August 3, 2003

Today’s nomads drive SUVs

By: John A. Kalb

At first, federal highway money was a good idea. Having a strong inter-city road system is a boon to the economy and national defense. However, when the focus of this program shifted from building inter-city arteries to adding to the beltways that ring every major city, and when Congress realized it could use the money as a carrot to make states do what it wanted, another good program went bad.

The most obvious problem with federal highway money is that Congress uses it as an easy way out. Instead of confronting the potential Constitutional problems that would ensue from establishing a federal drinking age of 21, Congress decided to simply tie money to states’ drinking ages. Thus, Congress has a strong disincentive to reduce the program even if it is no longer necessary, because some states might reduce their drinking ages, which Congress has decided would be a bad thing.

Essentially, states are no longer responsible for major pieces of their road infrastructure. Instead of states building the roads thatc ommuters use to drive to work, the federal government is now responsible for them. This lack of responsibility means that states look to build roads that they would have had a much harder time justifying had they been forced to collect the taxes themselves. What government would refuse money for roads in exchange for something as minor as changing the drinking age or reducing the speed limit?

However, if the roads are built, people will come. The middle- and upper-classes, who left decaying cities fifty years ago in “White Flight”, are now fleeing their first generation suburbs, which are now decaying too. The middle class is increasingly moving to gated communities and other greener pastures.

This culture of flight leads to disposable cities. Instead of building things that are necessary and building them to last, whole cities are now built with a limited lifetime in mind. And why not? Those paying for the new houses will not be living there in thirty or forty years when the maintenance gets prohibitively expensive. Why care if buildings are poorly built?

Also, the bonds between people are broken. Without an expectation of being in a given place for long, there is not only little incentive to build good homes, but there is little incentive to build links between people and to get to know one’s neighbors. What’s more, families that move all over the place cannot be as close as those that stay together.

The gated community is a reaction against the breaking of links that comes with such a mobile society. If people know and care about their neighbors, they will look after each other. However, when these local links are broken, safety declines as neighbors no longer watch out for each other. They have not only less incentive but also less ability to do so, as they are less aware what goes on. So we spend money to hire security guards to provide that which our neighbors used to provide for free.

This shift alters the fundamental nature of human relations. Instead of a new neighbor being a potential friend and someone to seek out, now new neighbors are unknowns and thus potential dangers. Instead of going out into society, we cut ourselves off and hide behind our home security systems and in our SUVs, hoping to intimidate those around us to leave us alone or get out of our way. A society that encourages its members to either view others as at best impediments and at worst dangerous is a society in the process of disintegration.

And this flight also affects the family itself. With everyone always looking for the easy way out, it is no surprise that so many marriages end in divorce these days. Many things follow the path of least resistance, and when it is easy to just go somewhere else and start anew, there is far less incentive for people to work out their problems, and weaker communities mean that there are fewer support structures for marriages that are experiencing difficulty.

This is not to say that suburbanization has not had its benefits. It is good, for example, that most Americans own their homes. In that way, the American Dream is still alive and well. But it would also be good if most Americans lived in those homes for longer as well; and it would be a good thing if most Americans left their homes and went out to be with their neighbors. It is a difficult balance between having mobility and still giving people a place to go home to.

But it is a fight worth fighting. Right now, Americans risk becoming modern nomads, moving constantly from place to place with no light at the end of the tunnel. But unlike ancient nomads, who moved in groups often large enough to be described as communities, the modern American moves alone and thus suffers a form of isolation that would have been unimaginable for ancient nomads.

Movement is very American. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants. In many ways, a willingness to move and to change made America great. But the modern rootlessness caused by impatience and the ease of transportation is new. When Horace Greeley said, “go west, young man,” he was encouraging young Americans to build something from nothing. It was assumed that by going west, one was in it for the long haul. Now that the country is settled, this movement is just shuffling back and forth between different places. The settlers, like the modern American, moved in an attempt to improve their situation, but they had the purpose of seeking the Promised Land instead of one more step in a never-ending succession.

As in all things, moderation is the key, and America has lost its balance. Eliminating most federal highway money is one way that the federal government can help push things back in the right direction. Perhaps by making it just that little bit harder for people to move around, communities will grow stronger again, and families will regain their vitality. The current situation- paying billions of dollars a year for a vehicle of our society’s devolution, is, quite simply, untenable.

John A. Kalb is a senior at Dartmouth College.