Atlanta: Case Study in Conservative Failure by Design

The bottom line: We live in a complex society that requires intelligent planning, foresight and effective government to mediate between competing private interests and to organize and manage the infrastructure. The basic infrastructure needed to operate a modern city is mind-bogglingly complex – a series of interconnected systems that require constant maintenance, upgrades changes and improvements. The engineering feats required to simply install an effective sewer system for Salt Lake County’s million residents staggers the imagination. When it works smoothly, we don’t notice it. When it fails, it does so spectacularly.

A cornerstone of conservative ideology in practice is hostility to government planning – by its very nature, effective government planning violates the constrained thinking of “small government” conservatism. In Utah we have generally failed to plan for transportation needs and have responded to growth by adding more highways (which feeds the cycle of sprawl rather than managing it). East of Park City, the formerly rural areas of Kamas and Oakley are experiencing a building boom; one development in this area has been approved for something like 100 houses but there is only sufficient water for . . . zero of those houses. This kind of problem, however, is dwarfed by Atlanta, Georgia’s problem.

Atlanta is a booming, amazing city. It is also a metropolis whose infrastructure is wholly inadequate to meet the needs of its people.

Its freeway system – vast as it is – is inadequate to its demands, creating the kind of traffic jams one expects in LA (want to make an Atlantan angry? Compare their traffic problems to LA’s). The freeways are connected to suburban streets that simply cannot support the traffic that expects to drive on them to get to the freeways.

In recent years, Georgia has suffered a long drought. The crunch has hit. Rick Perlstein describes is as finishing what Sherman started.

Atlanta magazine could no longer ignore it. The cover of their “The Water Issue,” which I picked up on a recent swing through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, is graced by a water glass that’s one-quarter full—scratch that, three-quarters empty. The entire magazine is a fascinating document, a potsherd for future archeologists seeking answers to the kind of neuroses that allowed a civilization let itself be run according to an ideology—conservatism—so singularly unfit to govern a complex, modern society.

Amidst all the schmancy department store and Cartier watch ads, the columns on “Scent marketing” (“among Advertising Age’s top ten trends to watch in 2007”) and enticements to purchase property at marquee destinations like The Inn At Palmetto Bluff (“50 beautifully appointed waterfront cottages, full-service spa, inspired Lowcountry, cuisine, exclusive Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course…”)—the landscaping ad featuring the gushing backyard waterfall alongside the furnished stone gazebo was an especially decadent touch, directly across from a full-page ad for “Brookhaven Retreat, treating both addiction and mental health challenges”—these 176 pages document a narcissistic metropolis on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but not quite able to admit it.

Atlanta is a mass of suburban sprawl, chewing up ever more acres of the Georgia woods.

Missed opportunity after missed opportunity are adumbrated . . . [Atlanta] the magazine blames not ideology but “bureaucracy.” That’s all right for our purposes, because the ideology hides in plain sight. Atlanta boomed in the wake of the monster capital investments made in anticipation of the 1996 Olympics, the magazine reports; “In 1990, the Atlanta area was projected to draw 800,000 new residents over the next twenty years; in the ten years following the Olympics, the total population increased by almost 1.4 million…. But in that same ten-year period, the reservoirs that supply our most vital resource grew not a bit.”

Think about that. The total population grew by more than currently live in Salt Lake County and they did no planning for water.

Nobody could have anticipated the breach in the infrastructure: “In 1969, a study by the Atlanta Region Metropolitan Planning Commission…determined that significant infrastructure changes would be required to avoid critical water shortages when the metro area’s population soared to between 3 million (reached in 1993) an 5 million (2006). In the 1980s, water planners mapped out a proposed network of reservoirs throughout North Georgia to shore up water for inevitable droughts. Yet the reservoirs never got off paper. By the nineties, the projects were not only deemed to costly to pursue once rainfall returned in abundance, but they also threatened to further antagonize Alabama and Florida in the tri-state water dispute.” What did the Atlanta metropolitan area do instead? Issue building permits—48,262 in 1996; 68,240 in 2006. That’s the free-market way. The conservative way.

If this is happening in the traditionally water rich South, what does fate hold for desert Utah?

The failure that Perlstein points us to is a failure to take the role of government seriously, to realize that the competing interests of local business, local government, regional government, state government, interstate businesses and citizens need someone to coordinate them, to help bring them to the table and plan. Hostility to government – part and parcel of the conservative ideology – creates its own problems. Throughout the US, thirty years of conservative anti-government, anti-tax madness has created its own legacy of rolling failures. Bridges collapsing in Minnesota, levees failing all along the Mississippi river, sinkholes swallowing streets. These are foreseeable events, but a government crippled by anti-tax, anti-government ideology can’t act. Forced forever into a defensive crouch, conservative governance has proven itself incapable of doing what must be done to maintain the basic needs of a modern, complex society.

Forty years of hostility to government action has led Atlanta into a box canyon – ever more development, ever less planning. Conservatism triumphant. Newt Gingrich’s district was in the suburban sprawl north of Atlanta (think Provo without the sense of style and a whole lot more money). The ideology got him elected for years. It sounds good. It makes good soundbites. It won elections. The bill always comes due.

I have a friend who loves to say when it hurts bad enough, you’ll change. I wonder: How much more pain Atlanta’s people are prepared to suffer before they change?

  1. #1 by Larry Bergan on June 30, 2008 - 7:29 pm

    I like the sound of “Newt Gingrich’s bill coming due.”

    Another example of right wing ideology gone mad is covered in this report from today on “Democracy Now”

    Moratorium Placed On New Solar Energy Projects on Fed Land

    Solar energy companies have been dealt a major setback. The New York Times reports the Bush administration has placed a nearly two-year moratorium on the construction of new solar energy projects on public land. The Bureau of Land Management says it needs until the spring of 2010 to study the environmental impact the solar projects will have on land in Arizona, Nevada, California and other western states. Critics of the moratorium say it could paralyze the solar energy industry. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said: “This] is the wrong signal to send to solar power developers, and to Nevadans and Westerners who need and want clean, affordable sun-powered electricity soon.” Some environmental groups have praised the government for assessing the implications of large-scale solar development. Meanwhile the amount of oil drilling and gas drilling on public land has reached a new high. The Wilderness Society recently reported that more than 44 million acres of public lands are leased for oil and gas development. Last year the Bush administration approved over 7100 drilling permits, a new record.

    NOW the administration is worried about environment impacts, huh? I hate these people!

  2. #2 by jdberger on June 30, 2008 - 11:53 pm

    Of course, you could compare Atlanta to two bastions of “progressive” politics.

    Oakland and San Francisco

    Mismanagement is mismanagement – simple.

  3. #3 by Bob S. on July 1, 2008 - 6:12 am


    You over look some key points and clearly mis-state conservative points on others.

    First when you mention :

    In Utah we have generally failed to plan for transportation needs and have responded to growth by adding more highways (which feeds the cycle of sprawl rather than managing it).

    Sounds like you are a little perturbed that the government responded to people’s choices about where to live instead of telling them where to live, eh?

    Managing sprawl is a nice euphemism for telling people where to live, what type of housing to live in, when to build. Is that the proper role of our government?

    Second in regards to the reservoirs; what role did environmentalist play in blocking building and planning for reservoirs? I have no doubt there were failures on the part of the government to plan adequately but usually there are contributing factors.

    In regards to conservative views about government, I disagree that conservatives hate government but more accurately hate government over reach. The government has and should have a limited role in life. Planning is definitely one of those areas, the failures should be investigated and lessons learned / applied. But governmental planning is not something conservatives hate, it is the proper job of the government. Telling people they can or can’t smoke in bars, whether or not to wear seat belts; those are the governmental over-reach and intrusions that conservatives dislike.

    Also, in regards to your statement about anti-tax I also disagree. I don’t think anyone has objections to paying taxes for the infrastructure, law enforcement, planning functions. What I don’t like is how the government is spending the taxes and ever increasing how much of my money they are taking.

    Recall that entitlements are the largest category of the federal budget; how about reining in the spending in that area and putting it toward infrastructure?
    Compare the increases in spending on entitlements to what is being spent on infrastructure; there is where you’ll find the reason for no water and crumbling bridges.

    We have allowed the government to focus on the wrong things for too long.

  4. #4 by Glenden Brown on July 1, 2008 - 6:44 am

    Bob – When Envision Utah did their studies, they found most Utahns favored higher density housing and better public transit. Imagine Utah if in 1984 we’d begun building an integrated regional rail system and bus system.

    What if Frontrunner had been completed a decade ago rather than just this year? What if we had Traxx trains that instead running north/south actually circled the valley and ran north south, connected to Utah county and north to Weber county? Imagine a high speed train running from Salt Lake to St. George (and back) twice a day.

    It’s not about (despite your overheated rhetoric) telling people where to live. It’s about designing an infrastructure that makes urban living easier. When I visited DC a few years ago, I was blown away at how easy the metro was to use and how it go me everywhere I needed. The Bay area has the BART – you can live in SF and don’t need a car. New Yorkers have one of the lowest carbon footprints of any US city because so few New Yorkers actually own cars.

    A few years back, the Trib ran an interesting article in which they quoted a then recently published study that showed that the model of highways and exits and so forth that we use in Utah actually creates more urban sprawl, more traffic problems and less effective development. The study showed that a freeway exit starts of leading to a new suburb. At first, there’s a gas station there; then a strip mall, then another gas station and new restaurants and soon all the land that was once open is now developed and the roads are inadequate to the traffic.

    Sorry, Bob, but conservatives hate government. Remember the late unlamented Ronald Reagan’s line that government is the problem? Anti-tax crusaders have robbed government of the resources to do planning. You keep harping on entitlements, but why shouldn’t government resources help the poor? Investing in people is just like investing in infrastructure – it pays dividends. The money we’ve pissed away in the Iraq misadventure could have transformed America. We could have spent that money on infrastructure. I’ve read the money we’ve dumped into the sands of Iraq could have provided health care for every uninsured American for the next 30 years. That’s not a bad use of money; investing in our people, educating them, making sure they’re healthy, is a good use of our resources. For God’s sake, we rank lower the Cuba on a great many measures of health. Anti-tax crusades have robbed government of necessary resources to do planning, to maintain infrastructure, to handle its basic tasks. In places like Atlanta conservative ideologues have blocked government action believing the private sector would solve the problem, but the private sector is too atomized to find an effective solutions to a problem of the commons, which is exactly what Atlanta is facing (and utah as well where transportation is concerned).

  5. #5 by Jared on March 24, 2010 - 4:15 pm

    Efficient residential sprinkler systems can drastically cut down on the water waste, we offer free estimates for landscaping services in utah county and its surrounding areas. landscaping utah

  6. #6 by glenn on March 24, 2010 - 5:57 pm

    Let’s ignore the thread cuz it’s stupid and contrived Jared, and begin our own.

    How about allowing your yard return to the desert it was before some nut of faith assumed we can have the desert bloom?

    I’m in, await your reply.

  7. #7 by glenn on March 24, 2010 - 6:07 pm

    Georgia’s entire aquifer was poisoned years ago, the future of Atlanta’s water lies in remediation.

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