“Could Not Have Been Forseen?”

“Clean Slate” is a Dana Carvey movie from about five years ago, about a private detective who wakes up every morning with total amnesia. “Memento” and “50 First Dates” had the same high-concept complications.

This kind of amnesia might be rare in the annals of medicine, but it is a great metaphor for public policy. This morning LA Times story about Santa Barbara illustrates the point. Beginning 30 years ago, the city and county began instituting strong growth controls, all justified by the universal desire to preserve the coastline. The familiar techniques to constrain growth were all implemented there. Don’t expand highways, because wider roads “attract” drivers. Open space is off limits. Severely limit the number of new housing units permitted.

So what happens? Housing becomes insanely expensive, unaffordable for middle class workers. They move away. UC Santa Barbara can’t recruit professors. Businesses leave. Traffic gets worse. The pent-up demand for housing sprawls northward to Santa Maria. The poor who remain in Santa Barbara live two or three families to a unit designed for one. The city’s median age skyrockets. The Montecito Fire Protection District has to buy three small homes to rent to firefighters, at a cost of $2.1 million. Otherwise, in an emergency, the wealthy of Montecito might find its firefighters are 90 minutes away.

Adam Smith figured out a long time ago that when something desireable becomes scarce, the price always goes up. This is not a controversial theory. And yet, here’s what the Times actually says after it lists Santa Barbara’s social and environmental ills:

Many of these ripple effects could not have been foreseen 30 years ago.

Sure they could have. And I’ll bet they were predicted. But, as Woody Allen said to rationalize a different kind of bad decision, “the heart wants what it wants.” Amnesia can be very convenient politics.

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