Discover more from The Bulwark
How Progressives Abandoned Progress For Process
And why it’s so damn hard to get things done.
IN DECEMBER 2002, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced a plan to bring more housing to New York. As the plan’s details were hashed out, they came to include redeveloping parts of Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea. In 2005, the city upzoned Hudson Yards, paving the way for potential future development in the area. Then, in 2009, the city signed an agreement that included a commitment to develop a vacant parking lot at 54th Street and Ninth Avenue, owned by the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, into a few hundred units of affordable housing.
But it wasn’t until August 2022—nearly two decades after Bloomberg sketched out his original proposal and more than a dozen years after the city committed to putting affordable housing on that specific site—that the city voted to approve the permit for the Lirio housing project there. And even now, as of June 2023, construction still has not yet begun. The developer claims the project will be finished by 2025. Count me among the skeptical.
The housing crisis in New York City has been going on for decades. The city’s elected officials talk constantly about the need for more affordable housing. So why can’t they build any? What is the source of the paralysis?
A problem this pervasive in a place with politics and history as complicated as New York’s has many interlocking causes. But one major factor is that there is something that progressives in New York and elsewhere around the country care about more than they care about lowering rent: The Process.
The Levers of Bureaucracy
THE LIRIO HOUSING PROJECT was delayed for the same reason so many other projects are delayed: bureaucratic process. It was subjected to what seemed like an endless schedule of environmental reviews, community input sessions, revisions to the plan, city council hearings, rezoning meetings, negotiations with activist groups, and more. Progressive activists drew the process out interminably with demands for concessions, specific features, or favored status for certain groups. Up until June 2022 (the eve of the city council vote), the president of the Hell’s Kitchen Democrats was still publicly demanding further rounds of changes and modifications to the Lirio plans.
You can see this same pattern repeated across the country, at the local, state, and federal levels. You see it when Forest Service projects are delayed by 3.6 to 7.2 years on average due to environmental review requirements. You see it when the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia takes more than 14 years to add new reactors. There was a dozen-year fight featuring more than 26 lawsuits to build the Cape Wind offshore wind farm in Massachusetts before NIMBYs succeeded in killing off the project. New York City approved congestion pricing in 2019 after a decade of political wrangling—but thanks to years of community-input sessions and a 3,000-page environmental review it won’t actually start until 2024. It would be easy to list dozens more examples. Process-driven delays are an epidemic in America.
The problem is worse in our most progressive cities. In San Francisco, the nation’s most left-leaning major city, it takes more than 250 days to hire a worker. The city took four years to develop a trash can that cost $20,000. There famously was a multi-year saga over a $1.7 million toilet. It took 1,353 pages, 2.5 years, and $1 million+ of NEPA review just to add some bike lanes. City supervisors spent years delaying a housing project, first claiming it was the site of a historic laundromat and later that the building would cast shadows on a park. By the time the suicide-prevention barrier being added to the Golden Gate Bridge is done, it will have taken five years of construction—longer than it took to build the bridge itself.
These delays kill our ability to build the things we need—housing, energy, infrastructure, or virtually anything else—in a timely fashion. And while the cost of going through all this process is high, the cost of the opportunities missed because of the delays is even higher.
Once you know to look and listen for signs of it, you’ll notice this problem everywhere. You’ll often hear language extolling “community input” or talking about how “stakeholders were consulted” as if those things were the actual goal. Officials love to send press releases with headlines about how much money is being spent on a project, as though the money spent is the win—regardless of whether the money accomplishes anything.
To support reporting and analysis you won’t find anywhere else, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
To be sure, some of the blame for this problem can be laid at the feet of those who deliberately want to stop things from happening. NIMBYs will show up at your local planning commission to vent their anger and will use any tool they can to prevent new construction. Nuisance lawsuits from bad faith actors can delay projects for years. And the levers of bureaucracy can be exploited in countless ways by those who aim to stymie and stall.
But to blame the NIMBYs alone for this problem would be to cover up the role that progressives have played in making the situation worse. In general, progressives sincerely believe that process is vitally, centrally important and would advocate for more of it.
THE DEVOTION TO SLOW-MOVING PROCESS could be traced back to the original Progressive movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which sought (among other things) to systematize and regularize and bureaucratize decisions that were then the province of seemingly irrational politics. Even long after the original Progressive movement was a spent force, the progressive desire to add additional layers of bureaucracy to messy democratic decision-making remained. And it is an understandable impulse: There has been no shortage of times in our history where a lack of thoughtful process led to horrible outcomes.
Consider all those regulations in urban areas that make it difficult to build quickly. Whether it’s housing, infrastructure, or transit, there’s always a never-ending process involving plans, feedback, revisions, environmental studies, impact statements, diversity and inclusion reports, zoning boards, ad infinitum. This isn’t just the case for mega-projects, this is typical even for smaller projects like adding new bus stops or fixing old carousels:
But those endless layers of paperwork, process, and community input each have their origin in something that went wrong. Many arose in response to an era in which citizens had little or no voice whatsoever in city planning. Robert Moses is now infamous for razing black and Latino neighborhoods to build his freeways in New York; on different scales, this was common practice around the country. City planners in practice had little to no accountability to the public, especially if the public in question was black or brown. Progressive activists learned from this era that they needed to fight new developments, create new forms of bureaucracy that would slow things down, and use process to guarantee the community would have a voice. It’s hard to blame them.
Or consider the history of the environmental movement. For most of the late twentieth century, environmentalism was largely about stopping things. We were tearing a hole in the ozone layer. We were causing acid rain. We were killing the whales. We were polluting our fields and streams. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted it caught fire at least a dozen times.
Environmental activists of that era learned that slowing down industry, adding regulations, and generally stopping things from happening was what the world needed. And again: It’s hard to blame them. The environmental regulations of those days were responsible for some major successes we all take for granted today. The ozone layer today is recovering nicely. Cleveland’s river is doing much better, thanks for asking. We defeated acid rain. The air and water are vastly cleaner in the United States today than a half-century ago. These are real wins environmentalists should be proud of, often due to the efforts of activists and new legislation.
But one generation’s valuable and important correction can become another generation’s overcorrection. One of the landmark pieces of legislation from the early environmental movement is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Today, it is one of the most notorious causes of bureaucratic delay.
Results Over Process
IN THOSE PREVIOUS ERAS, the lack of process led to specific harmful outcomes—neighborhoods leveled, the ozone hole, etc. Having some level of process and bureaucracy is uncontroversial. When we’re building huge urban projects, local communities should have some input in those efforts. Large industrial projects do need some level of environmental regulation to make sure they’re not dumping chemicals or otherwise causing harm. We need process to prevent bad outcomes.
Where progressives err is in confusing the process being good (at times) with the process being the goal—an inherent good in and of itself.
And so NEPA environmental impact statements that in the 1970s could be as short as 20-30 pages nowadays take more than 4.5 years to complete and run on average more than 660 pages—a figure growing by 39 pages per year. Similarly, the time to complete any kind of bureaucratic process in America’s big cities has spiraled out of control. In a typical case, New York legalized marijuana in March 2021. But because local politicians wanted to guarantee a process to ensure that the licenses go to minority business owners and people formerly convicted of cannabis-related crimes, more than two years later the state has only permitted four legal dispensaries. The Empire State Building was built in 1 year and 45 days. Today you can’t get a permit to build a two-story building in that short a time.
Progressives had very real reasons for adding red tape and process in previous generations. But the challenges we’re facing now are very different. The most important environmental challenge today is climate change, and we need to build huge amounts of green energy and infrastructure at massive scale. But environmental agencies and progressive activists obsess over paperwork and process, and all too often it seems like they take a maximalist approach of ‘more review is always good.’
Likewise, the key challenge facing urban communities today is no longer that a Robert Moses might bulldoze your entire neighborhood. It’s a severe housing crisis that’s caused rents to explode in almost every major city nationwide. America hasn’t built enough housing in decades, and we need to build a huge amount of housing fast. But our biggest cities are almost uniformly run by progressive Democrats who can’t figure out how to do that with the maze of process and bureaucracy they’ve created.
The progressive love affair with process is crippling our cities, our economy, and our climate. We have to care more about tangible results than we do about the paperwork that gets us there. It may seem like process helps in a variety of ways—it ensures rules are being followed, it strives for equity, it guarantees community input. But if your process has brought you to the point we’re at now, of what real use was the process?
Some progressives have recognized the problem, and are calling it out. Ezra Klein frequently talks about the need for “supply-side progressivism.” Jerusalem Demsas caused an uproar when she suggested that not everyone deserves a say. There are voices fighting to change the progressive movement, and for America’s sake I hope they succeed. But there’s still so much work to do, and so much process still gumming everything up.
At a base level, people of almost all political stripes want similar things. We want housing that’s more affordable, we want cheaper and cleaner energy, we want to be able to enjoy the natural environment and pass it on to the next generation, and we want society’s big projects to be completed on schedule and under budget. Pretty much everybody wants these things. But we need to focus much more intensively on outcomes over process so we can actually make them happen.