Why We Need Very Different City-Level Political Parties

David Schleicher has an awesome article on the problems with using national party brands in local elections. This piece and his paper with Chris Elmendorf are well worth your time:

But the veneration of local politics is based on a basic misunderstanding of how voters behave. For all the flak that national elections get, they have real meaning. Voters are presented with a clear choice between candidates from two very different and competitive parties, whose contrasting positions on key issues makes the decision about which party and candidate to support relatively easy for most. State and local elections look very different. Battles for control of legislatures are frequently uncompetitive, parties regularly do not take stances on key issues, and voters are poorly informed about the issues at stake and would struggle to pick most candidates out of a lineup.

What often ends up happening in state and local elections is that a voter casts a ballot for a candidate from the party whose national stances she agrees with. For all the paeans one hears to “our federalism” from politicians and judges, the paradoxical truth is that voters do not actually know more about elections and issues in their backyards. They know less.

When you think about it, this makes sense. We are too busy and the individual benefits are too small for most of us to invest time and effort in learning much about issues or candidates for county legislature or even Congress before we vote. In order for elections to be meaningful, we need help.

In federal elections, party labels provide us with that help. Particularly in these polarized times, knowing that a congressional candidate is a Democrat or Republicans tells us almost everything we need to know about how she’ll vote in Congress. Furthermore, because the parties are pretty consistent over time, we can develop “running tallies” of observations about what Democrats and Republicans have done while in office that can guide us in the voting booth. As long as some people notice each political event, the electorate as a whole can develop “macropartisan” running tallies that shift in response to the successes and failures of each party, and an uninformed electorate can behave like a more informed one. Not perfectly — the electorate can be myopic, influenced by irrelevant information and biased in how it interprets data – but better than you would think if you only looked at survey data that shows that many Americans know little about politics. As a result, federal officials can be held somewhat accountable for their actions. If the economy is doing badly or the government does something unpopular, the party in power will have to pay a political price.

In state and local elections, we rely on party labels too, but they do less work for us. The reason is that even when the election is for local office, we still rely on national party labels. There is a “mismatch” between the level at which party identification is created and the level of government at issue in the election.

Who Will Benefit From the LV Population Boom? Depends on the Land Use Laws

This Scott Kraus article on projections for huge sustained population growth in the Lehigh Valley is really the lodestar of what this blog is all about, and it is why you should care more about Lehigh Valley land use politics.

Here’s the key bit:

Newly revised projections from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission show that our strategically located and enticingly inexpensive region will grow as fast in the next 30 years as it did in the last 30, and could be home to an additional 227,000 people by 2040, bringing its total population to nearly 874,000

“The migration is going to be the big deal, from New Jersey and New York, and points east,” Planning Commission Executive Director Michael Kaiser said [...]

The implications are broad, from the wear and tear of additional traffic on key arteries and demand on local school systems and water and sewer plants to the business opportunities presented by adding tens of thousands of consumers to the local economy.

The big unknown is where they will settle. Will they follow the waves of new residents who brought their two-car families into suburbs like Forks, Lower Macungie and Bethlehem townships in the last 20 years, or will they beat a path to the urban neighborhoods of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton?

“It depends to some degree on how it gets distributed in the two-county area,” Kaiser said. “We are working on that right now. Some interesting things have happened in the past few years. I don’t think anyone would have predicted Allentown’s population would have grown the way it did.”

How the population growth gets distributed is all about allowable land use. What kind of housing and offices will the zoning laws allow developers to build, and where will they be allowed to build it?

Land use policy is kind of like an ice cube tray. There are many different kinds:

The shape of the ice cubes depends on where the water is allowed to go in the tray. The water in this example is like the population flows from New York and New Jersey, and land use policy is like the ice cube tray.

Where people choose to live, and *what kinds of people* choose to move to the LV in the next 30 years, depends in part on what kind of housing is available. And what kind of housing is allowed to get built depends on the land use laws.

Government policy shapes what happens in the land market. If Lower Macungie and Forks only allow people to live on 1 acre lots, then housing is going to be a lot more expensive. If Bethlehem makes it too hard to build new housing, and lets NIMBYs shoot down development projects and multifamily housing in the city core, then that’s going to mean more suburban sprawl.

Policymakers can decide that they want most of the new population growth to happen in the core, or if they want 30 more years of sprawl. It all depends on what zoning laws allow developers to build, and where.