Oregon Anti-Growth Group Folds

Published September 1, 2004

A lobbying organization opposed to growth of human population and personal consumption in Oregon, Alternatives to Growth Oregon (AGO), announced it was suspending operations on June 21, 2004. In a letter on the group’s Web site, the organization’s Board of Directors indicated the action was being taken “obviously not because AGO has fulfilled its mission, but because we no longer have sufficient funds to continue.”

Oregon long has been home to some of the nation’s strongest anti-sprawl regulation. But AGO, believing already-passed measures were not enough, stood virtually alone in opposing “smart growth” policies because they allowed too much growth, rather than too little.

For example, Andy Kerr, the organization’s founder and president, was reported in Sustainability Review as saying, “Growth is a race one loses the faster one runs. Growth is neither desirable, nor inevitable. … Any further physical growth is either fat or cancer. … Smart growth is an oxymoron. Just managing growth in the face of population increase won’t keep Oregon Oregon. … Growth causes air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution, lost mobility, lost fish and wildlife habitat, higher cost of housing, higher cost of living, more crime, less safety, and loss of community. Growth increases taxes, increases public debt, and reduces public services.”

Kerr had stated in a speech, “the only smart growth is no growth” and quoted Ted Turner in agreeing that “smart growth is an oxymoron, less-stupid growth would be a better name.”

Agenda Proved Unpopular

The organization supported an array of public policies designed to discourage population growth. For example, AGO sought to eliminate government incentives designed to attract businesses to locate in the state, and instead proposed the state furnish tax breaks to families that produce few children. The organization sought to make up for the effects on workers of any lost business opportunities by calling for a mandatory and universal “living wage.” AGO also expressed strong anti-globalization and anti-immigration sentiments.

AGO also sought to limit personal consumption by advocating Oregon implement a “progressive” consumption (sales) tax and repeal its income tax, one of the highest in the nation. (A progressive consumption or sales tax is one that applies a higher tax rate to more-expensive purchases.) That proposal was unprecedented in the state; Oregonians have defeated conventional sales taxes in nine straight referenda, the last by a very substantial margin.

Outside the Mainstream

In the end, AGO discovered fighting off all growth, even in Oregon, can be difficult. The late Governor Tom McCall’s 1971 plea for people to “visit, but not to stay” has not been heeded. Since that time the state has added the equivalent of Philadelphia to its population, and it continues to grow.

“We staked out a goal that was not going to be met, at least in the short term,” lamented Kerr. “The whole course of western civilization has been growth, growth, growth, growth.”

“They probably do speak for a certain segment of the general public,” said Kelly Ross of the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland. “But the overwhelming philosophy in Oregon is still manage growth rather than stop it.”

“I lost interest in trying to work with them,” said Mike Burton, executive director of Metro, the Portland area’s regional government. “It was always, ‘You’re wrong and we’re right.'”

During the past few years, the Portland area has generally had the nation’s highest unemployment rate, and economic growth has lagged. The August 1, 2003, edition of the Portland Business Journal reported, “Among urban areas with a million or more people, Portland has the nation’s highest unemployment rate, according to figures released July 30 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Portland-Vancouver, Wash., metropolitan area had 8.8 percent of its work force jobless in June.”

The donations that economic growth produces for nonprofit organizations like AGO also lagged, as AGO noted in its June 21 letter announcing it was shutting down operations. “The irony is not lost upon us: AGO’s short-term ability to continue its long-term mission to move Oregon toward a sustainable economy was harmed by the ‘slowdown’ in Oregon’s economy.”

Wendell Cox ([email protected]) is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute; a consultant to public and private public policy, planning and transportation organizations; and a visiting professor at a French national university.

For more information …

The “suspending operations” letter is posted on the Web site of Alternatives to Growth Oregon, http://www.agoregon.org.

The Sustainability Review article by Andy Kerr, founder and president of AGO, is archived online at http://www.eeeee.net/sd06008.htm.