Mirror of Justice

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Diversity and Freedom in Choice of Neighborhoods

When it comes to choices for housing and neighborhoods and communities, I very agree with Eduardo Peñalver on the virtues of diversity, but I suggest a more expansive understanding of neighborhood diversity. In my mind, true diversity must include a multiplicity of choices of neighborhood styles and residential options, urban, suburban, and rural. Preserving the liberty of hard-working Americans to pursue their own dreams should be very high on the list of values important to Catholics.

If some of my friends find greater satisfaction in daily life and a deeper sense of community by choosing to live in high-density urban neighborhoods consisting primarily of multiple-unit residential buildings and with a high mix of commercial uses as well, I certainly understand and respect their right to make that choice. If looking out of the window in the morning to see the sun rise over a towering skyline of buildings makes one’s heart beat a little faster with pride and hearing the hum and buzz of the city streets brings a tear of joy to one’s eyes, I say “God bless you!” I am delighted that you have found the place where you belong.

If I choose instead to live in a suburban neighborhood with a mix of housing choices that emphasizes single-family residences (while also including low-rise apartment complexes) and a lower level of density that allows me to escape the hustle and bustle of the city center at the end of the day, I insist that my choice too is worthy of respect. Although my city council is debating whether to adopt zoning changes that might obstruct my horizon (but only over my strongly stated objection), I prefer to look out from my back-yard deck at towering trees, green lawns, and the peaceful waters of the small neighborhood lake that laps up against the playground of the neighborhood elementary school. I too have found my home.

When it comes to neighborhoods, to each their own, I say, including the freedom to choose where and how to build a home for their families. To be sure, national polls confirm that well more than three-quarters of Americans prefer a single-family house in the suburbs to a town house or condominium in the city. But I strongly defend Eduardo’s right to be among the minority that dream instead of an apartment in the city.

Eduardo is not so generous, however, about my choice of a neighborhood. He characterizes the American Dream of owning one’s own house in the suburbs as nothing less than the evil of “sprawl,” to which he says that “the end can come none too soon.” Fortunately, the end of the dream is probably not near at all, as I do think Eduardo greatly exaggerates the supposed “wreckage” of the American Dream that has been caused by the relatively small adjustment in housing prices over the past several months — which hardly amounts to a “collapse” — and a jump in gas prices — an increase that is by no means huge in historical terms. Families with children will not be flocking from the suburbs into the cities because gas prices — even assuming the worst — might be $15 to $20 a week more for a suburban commute.

While Eduardo may choose to label my suburban neighborhood and others like it as “sprawl” (i.e., neighborhoods that were not carefully designed by urban social engineers), it all sounds more like “freedom” to me. Indeed, what he describes as a socially destructive trend is instead evidence of the tremendous success of our economy and society in enhancing home ownership for an ever-greater number of Americans.

Nor should I need to apologize for my suburban neighborhood. Given that less than 5 percent of the land mass of the United States is developed as urban or suburban areas, laying the blame for environmental degradation upon the suburban homeowner is over-the-top. That problems may occur in some areas or that some mistakes were made in some locales is no basis to generalize about suburban communities as negative forces. And having lived in a variety of metropolitan settings over the years, I have found the social isolation that Eduardo rightly deprecates to be much less common in the suburban neighborhoods where I have resided than in the generally cold and unfeeling urban skyscrapers in which I previously dwelled. The cultural forces that have created social isolation are not geographically confined.

I definitely do agree that we suburbanites should take responsibility for the social health of our own communities (and an examination of our comparative rate of contributions to charity, volunteer activity, and voting in local elections suggests we’re doing pretty well). I know that my friends who are urban dwellers assume the same responsibilities to create healthy and safe communities, especially for children. There is ample work for all of us.

If as Eduardo argues, people will thrive by “living closer to work, in transit- and pedestrian-friendly, diverse neighborhoods where we run into friends and neighbors as we walk to the store, school or the office,” then people will be drawn to his New Urban vision. Hey, I may even be one of them some day (when my wife and I become empty-nesters). But while pursuing our own dream, shouldn't we cherish the freedom of others to choose differently about where and how to build a neighborhood?

Greg Sisk

December 31, 2007 in Sisk, Greg | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

The Domain: A Version of the New Urbanism

I just returned from a wedding in Austin.  While there, I ventured over to the Apple Store in a new development called the Domain, which was written up in the Wall Street Journal a few months ago.  Although I was attracted to this mixed used urban environment, I left with a certain discomfort.  In his excellent essay in yesterday's Post, Eduardo says:  "We may discover that it's not so bad living closer to work, in transit- and pedestrian-friendly, diverse neighborhoods where we run into friends and neighbors as we walk to the store, school or the office." 

Although the Domain is a mixed use (office, retail, and housing), pedestrian-friendly place where one could run into friends and neighbors on the street it was strikingly not diverse, at least from a socio-economic standpoint.  And, my sense is that many of New Urbanism projects are not socio-economically diverse.  An article in USA Today on upscale urban living in Texas said:  "As baby boomers became empty nesters, their desire for convenience and fun suddenly merged with those of young professionals. Both groups are flocking to urban settings."   

This raises several questions in my mind.  Will affluent people want to live in proximity with less affluent people?  If not, will the New Urbanism create new types of economic segregation, in some cases even displacing the less affluent to make way for new or refurbished development?  Or, will market realities force a socio-economic mixing?  Any thoughts?

December 31, 2007 in Scaperlanda, Mike | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

“MPs challenge ‘doctrinaire’ bishops”

Yesterday’s British press contained an article entitled “MPs challenge ‘doctrinaire’ bishops”—it was subtitled “Catholic church under fire for promoting a hard line on ‘immoral’ teaching in schools.” [HERE] Over the past several years, a number of MOJ contributors have addressed public policy developments in primary and secondary education in public schools as well as private schools that must comply with certain educational standards established by the state. Of course, the state’s efforts to regulate moral education that private Catholic schools provide raise fundamental questions about libertas ecclesiae. In the United States, legislative and judicial challenges have arisen over the last couple of years which have pressured Catholic schools or threatened pressure if compliance with programs that conflict with Catholic moral teachings is not adopted to the satisfaction of the state—and those interests to which the state is willing to advance. This attached article from the British press indicates that similar issues are surfacing in England.

It appears from this report that a number of Catholic bishops are supportive of rights guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights regarding the rights of parents and families concerning the education of their children about moral and religious matters. However, these important guarantees seem to have little effect on some officials in England.

Two points found in the article merit attention today. The first is the statement attributed to the MP who chairs a cross-party committee on children, schools, and families. He was quoted by the press as saying, “It seems to me that faith education works all right as long as people are not that serious about their faith. But as soon as there is a more doctrinaire attitude questions have to be asked. It does become worrying when you get a new push from more fundamentalist bishops. This is taxpayers’ money after all.” I think the bishops aren’t “indoctrinating,” but they are “teaching” and this is a major responsibility that they shoulder. Moreover, the bishops’ actions seem to be quite compatible with juridical protection of religious liberty, but some MPs object to this; after all, according to them, people should not be “that serious about their faith.”

The second point I’ll raise today on this matter involves the symbiotic relation between some secularists and Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC). It comes as no surprise that the National Secularist Society’s protest on the bishops’ stand in this matter is “supported” by “research” collected from a CFFC “poll.” But of course, what the CFFC does to advance its most curious agendae is not viewed as indoctrination, and I am sure there are those who consider their work splendidly moral.      RJA sj

December 31, 2007 in Araujo, Robert | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sprawl and "privatization"

Congrats to Eduardo on the publication of his excellent opinion piece, in The Washington Post, on sprawl, gas prices, etc.  I've been droning on for years now, on this blog, about urbanism (new and the original), and so I'm entirely on board with most of what Eduardo has to say. 

That said, one minor quibble.  Eduardo writes:

Although the end of sprawl will require painful changes, it will also provide a badly needed opportunity to take stock of the car-dependent, privatized society that has evolved over the past 60 years and to begin imagining different ways of living and governing. We may discover that it's not so bad living closer to work, in transit- and pedestrian-friendly, diverse neighborhoods where we run into friends and neighbors as we walk to the store, school or the office. We may even find that we don't miss our cars and commutes, and the culture they created, nearly as much as we feared we would.

In my view, it might be a mistake -- or, at least, it is too quick -- to connect too closely the land-use patterns and transportation we call "sprawl" with our "privatized" society.  Sure, there's something to the idea -- again, I'm sure I've endorsed it on this blog -- that urbanism is more authentically human, civic, public, and political than much of what goes on in "sprawl."  That said, "sprawl" can also be blamed, it seems to me, on the failure of our land-use policy to respect "private" ordering enough.  The zoning rules, which facilitate -- indeed, require -- the dysfunctional patterns Eduardo and I criticize are, after all, often government-imposed.  They interfere with -- indeed, they often prohibit -- land-uses and developments that Eduardo and I would like, and that private parties would be willing to construct, invest in, live in, etc. 

We might also wonder whether a greater reliance by cities on "privatized" service-delivery might have slowed the flight to suburban gated communities.  After all, it seems that at least part of the sprawl story is the entirely reasonable frustration of many people with the inability of many cities to do their basic civic, service-delivery jobs.

And finally, as Eduardo notes, there's education . . . .  Until we tame the education blob, and break the teacher-unions' lock on education-policy, and allow for genuine, religious-freedom-friendly choice in education, we will not get the "urban thing" right.  (I can live "in town", and feel smug about my front porch, sidewalks, walkable neighborhood, minimal commute, etc., but only because my neighborhood parish has a wonderful school.)

December 30, 2007 in Garnett, Rick | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Eduardo speaks ... in today's Washington Post

The End of Sprawl?

By Eduardo M. Peñalver
Sunday, December 30, 2007; B07

The collapse in the housing market and high gasoline prices are bad news for middle-class homeowners left to sift through the wreckage. But if there is consolation to be found amid the rubble, it may be that the inexorable spreading out that has characterized American life since World War II might finally be coming to an end. Given the connections between car-dependent suburban development and social ills from climate change and the destruction of wetlands to obesity and social isolation, the end can come none too soon.

American sprawl was built on the twin pillars of low gas prices and a relentless demand for housing that, combined with the effects of restrictive zoning in existing suburbs, pushed new development outward toward cheap rural land. Middle-class Americans, not able to find housing they could afford in existing suburbs, kept driving farther out into the countryside until they did. Gridlock in the suburbs and the expense of providing municipal services to sparsely populated communities imposed their own limits on how far we could spread. As a result, the density of metropolitan areas, which fell steadily in the postwar years, had begun to creep back up in the 1990s. Despite these infrastructural restraints, however, the now-defunct housing boom and cheap gas kept exerting centrifugal pressure on living patterns, pushing the edge of new development farther out into rural America.

Over the past year or so, both of these forces have dramatically weakened. With credit tight and the demand for housing drying up (sales of new homes fell last month to the lowest level in 12 years) new construction in the exurbs is grinding to a halt. The result is a decline in the building industry's appetite for rural land on the urban edge. The question now is whether that decline will last. In the past, a sudden drop-off in demand for housing in the exurbs would have represented merely a hiatus. Builders would have bided their time until the housing market recovered, and the outward push would soon have begun again. But persistently high gas prices may mean that the next building boom will take place not at the edges of metropolitan areas but far closer to their cores. People are more willing to drive 20 miles each way to work every day, burning a couple of gallons of gas in the process, when gas costs less than milk. But as gas prices climb, long car commutes become a rising tax on exurban homeownership, and the price people are willing to pay for homes in remote areas will fall.

Increasing gas prices may not be enough to cause people to move, which is why demand for gas proves so inelastic in the short term, but it can influence where people choose to live when they are forced to relocate for other reasons. The evidence that this is already occurring is, at this point, still somewhat anecdotal, but it is very suggestive. As the New Urbanist News reported this fall, during the present downturn, accompanied as it has been by high gas prices, homes close to urban centers or that have convenient access to transit seem to be holding their value better than houses in car-dependent communities at the urban edge. A recent story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune blamed flagging growth in the Twin Cities' outer suburbs on rising gas prices. If prices at the pump continue to increase, as many analysts expect, the eventual recovery of demand for new housing may not be accompanied by a resumption of America's relentless march into the cornfields.

The death of sprawl will present enormous challenges, chief among them the need to provide affordable middle-class housing in areas that are already built up. Accommodating a growing population in the era of high gas prices will mean increasing density and mixing land uses to enhance walkability and public transit. And this must happen not just in urban centers but in existing suburbs, where growth is stymied by parochial and exclusionary zoning laws. Overcoming low-density, single-use zoning mandates so as to fairly allocate the costs of increased density will require coordination at regional levels. This in turn will require overcoming the balkanization of America's metropolitan areas. This shift toward a more regional outlook will force broad rethinking of how we fund and deliver services provided by local governments, most obviously (and explosively) public education.

Although the end of sprawl will require painful changes, it will also provide a badly needed opportunity to take stock of the car-dependent, privatized society that has evolved over the past 60 years and to begin imagining different ways of living and governing. We may discover that it's not so bad living closer to work, in transit- and pedestrian-friendly, diverse neighborhoods where we run into friends and neighbors as we walk to the store, school or the office. We may even find that we don't miss our cars and commutes, and the culture they created, nearly as much as we feared we would.

The writer is an associate professor at Cornell Law School, where he teaches property and land-use law.

December 30, 2007 in Perry, Michael | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, December 29, 2007

If You Can't Tame 'Em, Co-Opt 'Em

What say you, Rick?

New York Times
December 30, 2007

The Times Adds an Op-Ed Columnist
By THE NEW YORK TIMES

William Kristol, one of the nation’s leading conservative writers and a vigorous supporter of the Iraq war, will become an Op-Ed page columnist for The New York Times, the newspaper announced Saturday

Mr. Kristol will write a weekly column for The Times beginning Jan. 7, the newspaper said. He is editor and co-founder of The Weekly Standard, an influential conservative political magazine, and appears regularly on Fox News Sunday and the Fox News Channel. He was a columnist for Time magazine until that relationship was severed this month.

Mr. Kristol, 55, has been a fierce critic of The Times. In 2006, he said that the government should consider prosecuting The Times for disclosing a secret government program to track international banking transactions.

In a 2003 column on the turmoil within The Times that led to the downfall of the top two editors, he wrote that it was not “a first-rate newspaper of record,” adding, “The Times is irredeemable.”

In the mid-1990s, Mr. Kristol led the Project for the Republican Future, an influential policy study group. Before that, he was chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle.

A native of New York City, he holds a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate from Harvard.

His father is Irving Kristol, one of the founding intellectual forces behind modern conservatism.

December 29, 2007 in Perry, Michael | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Michael's "no brainer"

My first reaction to Michael's call for higher taxes on beer and wine was to knock off a witty post to the effect that my good and Catholic friend Michael had been kidnapped by aliens from the Planet Puritron, from the galaxy of Prohibitia, and is now part of a plot to use the resources of Catholic Social Thought to advance decidedly non-Catholic (i.e., tee-totalling) aims. 

But I decided against that.  More seriously, folks . . .

I agree with Michael that, as a rule, it seems the costs (broadly understood) of behavior should fall on those who engage in the behavior.  Of course, we'd also want to ask whether the benefits of the behavior in question are similarly internalized; if someone is dispensing benefits (for which she is not being compensated) through her behavior, she might have a decent argument against bearing the full costs of that behavior.  This might be a relevant distinction between tobacco -- which benefits no one besides the immediate user -- and alcohol, which does.  (I take it that sociability, conviviality, and well run dinner-parties are good things.  Second-hand smoke is not.)

Beyond that -- and I'll defer to tax-policy jocks on this one -- it is my understanding that many tax-experts question the wisdom and utility of using targeted taxes -- as opposed to other means -- to raise the costs of particular behaviors, in the hopes of changing those behaviors.  But -- to be clear -- I don't know enough about the issue to make me confident that using targeted taxes in this way is, generally, unwise.

December 29, 2007 in Garnett, Rick | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

On being educated by Tom Berg . . .

I'm grateful to Tom Berg for correcting my mis-understanding about Vision America, and its relationship with the so-called "Christian Reconstruction" movement.  It seems to me that there is a line -- a very important one -- between the "Reconstruction" vision and the (to me, entirely appropriate) call of many politically engaged Christians for a restructuring of American policy in accord (to the extent possible, given the messiness of politics) with morality (and the virtue of prudence).  If, as Tom suggests, I put Vision America on the wrong side of that line, then I apologize.

December 29, 2007 in Garnett, Rick | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Friday, December 28, 2007

The One Day of Christmas

For the next few weeks, when I’m not grading exams, I will likely be on the road. But, even though it's not very relevant to legal theory, I felt like I had to share this story with those who missed it.  From the Times of London (HT — once again — BoingBoing):

The cradle of Christianity was rocked by an unholy punch-up when Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests came to blows in a dispute over how to clean Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. The ancient place of worship, built over the site where Jesus Christ is said to have been born in a stable more than 2,000 years ago, is shared by various branches of Christianity, each of which controls and jealously guards a part of the holy site.

The brawl apparently began when Greek Orthodox priests set up ladders to clean the walls and ceilings of their part of the church after the Christmas Day celebrations. Armenian priests claimed that the ladders encroached on their portion of the church, which led the two sects to exchange angry words which quickly turned to blows.

December 28, 2007 | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

"[I]mpossible for a Catholic to be a Conscientious Objector ..."?

On December 9, Gordon Zahn--an alumnus of the institution at which four (!) MOJ bloggers teach--died.  "After World War II ended, Gordon enrolled at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., where his pacifism provoked arguments with monks who had served as military chaplains and with veterans among the students. Transferring after his freshman year, he graduated from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Is it mere coincidence that his alma mater now harbors one of the best programs in peace and conflict studies in the United States?"

Gordon Zahn, a Catholic pacifist, is one of the most influential Catholics of the 20th century.  Unlike Zahn, most of us are not pacifists.  Nonetheless, each of us have reason to be grateful to Zahn.

This is from a piece on Zahn in the December 21st issue of NCR:

“My subject is war -- and the immorality of war.”

Gordon Zahn wrote that, with acknowledgement that he was paraphrasing “the great war poet Wilfred Owen,” in the forward to a 1967 book, War, Conscience and Dissent.

Although other writers are better known, Zahn is among the most important figures in Catholic social thought in recent history. And for most of his life, his subject was war and the immorality of war. Two early books, German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars: A Study in Social Control (1962) and In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter (1964), confirm his place among major influences, including Dorothy Day, Michael Harrington and Thomas Merton. In a preface to the 1969 paperback edition of German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars, Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan wrote, “In the formation of our will to resist legitimized murder, Gordon Zahn’s book had a major influence.”

Had it not been for him, we might never have known about Franz Jägerstätter, a martyr to his faith for refusing to participate in Hitler’s war. Jägerstätter was beatified in a ceremony in Linz, Austria, in October (NCR, Nov. 9). Without Zahn’s work, one can hardly imagine the publication of the American bishops, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response” in 1983. There, for the first time in Catholic history, nonviolence received equal billing with the just war tradition. The pastoral letter’s foundation, acknowledged in its footnotes, was the scholarship and research by Zahn.

Other writings important to many of us are his characteristically thoughtful 50-page introduction to Thomas Merton’s The Nonviolent Alternative (1974), a major text in the history of nonviolence ...

To read the rest of this tribute to Zahn, click here.

[Thanks to Larry Joseph of St. John's University School of Law, poet extraordinaire, for calling this piece to my attention.]

December 28, 2007 in Perry, Michael | Permalink | TrackBack (0)