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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The question is not, as Ryan Avent asks while guest-blogging for Ezra Klein, whether high-energy prices will destroy the suburbs. It seems clear that they will, at least to some extent, and more importantly it seems clear that these energy realities exist in a context with other, perhaps more immediate trends that point in the same general direction: America's cities are on the mend, and it's the suburbs that now face decline.

The important question, then, is not whether all this will happen but how suburban America will react to the fact of re-urbanification, which will have dire financial consequences for those who have concentrated the bulk of their wealth in the prices of their suburban homes. To the extent that middle- and upper-class people, especially young people, increasingly choose to live in cities, prices will rise there and fall in the suburbs, which over time will essentially wipe out those people whose suburban residence is also their primary or sole investment.

These people will have every financial incentive to fight to keep the suburban lifestyle intact, no matter what the cost in money, energy, or sprawl. And they'll vote, demanding pro-suburban incentives and policy counter to every consideration of sustainability or good sense.

This will be not only a geographic fight but a class and intergenerational one as well, and if you'll allow me to make a Big Prediction for a moment I fully expect this to be one of the more highly contested divides in American politics as we face the end of cheap energy and the accordant, dramatic weakening of our automobile-centric culture.

UPDATE: There's more of this sort of speculation at Freakonomics, Political Animal, and Matt Yglesias.