The excellent Eli Dourado in the NYTimes:
Many of our country’s problems are reducible, in one way or another, to the fact that we have lost the imperative to transform the physical world. While the soft technology of the internet has marched forward, development of real stuff — of steel and concrete — has slowed, hampered by laws that privilege the status quo.
…Under the National Environmental Policy Act, passed in 1969, federal agencies must produce a detailed statement of environmental impacts for any action — including granting a permit — that significantly affects the human environment. In contrast with the ugly motivations driving zoning, NEPA came into existence riding a wave of environmental consciousness. It was motivated by two well-meaning but mistaken beliefs: that material progress was of environmental quality and that environmental justice could be served through more citizen voice.
…If we want to build infrastructure as well as housing, we need to address environmental review as well as zoning. We must protect the environment, but we need not do it indirectly with laws that operate only through paperwork and court cases. We should do it directly — with stricter air and water standards, smarter conservation policies and a carbon tax. A direct approach would enable speedy government decisions and get shovels in the ground. A pro-building, pro-environment deal, eliminating environmental review in favor of these direct protections, could improve the environment through stricter substantive standards and through a stimulative effect on new, clean infrastructure.
How did the most dynamic country on the planet become so sclerotic? We did it to ourselves. We enacted laws that privilege the status quo at the expense of change and progress. We liberally passed out veto rights to anyone with the money and wherewithal to hire a lawyer. If we want to reverse the damage and create a more prosperous future, we must make it easy to build.
This is also a good opportunity to plug Ezra Klein’s excellent interview with Jerusalem Demsas, How Blue Cities Became So Outrageously Unaffordable. Notably, neither Erza nor Jerusalem let the left off the hook. The subtitle of the episode is How did the party of big government become the party of paralysis? Ezra also pushes back appropriately on some of the nuttier ideas like expanding the welfare state would make homeowners less likely to push for zoning restrictions.
In many ways, we are rediscovering Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations.