The urban economist Edward Glaeser can be hard to take, when your workplace is located where mine is. The Big Idea of his new book Triumph of the City is that cities succeed because bringing people into close proximity fosters unconventional thinking and creativity. Here among the lobbyists on Washington D.C.’s K Street, things don’t seem to work out that way.
Still, Glaeser is a clear-eyed observer, and he offers plenty of enlightening history along with some useful policy recommendations. It’s really too bad that so much good sense gets interrupted by episodic interludes of libertarian lunacy. It’s as if our mild-mannered professor has been possessed by the wandering soul of Jeremy Bentham, the embalmed nineteenth-century economist.
The problems that urban schools face, Glaeser the empiricist explains, stem largely from the burden of teaching the poor and immigrants. No–the problem isn’t poverty, but “public school monopolies,” the Ghost of Bentham interjects. Back quickly comes the Harvard man, and we might, like the French, solve our education problems by investing in good public schools.
Private enterprise, the clear-eyed Glaeser explicates, cannot supply pure water or safe streets. Benevolent city-building autocrats, from the Paris of Napoleon III to Bloomberg’s New York, win his praise. But the thought of change wrought by ordinary people summons forth the specter once again. The New Deal’s greatest achievement, Bentham’s Ghost intones, was “better bookkeeping”!
The apparition does not tarry; the professor, with his love of facts, can quickly break its spell. Yet a wisp of Bentham’s spirit lingers on after the lucid state returns. Creativity may be what makes cities succeed, but it does so…by raising labor productivity. Glaeser’s cities are peopled, one comes to feel, not by flesh and blood but by calculating machines for pain and pleasure.
If you want to learn more about cities, Triumph of the City is a useful book. But be prepared to take things with a grain of salt, and expect now and then to be infuriated. Just when you’re starting to excuse his libertarian foibles, Glaeser will hail Wall Street’s creation of the mortgage-backed security as a great advance in human welfare, worthy of comparison to the artistic innovations of Renaissance Florence. Readers should heed the traditional advice to new arrivals in the big city–don’t be scared of the neighborhood, but be sure to keep your eyes open!