Designer Anchors

Brad Pitt is leading an initiative to build a bunch of houses designed by fancy architecture firms in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. That’s nice. But why not build these houses elsewhere, perhaps a place less likely to flood, a place with jobs?

Responding to critics who question the wisdom of rebuilding at all in an area likely to get hit again, Mr. Pitt said: “My first answer to that is, talk to the people who’ve lived there and have raised their kids there. People are needing to get back in their homes.”

I don’t think this helps Pitt’s case, exactly. People ought to be encouraged to move where the opportunities are, not enticed with designer accommodations to stay in a struggling place prone to disaster. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are and where we’re from can, through some good old-fashioned emotional alchemy, create pride from deprivation. When that’s all you’ve got—or all you can get—that’s a great thing indeed. But our narratives of place and tribe are too often an identity-arresting form of self-indulgence that can consign our kids to second-class lives.  We may fear that we will disintegrate or disappear if we leave the neighborhood, quit the church, forsake our roots, sell out, but we won’t. Those fears are deep, terrifying, and almost completely unfounded. Our allegiance to our stories and our enchanted places do not save us so much as comfort us against the specters of uncertainty and enable us to feel righteous in inaction. People are not needing to get back in their homes.

Writing about Clive Crook’s clear-headed essay on the downsides of homeownership, a, umm…, certain Economist blogger said something that could just as well apply to Pitt’s project.

Subsidising homeownership through huge tax breaks not only reinforces a cultural ethos in which home ownership is considered central to the American Dream, but also reinforces pernicious communitarian myths of the profound romance in seeing nothing and going nowhere.

This is an exceedingly unpopular thought, but it is a necessary one. Often, when we discourage people from leaving, we discourage them from thriving. When a better life is a bus ride away, it is obviously inhuman to slap a tax on tickets. And just how different from that is a subsidy to stay? I’ll be very pleased if the people who are given these houses thrive, but I also won’t be astonished if their lives aren’t transformed by their sleek new designer anchors.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center