Triumph of the City, by a professor of economics at Harvard, Edward Glaeser, who is also a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is two really wonderful books and one really awful book all wrapped into one.
The first book, which is terrific, is a brisk and accessible tour through a series of real-life experiments deeply grounded in data.
Here is Professor Glaeser on grocery store checkout clerks: "As anyone who has been to a grocery store knows, checkout clerks differ widely in their speed and competence. In one major chain, clerks with differing abilities are more or less randomly shuffled across shifts, which enabled two economists to look at the impact of productive peers. It turns out that the productivity of average clerks rises substantially when there is a star clerk working on their shift, and those same average clerks get worse when their shift is filled with below-average clerks."
There's almost no limit to the imagination of economists constructing studies: "A study of corruption in Indonesia found that the stock prices of companies whose leaders stood closest to that country's dictator in photographs suffered most when the leader fell ill."
More: "When American cities have built new rapid-transit stops over the last thirty years, poverty rates have generally increased near those stops." It's not that transit stops cause poverty, he explains; rather, poor people value being able to get to work without the expense of owning a car.
That insight, like many of those mentioned by Professor Glaeser, bears on the main topic of his book, the economics of cities. The author proves useful as a guide to the research of others as well as in conveying his own thoughts. "Nathaniel Baum-Snow, a Brown University economist, has calculated that each new highway passing through a central city reduces its population by about 18 percent." And, "Dartmouth economist Bruce Sacerdote found that children displaced from New Orleans by Katrina had a significant improvement in their test scores. He found the biggest beneficiaries of the exodus were children from poorly performing schools who left the New Orleans area altogether." It's the counterintuitive nature of these insights that makes them particularly delicious — that expensive highway project that the local congressman fought to get funded turns out to be bad for his city, and Hurricane Katrina turns out to have been a good thing for the education of its "victims."
The second excellent book within Triumph of a City documents the way that regulations prevent cities from accommodating the needs of people. "Too much preservation stops cities from providing newer, taller, better buildings for their inhabitants," he writes. "By the spring of 2010, the New York Landmarks Commission had jurisdiction over twenty-five thousand landmarked buildings and one hundred historic districts. More than 15 percent of Manhattan's nonpark land south of Ninety-sixth Street is now in a historic district, where every external change must be approved by the Landmarks Commission." He doesn't mention it, but there are another ten or so historic districts and expansions of existing historic districts under way in New York City.
Historic preservation laws are just one part of a set of barriers to building that also includes zoning, environmental laws, and government approval processes. "Over the past forty years, we've experienced a little-remarked revolution in property rights in America," Professor Glaeser writes. "We have gone from a system wherein people could essentially do what they wanted with their own property to a system wherein neighbors have enormous power to restrict growth and change."
Professor Glaeser's treatment of Houston, which lacks a zoning code, is particularly interesting — he seems to admire the way its growth has created an abundance of low-cost housing.
The strength of the first two books makes the weakness of the third book contained within Triumph of the City all the more disappointing. This third book-within-a-book consists of a series of unquestioned left-wing assumptions, delivered with intellectual flabbiness, pomposity, and self-righteousness.
The problems of cities, Professor Glaeser insists, won't be solved by "mindlessly relying on the free market." In fact, he says, "there's no free-market solution for the great urban problem facing slums….Cities desperately need forceful, capable governments to provide clean water." He doesn't mention that here in America, private water systems produce 4.6 billion gallons of water a day, or about 1.7 trillion gallons per year. Or that the private drinking water business is a $4.3 billion per year business, with at least 12 publicly traded companies among the players (more if you count bottled water).
Professor Glaeser repeats the claim that "Over the past thirty years, American society has become more unequal," without mentioning the work by Diana Furchtgott-Roth debunking this by looking at consumption and at post-tax, post-transfer income.
Professor Glaeser has a strange crush on the French school system. "If America imitated the best aspect of European socialism and invested enough in public schools so that they were all good, then there would be little reason for the rich to leave cities to get better schooling," he writes. Later, he repeats, "If the United States emulated France and embraced nationwide quality schooling funded by the state, there would be less reason to flee urban areas."
In fact the 2009 results from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Program for International Student Assessment, which studies 15-year-olds, found that America outperformed France in reading and science. France did better than America in math, but is that a reason for America to emulate or embrace an educational system that in two of three categories measured produced worse results than ours? The latest UNESCO statistics also show that the United States outspent France on primary education, as measured by annual public expenditure per primary student as a percentage of GDP per capita.
As irrational as Professor Glaeser's admiration of French education is his disdain for Israel and Ireland. "In places like Ireland and Israel, factions have wasted decades fighting over land," he writes. I can't speak to Ireland, but the past decades in Israel haven't been wasted; they have featured tremendous entrepreneurial growth in cities that Professor Glaeser shows no evidence of having heard of or visited in the course of researching or writing a book that covers a number of obscure ones (Gaborone?).
The pomposity and self-righteousness comes in the sections devoted to global warming. "Anyone who believes that global warming is a real danger should see dense urban living as part of the solution….the side effects from rising global temperatures are potentially terrible for almost everybody. The poorest people in the world tend to live near the equator, and more heat is particularly problematic for them. The polar ice caps appear to be melting quickly and threatening seaside cities from New York to Hong Kong with the prospect of severe flooding," he writes. "For the sake of humanity and our planet, cities are — and must be — the wave of the future."
Not merely for the sake of humanity or just for the sake of our planet but for the sake of humanity and our planet. Got that? For the sake of the readers, spare us, please.
Naturally it's not just cities that Professor Glaeser has in mind for his project of saving "humanity and our planet" but also taxes. "Current U.S. gas taxes are too low," he insists. "Throughout the world, we can adopt a global emissions tax that charges people for the damage done by their carbon emissions. The actual size of the tax needs to be worked out by the experts…."
As James Taranto is prone to ask, "What would we do without experts?"
Nor are gas and carbon taxes the last of Professor Glaeser's proposed tax increases. He also proposes "lowering the upper limit on the home mortgage interest deduction to some more modest figure, like $300,000." That would have the effect of shifting the American income-tax burden even more heavily onto upper-income individuals.
How would he spend these government revenues? Redistribution, for one: "A nation's poor are every citizen's responsibility, not just the people who happen to live in the same political jurisdiction….middle class people still have too much incentive to flee cities and avoid paying for the poor."
And don't forget that favorite of President Obama's, high speed rail: "In France, Germany, and Japan, high-speed rail service has connected major cities for decades," writes an envious-sounding Professor Glaeser, complaining that American property owners won't make way for Amtrak.
Professor Glaeser is also sometimes guilty of interpreting evidence in the light most favorable to his own argument while ignoring possible other explanations. "Nationwide, the share of the population that commutes from central city to suburb has increased from 2.4 percent in 1960 to 6.8 percent today. The fact that more people will pay high urban prices and work somewhere else is further evidence that big-city amenities have become increasingly valuable," he writes. Well, it may be evidence of that. But it also may be evidence of the fact that some businesses creating jobs are finding suburbs more attractive than central cities.
Toward the end of the book, he writes, in arguing for more stimulus spending to be directed at cities: "The five least dense states managed to sit out the recession with an average unemployment rate of 6.4 percent, as of December 2009." For a book whose whole argument is "the power of proximity" in cities to create wealth, jobs, and growth, that's a fact that undercuts the author's argument, and one wishes Professor Glaeser would at least try to explain it. He does not.
Professor Glaeser is also not always as clear as one would wish in terms of his definition of a city. Is it the whole metropolitan statistical area, or just what lies within the municipal boundaries? Sometimes cities and suburbs have similar characteristics in terms of density, they just lie on opposite sides of political boundaries. If cities make us "richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier," as the book's subtitle claims, would just expanding some political boundaries help? Or is density all that is required, and, if so, why aren't dense suburbs just as good as cities?
Professor Glaeser himself, who grew up in Manhattan, moved his family to the suburbs of Boston, a decision about which in the book he expresses a certain amount of ambivalence and, perhaps even guilt. He seems to want an increased gas tax and a lower home mortgage tax deduction to make it more cost-sensible for him to live in the city, but those may strike Americans who don't share Mr. Glaeser's taste for cities as high prices to impose.
Disclosures: I was sent a free copy of this book by the Manhattan Institute. If you click through and buy it at the link above FutureOfCapitalism.com gets a percentage of the sale. And Professor Glaeser was a frequent contributor to the New York Sun when I was its managing editor, though I don't recall ever dealing with him directly.