect individual rights, Brown wants to allow communities to dictate what happens within their boundaries. If a community wishes to ban development, or impose landscape regulations, or prohibit signage, so be it. This is grass-roots democracy, in which those who have "made connections" have the political power to use force against their neighbors. But rather than conduct a city-wide war, statists can conduct a series of small, localized battles.

Brown's concludes that NYC's "success" is based on several important principles:
  • Establish a Plan, with associated policies and programs.
  • Make the city safe – continue community oriented policing.
  • Focus on quality economic global growth – knowledge industry jobs, major real estate development, significantly increase the tax base.
  • Expand rapid transit, pedestrian and bicycle connections.
  • Expand and connect attractive public places, parks, squares and greenways.
  • Encourage and assist the arts.
Other than making the city safe, these other "principles" are improper functions of government. They can only be achieved by imposing restrictions on individuals and businesses, by taking money from some to be used for the benefit of others, and by interfering in the lives of citizens.

For example, a centralized plan can only be implemented by prohibiting development that conflicts with the plan. Rapid transit, parks, and support for the arts can only be achieved by taking money from taxpayers to fund such projects--projects that many taxpayers oppose but are forced to support financially.

What I find particularly interesting about Brown's lessons is that he turned to other cities for advice, rather than making an attempt to understand why Houston led the nation in job growth in 2008, was named the best city to buy a home or find a job, and was at the top of many other "best of" lists in 2008. If any city is to be considered worth emulation, it should be Houston. Yet, Brown turned his attention elsewhere--to the Big Apple, Dallas, and Denver. Why?

The answer can be found in the conclusions that Brown drew from each of his visits. In each city, he found that centralized planning was a key component to whatever successes had been experienced in those cities.
The Denver we experienced has benefited from nearly two decades of planning, clearly defined policies, high standards and effective programs. Whether its rail transit, the new airport or “Stapleton New Town”, neighborhood revitalization, redevelopment of the urban center, building new sports venues downtown connected to the Riverfront Park, or the Homeless Initiative – the programs have worked, planning has worked, citizen participation has worked.

Brown is a long time proponent of centralized city planning (and a supporter of zoning in the 1990's), so his conclusions are hardly surprising. But they raise a lot of unanswered questions. Such as, what does he mean that "planning has worked"? For whom has it "worked"? Did it work for those whose personal plans were destroyed because those plans did not conform to the central plan? Did it work for those who had their money and property confiscated to build rail lines, sports venues, and other public projects that they personally opposed? Or did it work for those with political connections who received special favors from the city government?

The projects advocated by Brown all involve an expansion of government power and control. He is opposed to individual freedom--the right of each individual to act according to his own judgment in the pursuit of his own values. He treats individuals as incompetent to handle their own affairs--only government can solve the ills that face us.

I reject this vision of individuals and I reject Peter Brown's vision for Houston. The city government should be protecting our rights, not controlling our actions and dispensing favors to political cronies.


Mike N said...

Good post!

It's pretty obvious that Mr. Brown ignored the success of his own city and turned to others because he likes the power to initiate physical force against his fellow man. He wanted to see how others were successful at weilding such force. He craves it to the point of ignoring real human success in Houston. Like Ayn Rand said, concern for human life is not their motive. Powerlust is.

Brian Phillips said...

Houston was arguably the most economically successful city in the nation in 2008, yet our "leaders" would have us emulate those cities that lost jobs, lost population, and saw their housing markets collapse. As you say, it makes their motives pretty clear.

Rational Jenn said...

Nice post! Thanks for sending it along to the carnival this week. By the way, I used to live south of Houston, as a teenager. In Lake Jackson. Texas, and particularly Houston, is one of my favorite places.