Kristof on Syria: The Politics and Strategy of Stupid Stuff

Nicholas Kristof wants the United States to set up a safe zone in Syria, as Hillary Clinton has suggested in her platform. “Don’t do stupid stuff,” as Obama once famously described his Middle East policy, isn’t good enough, says Kristof.

From a moral standpoint, it is impossible to argue with Kristof. Syria is a nightmare. From a political and strategic standpoint, it is quite another matter. A place and a name epitomize the counter-argument: Srebrenica and Adam Szubin.

Srebrenica was the “safe zone” established by the allies in Bosnia during the 1990’s. The Bosnian Serbs overran it when they felt like it, massacring thousands of Bosniak Muslims against a pathetically-overmatched Dutch “peacekeeping” force. Who is to say it won’t happen again?

Put another way, a “safe zone” is not a policy, strictly speaking, but rather a policy goal. Making refugees safe is to a partial extent just a way of restating the problem. And it is worse in Syria because Assad and Putin are not interested in a safe zone and will be happy to use their air power to obliterate it. That means risking an air war with them.

So: which troops will guard the safe zone? So far, no answer. Kristof says pretty weakly that Obama should lead some sort of international effort to develop some sort of multinational force. Good luck with that one: that’s what we did in Srebrenica. The only way a US policy can count on a genuine safe zone is with genuine US ground troops. Do we want that? (And no, the Kurds won’t do it because it won’t be in a Kurdish area, and they won’t want hundreds of thousands of non-Kurdish refugees in a Kurdish zone). Do we want our planes dogfighting with Russian aircraft, and Assad’s still-powerful anti-aircraft guns?

Now, maybe we do. Maybe it’s worth it. Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe of the greatest proportions. It’s a huge risk. US soldiers will die; they will be captured. But to avert a Syrian holocaust? That might be within the finest traditions of American idealism.

And that’s where Adam Szubin comes in.

Adam Szubin was nominated by President Obama nearly a year and half ago to be Undersecretary of the Treasury for Financial Intelligence and Terrorism. That’s a pretty important job. And you would think that it would be important to have a confirmed nominee there.

You would be wrong. The Senate Republicans have not even scheduled a hearing for him. He is sitting there, “Acting” Undersecretary, and his term ends at the end of this Congress. Without confirmation, there will be no one to fill his space.

What does that have to do with anything? Simply this: to put US troops and pilots in harm’s way in an active war theater over a long haul, especially for purely humanitarian purposes, requires broad and deep bipartisan support. No President would or should go out on a limb for something like this, which is inherently politically risky, unless he or she knows that it will not become politicized.

And the Senate Republicans can’t even give a hearing for a frigging Undersecretary of the Treasury.

Not a good example? How about this? President Obama asked Congress a year and a half ago for an AUMF against ISIS. As Tim Kaine rightly says, it’s pretty close to a legal requirement. And the Republicans have refused to even take it up. It is obvious why: if they take it up, and they approve it, then they are partially responsible for US deaths. But if they reject it, then they are partially responsible for ISIS victories. So they have taken the most craven and irresponsible course and have refused to do anything, which means that anything bad that happens is not their fault and they can just attack the President. Putting party over country is the guiding light of the modern GOP.

And Nick Kristof thinks that in this political context, President Obama should go off on his own and put together a Syrian safe zone. “Mr. President, please, put your head on that guillotine. No, really, Mitch McConnell won’t bring down the knife.” Sometimes it’s good to be a New York Times columnist.

Obama’s political opponents often accuse his supporters of thinking him a saint. He is far from that, but more to the point, they want him to act like a saint, risking his political career and legacy while full well knowing that he will be attacked for it by the most irresponsible and cowardly opposition in the United States since before the Civil War. Sorry, he’s in the politics business, not in the saint business. More importantly, they want him to risk the lives of American soldiers and potentially get us into a quagmire.

Can we do something in Syria? Yes; the United States is the most powerful country in the history of world. Is there a compelling moral reason to do it? Yes. But any adult foreign policy requires a clear-eyed view of the benefits and risks involved, and any criticism of that policy requires a mature sense of the relevant political calculus. Attacking President Obama for not acting in this strategic, military, and political context is not a critique: it is an emotional spasm.

Gingrichism Rampant: Trump’s Threats to Delegitimize Democracy Repeat the Standard GOP Playbook

Lots of hand-wringing through the internets today over Donald Trump’s accusations that the voting system is rigged and that even if he loses, he didn’t really lose because, well, the system was rigged. And it gets worse, because of the statements of Trump consigliere and sleazeball Roger Stone concerning the issue. Stone said that Trump’s supporters will “shut the government down” if Clinton wins.

Their inauguration will be a rhetorical, and when I mean civil disobedience, not violence, but it will be a bloodbath. The government will be shut down if they attempt to steal this and swear Hillary in. No, we will not stand for it.

The “government will be shut down” is a tell, although not the only one. It is crucial to point out that Trump’s and his surrogates’ threats of physical violence and delegitimation of American democracy is doing nothing but extending Republican Party tactics to their logical conclusion. Five years ago on this page I referred to these tactics as Gingrichism, i.e. the destruction of the informal institutions of American governance. The process began with Gingrich but did not end with him, because the entire GOP is the party of permanent constitutional crisis.

Repeated government shutdowns, impeachment, the use of congressional investigations for political purposes, threatening the full faith and credit of the United States, Mitch McConnell’s throwing the Senate into dysfunction, the violent shutting down of the Palm Beach County recount (aka “The Brooks Brothers Riot”) and of course Bush v Gore all represent the Republican Party’s attempts to crush the informal norms that make democracy work. Trump’s most recent threats are simply the latest iteration and nothing outside what has become the Standard Operating Procedure for the GOP.

The irony is that if there is a threat to election integrity, it comes from Trump’s friends in the Kremlin, who will have little compunction hacking into US voting machines.

All in all, it’s good that I have taken up Post-apocalyptic literature as a hobby. At least I won’t be surprised.

Captain Khan, Sacrifice, and the Virtue of Selfishness

Lots of ridicule and outrage (both faux and genuine) over Donald Trump’s statement that he has “sacrificed” for his country (implicitly like Captain Khan did), because “I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve had tremendous success. I think I’ve done a lot.”

What Trump said was absurd, but it is an absurdity that forms the essential groundwork for GOP public philosophy, dependent as it is on Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. It is, of course, ridiculous to equate “sacrifice” with “financial success,” as Trump did. But in Paul Ryan’s Ayn Randian world, this is about the only definition that one could use. Remember that Rand’s philosophical testament honors “The Virtue of Selfishness.” Self-interest is the only moral touchstone. The idea of sacrificing oneself to a greater good is literally unintelligible. The only type of “sacrifice” that makes sense is giving up something now to get something else later. So for Trump to say that he has “sacrificed” because he has “worked hard” or created “thousands of jobs” (which is doubtful) makes perfect sense from this perspective: he gave up something now (his time, workers’ salaries assuming they got paid) for greater rewards later. This is also why Mitt Romney could say four years ago that although none of his five sons were in the military, they “served” the country by campaigning for their Dad. People like Capt. Khan, who sacrificed himself for his country, aren’t heroes in this scheme: they are suckers.

I doubt whether Trump has read anything by Ayn Rand, because he basically doesn’t read anything. But he doesn’t need to read Rand: he LIVES it. The tougher call is for someone like Ryan, who believes in Ayn Rand, but can’t really say so, so as always he resorts to dissembling. But as always, Trump’s statement here is not surprising, and only represents carrying out Republican economic and political premises to their logical conclusion.

Do Fatwas Against ISIS Matter?

A few months ago, 70,000 Muslim clerics issued a fatwa against ISIS. All very well and good, great to see, important to notice, etc.

But whenever violence is justified by appeal to religion (regardless of which religion it is, see Baruch Goldstein), adherents of that religion have to take proactive steps to ensure that beliefs leading to violence are being rooted out. So here is one that I would be interested in discussing with these 70,000 imams:

How do you interpret Qu’ran 4:34?

That verse describes relations between husbands and wives, and in some interpretations allows husbands to beat their wives. Other interpretations suggest that men are superior to women. And yet other interpretations reject all violence or any suggestion of gender inequality. What do these imams think about that?

Now, one might wonder what that has to do with anything: this fatwa concerned ISIS and Al-Qaeda, not gender. But I believe that the two are linked. In male-dominated traditional societies, women can stand in for the ultimate Other, that which must be controlled and dominated. Hyper-masculinism means great propensity to violence, or as a professor of mine once put it, “when it comes to violent crime, women are just not doing their fair share.” The one thing that virtually all terrorists have in common is not their religion, or their culture, or their class background, but rather their sex.

Put another way, Islamic terror will not cease until women in the Umma are empowered and equal. And this applies to all terror. It may not be a sufficient condition — Communist China early on adopted formal norms of gender equality and Maoist rule might have been the most brutal of the 20th century, which is saying a lot — but it is a necessary one. For my own faith, it is surely no accident that the religious settlers who have committed the worst terror against Palestinians are also the ones who hold the most retrograde views on gender.

So while it is great that we hear condemnations of terrorism from imams, my follow up question is: how are you personally, in your practice and in your work, fighting for gender equality with Islam? What do you tell your followers about Qu’ran 4:34? Because if that answer is a shrug of the shoulders, or an uncomprehending stare, it isn’t good enough.

Barack Obama, Savior of Tel Aviv

Whatever your perspective on the latest round of Israel v. Hamas violence, one impressive development has been the success of Iron Dome, Israel’s anti-missile system. As the Iron Dome system shoots down Hamas missiles over Tel Aviv and elsewhere, let us remember who made sure that it actually got developed: Barack Obama. As The Wall Street Journal reported in 2012:

Despite initial Pentagon misgivings, President Barack Obama has given $275 million to the project since 2010 with the aim of reducing the rocket threat… Iron Dome got a significant boost soon after President Obama came to office in 2009. Mr. Obama visited Sderot as a presidential candidate and told his aides to find a way to help boost Israel’s defenses from the makeshift rockets, his aides said, although defense officials at the time still doubted Iron Dome was the way.

Of course, none of this can be true because as the Right and the GOP keep telling us, Obama is an anti-Semite who hates Israel. So never mind.

Can President Obama Save Uganda’s Oppressed Gays and Lesbians?

Chatham House has an illuminating and disturbing report on the domestic and regional politics of Uganda’s anti-LGBT oppression. Bottom line: pressure from the West to stop the nation’s brutal anti-homosexuality bill — which mandates a life sentence for gays and lesbians - might only foster bigoted actions in the short run.  Equality for LGBT people is regarded by many Uganda elites as “colonialist decadence.” Now, that’s decadence I can believe in!

But what to do? At this point, the administration’s best option is to order the US Embassy in Kampala to start processing LGBT Ugandans for humanitarian parole. According to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, humanitarian parole can “bring someone who is otherwise inadmissible into the United States for a temporary period of time due to a compelling emergency.” USCIS may grant parole temporarily “to anyone applying for admission into the United States based on urgent humanitarian reasons or if there is a significant public benefit for a period of time that corresponds with the length of the emergency or humanitarian situation.” Humanitarian parole does not bring with it immigration status, although it is very rare for parolees to return their country of origin.

Of course, there is one obvious threshold question: how would the Embassy determine whether someone is actually threatened?  The best first approximation would be to consult with NGOs inside Uganda who serve the population.  (Full disclosure and kvell: I’m proud to be working with the American Jewish World Service, which has close ties with many NGOs in Uganda that do this work, and which has developed a major campaign around LGBT and women’s rights.).

This would obviously be an imperfect way of identifying people at risk of incarceration, but in many ways, this is a feature, not a bug.  Two decades ago, Larry Lessig wrote an important article on “The Regulation of Social Meaning.” The law, Lessig, can at times change not only what is prohibited or allowed, but the meaning of actions. For example, before anti-discrimination laws, lunch counters that wanted business from African-Americans would be pressured into segregating from the local Conservative Citizens Council.  But after the Civil Rights Act, the owner of the lunch counter — who did not need to be a saint, but rather just someone out for a buck — could respond to such pressure by saying, “Oh yeah? And are you going to pay my legal bills when I’m sued?” The meaning of an integrated lunch counter changed after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Back to Uganda.  It would be salutary to see thousands of Ugandans claiming to be LGBT if they thought it would get them into the United States.  The very ambiguity of who is LGBT and who is not could do some work in reducing anti-LGBT sentiment in the country.  We might call it a Spartacus moment:

And oh yes — allowing humanitarian parole in these circumstances could save hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives.  Note to the President: No Congressional authorization necessary.

Zionism, Colonialism, and the Toxic Conversation On Israel

The New Republic’s John Judis is the latest recipient of over-the-top right-wing attacks on any who would question Israeli policy.  Judis’ book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israel Conflict has been attacked as part of a “new worldwide effort to question the legitimacy of Israel” (Ronald Radosh in the Jerusalem Post) and the work of a “faux Elder of Zion” (Rick Richman in Commentary) who “deploys the bigotry of yesteryear” (Jordan Chandler Hirsch in the Wall Street Journal) and insists that Arab massacres against Jews are “justified” (Hirsch and Radosh).

I haven’t read Judis’ book yet, and I can tell that these sentiments are nonsense. Judis is a fair-minded writer; it beggars belief that he would justify Arab massacres against Jews.  More sober reviewers such as Jonathan Kirsch in the Jewish Journal and Gershom Gorenberg in The American Prospect have a lot of trenchant criticisms of it, but they are intelligent enough not to have a conniption fits about policy disagreements and nowhere mention the sorts of absurdities that Judis is accused of.

That said, Judis’ attempt to defend himself gets him into trouble, and does lead me to wonder whether this book is the masterpiece that some are hailing. In particular, I noticed this paragraph in Judis’ response to his critics:

Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann and the British Zionists who helped draft the Balfour Declaration did not aspire to create an empire like that of the British or French, but to be junior partners of the Western imperialist powers. Herzl, who admired Cecil Rhodes, described the Jewish state as “a part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism.” The Zionist movement established “colonies” and aspired to create a Jewish state in a territory where, at the beginning of the Zionist movement, Arabs made up 95 percent of the population. American Zionists compared the Zionists in Palestine with American colonial settlers. At the time, colonialism and imperialism were not dirty words they way they are now. So yes, I think much of the Zionist movement—with the exception of Ahad Ha’am and his followers—saw themselves engaged in a mission that could be described as settler colonialism.

Now, I realize that these replies cannot go on too long, and that thus nuance gets lost, but if this response accurately and completely reflects Judis’ views and the message of the book, then that represents a real problem. Whatever Herzl might have thought, the man died in 1904 (13 years before the Balfour Declaration), and the British Zionists who helped draft the Balfour Declaration were nowhere near the core of the Zionist movement that actually created the state in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  David Ben-Gurion and the rest of the Yishuv institutions and leadership had no interest in being junior partners of western imperialism: they loved working with Orde Wingate in the late 1930’s, but basically detested the British and other imperial powers. “We must assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper and we must resist the White Paper as if there were no war,” said Ben-Gurion. That is not someone who wishes to be the junior partner of imperialism. Indeed, the Mapai leadership was shocked when Israel was not invited to the Bandung Conference in 1956 and Israel’s government leaped at any chance to establish strong relationships with African governments as soon as they were independent.  (The much-ballyhooed Israel-South Africa relationship really did not get going until 1976, after the rest of Africa cut off ties with Israel following the Yom Kippur War).

Thus, “colonialism” represents a deeply flawed view of the Zionist project.  “Colonialism” assumes a metropole to which one is loyal.  The Zionists who actually built the state had little for any metropole and saw themselves as a nationalist movement.  Gershon Shafir, one of the best scholars out there working on this, makes an absolutely crucial distinction between “colonialism”, which Zionism was not, and “colonization,” which it clearly was.  Any time  a group of people moves from one part of the world to another, in one sense it is “colonization.” But to see Zionism as a “colonialist” movement is at best imprecise and misleading.

None of this excuses the hysteria against Judis in the right wing press. But Judis isn’t doing himself any favors in his response — and very possibly, he won’t be doing it in his book, either.

Scarlett Johansson, BDS, and Collective Punishment

No serious Zionist should defend Scarlett Johansson’s decision to remain as Sodastream’s official Spokesbabe, a decision that led her to sever her ties with Oxfam.  Yet the controversy surrounding her endorsement contains a central irony: the very methods that Johansson’s detractors advocate undermine their case against Israeli self-defense.

As to the first point, boycotting products from the territories (and not from Israel proper) sends a clear and vital message to the Israeli government, viz.: you will not profit from the settlements policy.  It is necessary for those like me who want Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state. Let’s say this again: uprooting settlements may be good for the Palestinians, but it is definitely good for the Jews.  Recall just how difficult and traumatizing it was for Ariel Sharon to remove settlements from Gaza.  It will be ten times worse with the West Bank. The paramount goal of saving Israeli democracy must be to stop settlements now and then start ripping them out.  This is also why it is so outrageous that the Israeli government offers special tax breaks to firms like Sodastream that operate in the territories.

Whatever internal policies Sodastream might use, its very presence in the occupied territories dwarfs whether Israeli and Palestinian workers use the same lunch room.  Israel is not (yet) an apartheid state (although in part of the territories it may well be), but one can see an analogy from the old Sullivan Principles during apartheid-era South Africa. Rev. Leon Sullivan endorsed the principles as a way of doing precisely what Sodastream says it is doing: encouraging equality between Blacks and Whites.  But after a number of years, Sullivan abandoned the effort because he saw that the problem turned on putting sufficient pressure on the regime to change.

Or here is another analogy: suppose that there was a firm in Iran that hired Jews and treated them equally to Muslims.  Or better yet, a Jewish-owned firm.  There must be such things.  No one who advocated for sanctions against Iran who take seriously someone who said we should trade with that firm.  (Bernard Avishai has the goods over at TPM Cafe regarding Sodastream’s economic impact. As Avishai mentions, Sodastream’s plant in Maale Adunim is hardly the stuff of which a robust future Palestinian economy is made.).

As to the second, and ironic, point: if BDS advocates are happy about the breakup between Johansson and Oxfam, they have another thing coming, because their entire position on Sodastream undermines their position on Israeli responses to Palestinian terrorism.

Whenever Israel uses any military measures against Palestinian terrorists (and let’s make no mistake: firing rockets into Sderot or the Galilee is that, by whatever definition), the counter-argument is that military responses will kill civilians, and thus such actions amount to “collective punishment.” The principle seems unimpeachable: how in the world can you justify punishing someone who did not violate the law?

The problem is that boycotts, divestment, and sanctions are all about collective punishment. Forcing Sodastream to abandon its factory in Maale Adunim punishes innocent Palestinian workers. Indeed, given the West Bank’s dependence upon Israel economically, any sanctions on Israel amounts to collective punishment. Millions of Israelis voted against the government and the right-wing parties, and vehemently want a peace deal.  Anti-Israel sanctions are thus collective punishment.  Blockades are collective punishment.  Lots of things are collective punishment. Indeed, the argument against collective punishment is precisely that which opponents of divestment made in the 1980’s.  Pulling out of South Africa, they argued, would only hurt Black workers.

Some collective punishment is good and some collective punishment is bad. In order to tell the difference, we need to consider things like: 1) is this the least restrictive means available? 2) is there military necessity; and most importantly: 3) how do we assess the relative ends of the parties in question?  And the answers to these questions will by their very nature bleed into each other and not have clear answers.

For example, it is not clear to me that one can assess “military necessity” without assessing the relative merits of the political goals that any military conflict involves.  This is one stark failing of international humanitarian law: it seeks to regulate means without assessing the ends to which those means are directed.  Essentially, it tries to take politics out of war.  That is fantasy.

Both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict engage in collective punishment in order to achieve their political goals. That’s why it is a war. That is why it is terrible. But to condemn means without assessing ends simply obscures the more fundamental issues.


Obamacare Deception: Insurers (and maybe others) Need a Nice Letter from the FTC

Via Kevin Drum, Paul Waldman presents a truly epic post demonstrating that many insurers’ claims that rates are going up because of the Affordable Care Act are misleading and deceptive.  The press seems to have been duped into thinking that thousands of people are seeing their rates go up because insurers are telling them so.  But in fact, Waldman writes, many of the so-called Obamacare victims will actually benefit from the law.

What’s happening, according to Waldman, is a classic insurer bait-and-switch:

I want to talk about the thing that spawns some of these phony Obamacare victim stories: the letters that insurers are sending to people in the individual market….There’s something fishy going on here, not just from the reporters, but from the insurance companies. It’s time somebody did a detailed investigation of these letters to find out just what they’re telling their customers.

….If the woman I discussed from that NBC story is any indication, what the insurance company is offering is something much more expensive, even though they might have something cheaper available. They may be taking the opportunity to try to shunt people into higher-priced plans. It’s as though you get a letter from your car dealer saying, “That 2010 Toyota Corolla you’re leasing has been recalled. We can supply you with a Toyota Avalon for twice the price.” They’re not telling you that you can also get a 2013 Toyota Corolla for something like what you’re paying now.

I’m not sure that’s what’s happening, and it may be happening only with some insurers but not others. But with hundreds of thousands of these letters going out and frightening people into thinking they have no choice but to sign up for a much more expensive plan, it’s definitely something someone should look into. Like, say, giant news organizations with lots of money and resources.

If what Waldman says is true, that is indeed grotesque behavior, and one that the press should be investigating instead of getting their stories from the Republican National Committee.

But there is another thing.  It also violates century-old federal law.  The press isn’t the only institutioin that should be looking into this.

Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (15 USC 45) prohibits ‘‘unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.’’  This is not an obscure law; it has been enforced for decades, despite conservative objections and more recent attempts by deceptive businesses to have it declared unconstitutional.  Any insurer claiming that a consumer must purchase a more expensive policy than what it also offered, and certainly claiming that a consumer must do so because of the Affordable Care Act, is violating the Federal Trade Commission Act.  This is not a close call.

When an insurer tells a consumer that his or her rates are going up because of the Affordable Care Act, and that is not the cause of the increase, it violates federal law.  This is also not a close call, although there is some ambiguity if the insurer can show that it had a reasonable belief that the ACA was the cause.  Insurers, however, know very well why their prices are going up.  Any insurer who says, “Gosh, we raised prices but we really didn’t know why, but we thought it was the ACA,” is essentially admitting that it doesn’t know what it is doing.  These claims should be treated with skepticism.

The trickier question is what happens when someone’s employer claims to its workers that their contributions to their insurance are going up because of the ACA.  Suppose Hobby Lobby (assuming it provides coverage) writes a letter to its employees telling them that they have to pay more because of Evil Kenyan Marxist Islamist Obama.  It knows that this is nonsense: it just wants to make its employees hate Obama as much as it does.  There are two questions here.  First, is this communication “in” or does it “affect commerce.”  If employees could change or alter their health plans because of it, then I would say yes.  If it is simple right-wing agitprop, I’m not so sure.  Second, at some point deception turns into a First Amendment issue.  If you couldn’t deceive people, then that would shut down the entire Republican media strategy over health care.  This is one reason why the connection with commerce is so important.

In any event, the Federal Trade Commission might want to send a letter to insurers participating in the exchange.  We are watching you.  Do not deceive people about this law.

Single-Family Homes: A Smart Growth Strategy

Peter Calthorpe's Highlands Garden Village: Smart Growth Based on Single Family Homes
Peter Calthorpe’s Highlands Garden Village: Smart Growth Based on Single Family Homes

Sunday’s New York Times features a story by Shaila Dewan asking, “Is Suburban Sprawl on the Way Back?”  Answer: not really, although highly compact urban development is hardly going to dominate, either.  The best quote from the whole piece comes from Smart Growth America President Geoff Anderson, who correctly observed,

The market isn’t all for smart growth, nor is it all for sprawl, The thing for the last 50, 60 years has been that we’ve done nothing but sprawl.

Very true.  And keep it in mind: despite the hysterics emanating from the fever swamps of the right, smart growth is a deregulatory, pro-market strategy.  Smart growth advocates believe that if consumers actually get what they want, we will have a much smarter growth pattern than we have seen since the Second World War.

But Dewan does play into the Dumb Growth advocates’ ideology by noting that although smart growth and compact development seems to be on the rise,

Single-family homes still define the American dream and prospective home buyers overwhelmingly prefer them.

Assuming that this is true, this hardly undermines a smart growth strategy and might in fact enhance it.  Going on 20 years now, urban planners and smart growth advocates have been busily building single-family homes.  They are simply a different single-family home footprint than we are used to.

Consider the massive front lawn characteristic of traditional suburban sprawl.  The front lawn is typically the most wasted space in a house — few families really use it — and in any event, reflects a demographic pattern more characteristic of the Eisenhower years than the present.  That pattern was the one-earner family: husband works, wife stays home with the kids, presumably supervising them on the front lawn.  Now, families look very different, and even if they are traditional two-parent families, both parents are working, with the kids in child care.

You can actually get pretty high density in a single-family neighborhood if you get rid of the front lawns.  And if you combine that with shared backyards, such as featured in the Backyardigans cartoon series for children, you can get even more density while losing very little usable space.  An example of this is Highlands Garden Village, as designed by new urbanist Peter Calthorpe: lots of single family houses, with lots of open space, but in a more compact pattern.  It’s smart growth and single family houses and there is no contradiction there.

Planners have known this for years.  In a celebrated 1996-7 debate between Reid Ewing and Peter Gordon in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Ewing pointed out that Gordon’s entire critique of smart growth, viz. that people like single-family homes, rests upon an assumption that is demonstrably false, viz. that smart growth rejects the single family home.  It doesn’t, Ewing pointed out: it simply advocates 1) for the market to guide choices (with appropriate pricing for environmental degradation and other damage caused by sprawl); and 2) for single-family homes to reflect the far more compact character that would come from accurate pricing.

This may be what eventually develops, as Dewan points out: a town centers concept where people can live close to their individual town center but in a single-family house.  This is a smart growth strategy, and also will reduce VMT: the majority of VMT are for in-town trips, not commutes, so bringing houses closer to town centers would have a positive climate impact.

Single family homes are a smart growth strategy as long they are planned and developed, well, smartly.  One can’t help but wonder if smart growth critics ignore this because they don’t understand it, or because they do.