Stop being so dense about population density!

Construction on the M-1 3.3-mile light rail transit project is seen along Woodward Avenue near downtown Detroit, Michigan, November 7, 2014.
Rebecca Cook | Reuters
Construction on the M-1 3.3-mile light rail transit project is seen along Woodward Avenue near downtown Detroit, Michigan, November 7, 2014.

Chuck Marohn is losing his patience. The urban planner and author has had it with all the politicians, fellow urban planners, and just regular folks constantly asking him questions about population density. You see you may not know it, but the population density issue has become quite the fad among political types and intellectuals who believe how crowded an area is plays a supreme role in how good it is to live there, how much crime will be there, and whether that area can be managed well at all.

The reason Marohn is frustrated with these density questions is because they all put the cart before the horse. Does crowding or sprawl really matter as much as what the real cost of living is in those municipalities? If residents and businesses face exorbitant property taxes, will they care more about crowding than they do about what kind of return on their investment they're getting? Is it really about the number of people living in an area, or more about the number of employed, productive, relatively satisfied taxpaying people living in an area?

All of the above questions are rhetorical. Of course it doesn't really matter how crowded a city is compared to the much more important question of whether that city is run well enough to attract enough productive people and private investment to sustain it. And we have too many real life examples to prove that, the best one being Detroit that has lost more than half of its population over 40 short years and hasn't become any better managed or maintained along the way. Marohn is making this important case every day in his Strong Towns blog that anyone who truly cares about infrastructure and the future of our American cities should read daily.

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But the density obsession is indicative of a much bigger issue than just a debate about urban planning. It's part of a dangerous effort to take the human and human free will out of the equation. Think about it, isn't it a frightening cop-out to push the idea that population density is the key factor in determining crime rates as opposed to personal moral grounding? What about free will? What about every individual and every community's understanding of right vs. wrong? What about the proven effectiveness of actually enforcing laws?

For the emboldened leftist movement in the U.S., the entire concept of good and evil is old fashioned at best and oppressive and racist at worst. Technocratic and boring stats like population density are very attractive to people looking to find nameless and blameless problems instead of relying on the tried and true concepts like personal responsibility and competency. Blaming some non-existent "condition" for a crime or a failure has been a favorite smokescreen for rogues since Cain killed Abel.

And you don't need the Bible to know none of this is entirely new. Remember we were told in the 1970's that New York was the "ungovernable city," and so many of us believed that until Rudy Giuliani came around and properly managed the Big Apple to an economic and social resurgence. Conversely we've been told that more programs for the poor and more spending on education and infrastructure, regardless of how responsibly the money was spent, would improve cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, etc. Predictably, making those areas more attractive for welfare recipients and wasteful municipal unions while pricing out taxpayers and business owners hasn't worked out. And yet we have an abundance of politicians and newspapers in this country who continue to push for these ruinous policies without a word in edgewise for better management.

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New Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner is trying not to be one of those people. He's currently pushing the crazy idea that a better managed state of Illinois that stops pushing businesses out in favor of political cronies and entitlement programs might be a more attractive place for productive people and investors. While his predecessors and their allies in the media promote excuses, Rauner wants to use the current budget crisis in Illinois to alert everyone to the disastrous results of decades of bad management. The Governor faces a very uphill battle in a blue state like Illinois where so many Democrats owe their political livelihoods to those terrible policy arrangements, but desperate times may shake out enough support for a return to sanity.

The argument that better management really can make a difference goes way beyond our biggest cities. As I've written here before, not another dime should be added to our infrastructure budgets or a penny added to the federal gas tax before somebody fixes the irresponsible and wasteful way a massive amount of our infrastructure budgets are spent already. I don't care if one car or a million cars drive over any given bridge per day, if the repair money isn't spent wisely we can't keep putting money into the hands of the bad managers.

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In the private sector, how many times have we seen better new management turn a company around when all the experts left it for dead? Look at Ford's turnaround under Alan Mullaly or what Lou Gerstner did for IBM. And in every case when the turnaround job by any given CEO has been questioned by critics, I've often wondered whether those critics just didn't like the CEO personally or really objected to the very idea that no problem is beyond fixing if you have the right human managers.

Getting beyond infrastructure, urban planning and corporations, we don't have much of a shot as a civilization if we keep de-emphasizing crucial pillars like personal and professional responsibility in and out of politics. Remember this: there is no population small enough that we should allow to be governed by incompetents. And there is no population that's too big for effective people to govern efficiently.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.