From Gradgrind to Glaeser

Economic analysis is often illuminating, but sometimes it just seems to provide cover for new Gradgrinds to ply reductionist utilitarianism. Case in point: the NYT Magazine has a glowing profile of Edward Glaeser, an economist from Harvard. As a patrician, provocateur, and polymath, Glaeser is reported to have single handedly revived the field of urban economics. Here are some of his prescriptions (as reported by Jon Gertner):

1) Don’t rebuild much of New Orleans— just let hard-pressed residents move somewhere else (and expect our exceedingly eleemosynary Congress to cut checks to each resident for $200,000, since that’s what they were planning to spend on infrastructure!). And don’t try to revive struggling rust-belt cities like Detroit, either.

2) “Car-based cities” are great; they “enable residents to buy cheaper, bigger houses,” and “the average car commute is about 24 minutes; on public transportation, it is around 48 minutes.”

I have a few questions for Glaeser. First, does his model value stability at all? Let’s say that this process of dispersion in search of better jobs leaves very few nuclear families with extended families nearby to help with child and elder care. Is the resultant need to hire day care workers and visiting nurses a boon to the economy, because unpaid labor to that end wouldn’t count in the GDP? Just how parsimonious are his models?

I have some personal experience with the “exodus from the Rustbelt” that Glaeser finds so appealing…

When I was growing up, my family followed his first recommendation, moving (in search of better jobs) from Buffalo (where my father was a steelworker) to California, then Oklahoma, then Arizona (where he worked in retail). If my experience is any guide, this transition is no picnic for the families involved. But even from a strict economic standpoint, the better jobs never materialized. I hope he’d admit it’s harder to find decent wages in the “right to work” sunbelt than the more progressive “rust belt” he appears ready to let go under.

Next, regarding car-based cities…I found Glaeser’s conclusions a bit rich, given that he a) co-authored a study on obesity and b) admits he has to leave for work at 6AM each morning to beat the traffic on his commute from his estate to his office. What if the 24 extra minutes spent by subway commuters are walking? Does that have any value for him? How does exercise fit into his comparison of car-based vs. train- or bus-based commuting? (And if it made people live longer, but then they needed more medical resources toward the end of life because they were less likely to die suddenly of a heart attacks, would that be a negative for him?) And isn’t he grateful for all those schlubs who (like me) take the train, leaving Route 2 a little less congested for him?

Admittedly, Glaeser has many more sensible things to say in the article. But I deeply hope that the types of questions I’m asking have to be answered before anyone else takes mathematical modeling seriously as a guide to urban policy. We are repeatedly assured throughout the article that Glaeser is a genius, “the most exciting urban researcher in half a century”… and that he’s a very sharp dresser! (“Waiting for the light to change at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue, the defender of sprawl . . . — and the wearer of a splendid beige cashmere overcoat — didn’t seem much suited for the suburbs of Boston.” . . . I have to wonder–do these Times profiles emphasize subjects’ sartorial splendor and elite connections in order to lend them credibility, or to get us to be skeptical of academic demigods whose money can insulate them from any bad consequences of the policies they recommend?)

But just because someone purports to reduce difficult, value-laden choices about the kind of society we aspire to be into a series of elegant mathematical equations doesn’t mean he’s really helped us understand our dilemma.

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