Cities Triumphant

by Matthew Shaffer

Here’s an idea for fixing our economic woes: urbanization. As Ed Glaeser points out in his latest book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, if the whole country were as economically productive as New York City, our GDP would be 43 percent higher than it is. Glaeser argues that the most important driver of economic progress is the exchange of ideas — people learning from each other — and that still happens best in densely concentrated areas. Check out my interview with Glaeser to learn more about how cities drive innovation, how the government foolishly “bribes” us to live elsewhere, and the relationship between urbanization and happiness. Here’s a taste:

It is absolutely true that within the U.S., there’s no sense in which people in Manhattan say they are happier than people who live outside the city. But it is also true that people who live in Manhattan are less likely to commit suicide. So if you look at extreme events of depression, those are rarer in Manhattan.

What I mean when I say “happier” is that if you take the broader sweep of human civilization, it is certainly true across countries that urbanization (and the path toward development that urbanization makes possible) is associated with happiness.

One of the best (I think) points that Glaeser makes is that cities have become culturally associated with, and politically dominated by, one political party in a way that is harmful for urban policy and for the country. #more# Glaeser says it doesn’t have to be that way:

NRO: You made reference to the damage done by the political and ideological homogeneity of urban centers. What’s the underlying cause?

GLAESER: It’s funny. It’s an odd thing. At one point in time it wasn’t true. You think about the New York of the 1790s, which managed to have both Hamilton and Burr. But it’s awfully hard to see all that much political competition in cities today.

The root cause is hard to know. But it certainly is sad to me that the places that exhibit the values of entrepreneurship and competition in the most full-throated way — these are America’s cities. These are actually the places where we see the amazing things that happen from private entrepreneurs doing innovative stuff. And yet they tend to be on the political side of the aisle that places less value on that. …

I think the government has a tendency to be pro-suburban, unfortunately in part because cities have become associated with a single political party and that’s never a good place to be.