My Journey from Free Market Ideologue to Strong Towns Advocate, Revisited

free market

As an undergrad civil engineering student at the University of Minnesota, I wrote a very passionate opinion piece for the school newspaper, The Minnesota Daily, expressing outrage over a proposed congestion pricing plan for one of the state’s newest highways. The year was 1993. The proposal would allow people to pay for the privilege of using the carpool lane without being in a carpool. My populist sense of justice offended, I called the proposal “Lexus Lanes” and offered a better solution to congestion problems: add more capacity.

At this point in my life, I was a self-described free-market Republican with an outspoken passion for markets and my chosen profession of civil engineering, which to me was a technical way to say “city building.” If I had been pushed to reconcile my rejection of congestion pricing with my support for the free market, I would have had no problem. I would have said something like:

Markets are about the expression of personal preference. It was clear that, since most people drove automobiles, auto-based infrastructure was the clear market preference. Since most people lived in single-family homes, they were also the clear market preference. Given those clear and obvious preferences—combined with the fact that people paid taxes and expected the government to respond to their desires—charging people more for something they already paid for was a ploy to benefit the rich. Instead of congestion pricing, the state should have been building more capacity.

At that point, I had done two summer internships at the state Department of Transportation and knew one thing for certain: I was not going to spend my career working at the DOT. While there were a lot of hard-working people there, and a lot of very kind people as well, I was not impressed with the culture, especially the tolerance for slackers. I’m a workaholic—especially at that point in my life—and I complained my way out of the slacker units and into a construction inspection position where the hours were ridiculously long and the work equally challenging.

I had a lot of cynicism about government, feelings that were reinforced by my time at the DOT. For example, when working on the construction inspection crew, I was instructed to write down my meal expenses. I was working sometimes 18-hour days an hour or more from home and would often have two or three meals to expense. I was fine with the McDonald’s drive-thru on the way home—and didn’t feel right running up my expense account—so my expenses were pretty minor.

After a couple weeks, I got pulled aside by one of the more senior employees and told I was making everyone else look bad. I was instructed to write down a set amount for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—amounts that far exceeded what I had actually spent—because that was standard practice. I did what I was told, but it didn’t sit right with me.

When I had a chance after college to start my professional career in the private sector, I jumped at the chance. The fact that it meant less money and less job security was a source of pride, despite the fact that my grandfather, who lived through the Great Depression, was mad at me for turning down a government job. He argued that I’d have a “job for life” if I went to MnDOT, which is exactly why I didn’t.

Very little in my early years as an engineer challenged my worldview that, if I preferred something, and I could see others also seeming to prefer it, that it represented an expression of the free market, whether it came through government or not. I continued to write, including a defense of the Walmart the hippies in town were protesting (and my company had been paid to run the infrastructure for). The big box store paid for all the infrastructure, so there was no cost to the public, I argued. And people apparently wanted to shop there more than the old downtown, so it was clear to me that the market had spoken. The area was growing—it was outwardly prosperous, at least in the “good places”—and it was exciting to be part of it. Growth is good; at that point in my life it seemed to me just another expression of market preference.

The small towns and rural areas I worked in exposed me to extreme cases of systemic problems. I think it took those extremes to get me to question my core beliefs, but even then the cognitive dissonance took a long time to manifest as intellectual pain. The last big project I did before returning to graduate school was one of those extremes that I kept coming back to over and over, seeing it with new eyes each time. My insights on that project—a wastewater system expansion in the city of Remer—were featured in Chapter 2 of Leigh Gallagher’s book The End of the Suburbs.

Remer is a small city of around 400 people in Northeastern Minnesota. They had called the engineering firm I was working for and asked if someone could come and help them. Since Remer didn’t seem like the kind of city that would produce much work, and since it was a long drive from our office, the list of engineers wanting to take them on as a client was reduced to the sole young, highly-motivated, young man in Air Jordans looking for his first independent client: me.

When I got there, I learned that they were being fined by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (in my eyes at the time: mindless government bureaucrats) for exceeding their wastewater discharge permit. That actually makes it sound quaint. What was really happening was that their wastewater treatment ponds were overflowing, threatening to collapse the earthen berm and dump thousands of gallons of concentrated sewage into the adjacent river. This was a mess.

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