Say “Urban Economics,” and for those familiar with the discipline, Ed Glaeser is the first name that comes to mind. The Harvard professor and Manhattan Institute senior fellow has become an authority on the subject within the academic world and without — his pieces in City Journal and the New York Times’s Economix blog have deployed accessible economic analysis to dispel myths about and highlight the benefits of the city. Glaeser’s latest book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, is a tour of his greatest insights about urban economics, written for a general audience (no math!).
Glaeser, a New York City native from the pre-Giuliani days, is no stranger to the downside of urban life (namely, crime). But he argues that dense concentrations of people enable the quick exchange of goods and knowledge. And knowledge is the most important thing for prosperity: Get smart people together in one place, and you create, in effect, labs for future economic progress. That benefit from face-to-face contact won’t be replaced by telecommunications anytime soon. Glaeser demonstrates this using both theory and wide-ranging historical and global examples.
But cities do more than make us more productive. They allow us to live with a smaller carbon footprint, their social networks help prevent us from committing suicide, and they offer the poor an opportunity for social mobility. Mankind’s best in culture, philosophy, and the arts has always originated in the city. On an appearance on The Daily Show, Glaeser went so far as to joke with Jon Stewart that America’s metropolises were, in fact, the “real America.”
Glaeser spoke with NRO’s Matthew Shaffer about how cities make us more productive and more human. He offers challenges to the economic pieties of all political factions, and explains why the health of our cities will determine our future.
NRO: The important thing about cities, you say, is that they concentrate smart people so they can learn from each other. What kinds of things do you learn that you can’t get from formal education?
Ed Glaeser: This is the essence of what cities do that’s important. It’s wonderful for faculty members like me to think that we produce something useful. But I think almost everyone who goes through even the most august formal education recognizes that there are real limits to what you get out of schools that is actually really productive.
A lot of what is learned is just how to function in a modern entrepreneurial economy. That comes from watching the people around you: watching your boss do things that are smart, watching your colleagues do things that are stupid. This is all sort of a chain, an onrush, of knowledge that is enormously valuable to workers just starting out. But sometimes the learning that is most important involves these chains of new ideas, these creative collaborations that occur so often in cities, from the birth of philosophy, to Ford’s Model T, to Facebook — where there’s some new insight that one person builds on and then another person goes on and produces something else. And because it’s on the cutting edge, it’s not something that anyone’s going to teach in a school. By the time it has gone through an academic curriculum, it has lost the possibility of being a new insight. Or it has almost lost the possibility of being a new insight that can really yield game-changing profits, or game-changing productivity.
There are scores of examples, many of which I talk about in the book. I talk about the inventions of Renaissance Florence and the exchange of ideas that gave us the artistic revolution of the 15th century. I talk about the collaborative creation of the skyscraper in Chicago, in the years after the great fire, where at least a half-dozen great architects worked with one another, borrowed one another’s ideas, and created this enormously productive means of cramming people into a small amount of space. I talk about Ford’s Model T, and about the change and invention in 1960s and 1970s New York that helped the rise of finance in that city.