Politics & Policy

Millennials Can Rescue Cities from Their Leftist Rulers

New York mayor Bill de Blasio (Kena Betancur/Getty)

Most American cities have been ruled by left-wingers for decades, and a good case can be made that this has contributed mightily to their decline. Of course, this has done no favors for groups — minorities, the poor, blue-collar workers — that urban progressives count as loyal political allies.

Many Millennials are, so far, enrolled in this coalition but, if they’re paying attention, might be wondering why. On two key issues, the Left is unalterably out of step with most twentysomethings’ beliefs and interests.

First consider New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent attempt to defend his city’s taxicab cartel and stifle the fast-growing ride-sharing service Uber. His Honor lined up enough city-council votes to cap the size of Uber’s fleet (among other things) and then, while on a junket to Rome, went on a populist rant to justify his regulatory offensive, decreeing that “the people of our cities don’t like the notion of those who are particularly wealthy and powerful dictating terms to a government elected by the people.”

Which turned out to be exactly backward. Uber and its (mostly Millennial) subscribers mounted a relentless PR counterattack, punching holes in the mayor’s assertions about the need for more regulations and making clear that they don’t like terms being dictated by the government. The chastened mayor backed off, promising to study the matter for a few months. In the unlikely event that this study is honest and objective, it would teach the mayor some very important lessons — foremost, that Millennials’ embrace of “Sharing Economy” firms like Uber does not merely make their lives easier and save them money. It helps save cities and, indeed, the planet.

Uber and its rival Lyft do not just bring competition (read: lower prices, better quality) to monopolistic markets. They exemplify a new kind of business that enables us to lighten our ecological footprints by making more-efficient use of our possessions. When we share otherwise-idle residential space (via Airbnb), tools (Open Shed), or clothing (Thredup), we squeeze more value out of the scarce resources used to create and maintain these goods.

A nerdy economist might call this “efficiently amortizing fixed costs”; everyone else would just say it’s “being green.” And, in truth, this has always been a signal virtue of city life. When we cluster together in dense urban areas, we enjoy much lower costs per customer for our streets, water and power lines, and much else. Matthew Kahn has found that (after controlling for income and other influences on demand) the average suburbanite drives 31 percent more miles and consumes 58 percent more land, 49 percent more fuel oil, and 35 percent more electricity than the typical city dweller.

Millennials are on board: A 2014 Nielsen survey found that almost two-thirds of the 77 million Americans aged 18 to 36 “prefer to live in the type of mixed-use communities found in urban centers,” and are currently living in such areas at a higher rate than any other age group.

But they’re struggling to afford it. Especially in New York, San Francisco, and other Left-ruled cities, housing costs are rising much faster than incomes. And according to numerous studies of this inflation, blame lies with the regulatory reflex — for growth controls, restrictive zoning, and other anti-market policies — that is embedded in progressives’ DNA. Edward Glaeser, Joseph Gyourko, and Raven Saks have found that “for the median Manhattan condo . . . the regulatory tax amounts to well over half of the total price of the unit.” In San Francisco this hidden tax is 53 percent of average house values.

The nature of firms like Uber and others in the Sharing Economy is disruptive, entrepreneurial, competitive, and non-bureaucratic. It is antithetical to the Soviet-style economic thinking that prevails on the left.

And when Millennials have the audacity to live and invest in lower-cost urban neighborhoods, they encounter class and race warriors ready to accuse them of — gasp! — gentrification.

Consider filmmaker Spike Lee’s obscenity-laced diatribe on the topic last year. Speaking at an African-American History Month event, Lee (wearing a “Defend Brooklyn” hoodie) actually conflated gentrification with genocide: “You can’t just come in the neighborhood and start bogarting and say, like you’re [expletive deleted] Columbus and kill off the Native Americans. Or what they do in Brazil, what they did to the indigenous people.”

And in his less hysterical moments, Lee just sounded like a warmed-over segregationist: “I mean, they just move in the neighborhood. . . . I’m for democracy and letting everybody live but you gotta have some respect. You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations and you come in and now [stuff] gotta change because you’re here? Get the [expletive deleted] outta here. Can’t do that!”

Of course, progressives will argue that Messrs. De Blasio and Lee, two good men of the Left, just had some bad moments, and that the issues on which they embarrassed themselves can somehow be reconfigured and made part of the liberal platform. But that’s just wishful thinking.

The plain fact is that the nature of firms like Uber and others in the Sharing Economy is disruptive, entrepreneurial, competitive, and non-bureaucratic. It is antithetical to the Soviet-style economic thinking that prevails on the left, and no amount of spin about the need to protect poor consumers or avoid the chaos of markets will alter that truth.

Ditto liberals’ grandiose plans to “create affordable housing” by government fiat, putting up stop signs on development unless builders set aside a few subsidized units on new projects. The laws of supply and demand are immutable: Prices fall only if supply increases or demand decreases. If we don’t let builders build, prices inevitably rise — unless we make neighborhoods less appealing and send residents elsewhere in search of greater quality of life. Neither prospect is terribly appetizing, for the poor or anyone else.

We don’t even have to deconstruct Mr. Lee’s ugly, divisive rhetoric to see stressors on the relationship between urban Millennials and their current rulers. At the least, there seems to be an opportunity for Republicans to invite this sharing, gentrifying cohort into the party’s libertarian wing. Once there, they may realize that there’s life beyond leftism — and they will certainly be better situated to improve the cities they cherish.


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