This is two really wonderful books and one less wonderful book all wrapped into one.
The first book, which is terrific, is a brisk and accessible tour through a series of real-life experiments deeply grounded in data: "A study of corruption in Indonesia found that the stock prices of companies whose leaders stood closest to that country's dictator in photographs suffered most when the leader fell ill."
More: "When American cities have built new rapid-transit stops over the last thirty years, poverty rates have generally increased near those stops." It's not that transit stops cause poverty, he explains; rather, poor people value being able to get to work without the expense of owning a car.
That insight, like many of those mentioned by Professor Glaeser, bears on the main topic of his book, the economics of cities. The author proves useful as a guide to the research of others as well as in conveying his own thoughts. "Nathaniel Baum-Snow, a Brown University economist, has calculated that each new highway passing through a central city reduces its population by about 18 percent." And, "Dartmouth economist Bruce Sacerdote found that children displaced from New Orleans by Katrina had a significant improvement in their test scores. He found the biggest beneficiaries of the exodus were children from poorly performing schools who left the New Orleans area altogether." It's the counterintuitive nature of these insights that makes them particularly delicious -- that expensive highway project that the local congressman fought to get funded turns out to be bad for his city, and Hurricane Katrina turns out to have been a good thing for the education of its "victims."
The second excellent book within Triumph of a City documents the way that regulations prevent cities from accommodating the needs of people. "Too much preservation stops cities from providing newer, taller, better buildings for their inhabitants," he writes.
Historic preservation laws are just one part of a set of barriers to building that also includes zoning, environmental laws, and government approval processes. "Over the past forty years, we've experienced a little-remarked revolution in property rights in America," Professor Glaeser writes. "We have gone from a system wherein people could essentially do what they wanted with their own property to a system wherein neighbors have enormous power to restrict growth and change."
The strength of the first two books makes the weakness of the third book contained within Triumph of the City all the more disappointing. This third book-within-a-book consists of a series of left-wing assumptions.
The problems of cities, Professor Glaeser insists, won't be solved by "mindlessly relying on the free market." In fact, he says, "there's no free-market solution for the great urban problem facing slums....Cities desperately need forceful, capable governments to provide clean water." He doesn't mention that here in America, private water systems produce 4.6 billion gallons of water a day, or about 1.7 trillion gallons per year. Or that the private drinking water business is a $4.3 billion per year business, with at least 12 publicly traded companies among the players (more if you count bottled water).
Professor Glaeser has a strange crush on the French school system. "If America imitated the best aspect of European socialism and invested enough in public schools so that they were all good, then there would be little reason for the rich to leave cities to get better schooling," he writes. Later, he repeats, "If the United States emulated France and embraced nationwide quality schooling funded by the state, there would be less reason to flee urban areas."
In fact the 2009 results from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Program for International Student Assessment, which studies 15-year-olds, found that America outperformed France in reading and science. France did better than America in math, but is that a reason for America to emulate or embrace an educational system that in two of three categories measured produced worse results than ours? The latest UNESCO statistics also show that the United States outspent France on primary education, as measured by annual public expenditure per primary student as a percentage of GDP per capita.
The sections devoted to global warming veer into self-righteousness. "Anyone who believes that global warming is a real danger should see dense urban living as part of the solution....The polar ice caps appear to be melting quickly and threatening seaside cities from New York to Hong Kong with the prospect of severe flooding," he writes. "For the sake of humanity and our planet, cities are -- and must be -- the wave of the future."
It's not just cities that Professor Glaeser has in mind for his project of saving "humanity and our planet" but also taxes. "Current U.S. gas taxes are too low," he insists. "Throughout the world, we can adopt a global emissions tax that charges people for the damage done by their carbon emissions. The actual size of the tax needs to be worked out by the experts...."
Toward the end of the book, he writes, in arguing for more stimulus spending to be directed at cities: "The five least dense states managed to sit out the recession with an average unemployment rate of 6.4 percent, as of December 2009." For a book whose whole argument is "the power of proximity" in cities to create wealth, jobs, and growth, that's a fact that undercuts the author's argument, and one wishes Professor Glaeser would at least try to explain it. He does not.
Professor Glaeser is also not always as clear as one would wish in terms of his definition of a city. Is it the whole metropolitan statistical area, or just what lies within the municipal boundaries? Sometimes cities and suburbs have similar characteristics in terms of density, they just lie on opposite sides of political boundaries. If cities make us "richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier," as the book's subtitle claims, would just expanding some political boundaries help? Or is density all that is required, and, if so, why aren't dense suburbs just as good as cities?
Professor Glaeser himself, who grew up in Manhattan, moved his family to the suburbs of Boston, a decision about which in the book he expresses a certain amount of ambivalence and, perhaps even guilt. He seems to want an increased gas tax and a lower home mortgage tax deduction to make it more cost-sensible for him to live in the city, but those may strike Americans who don't share Mr. Glaeser's taste for cities as high prices to impose.
Disclosures: I was sent a free copy of this book by the Manhattan Institute, where Professor Glaeser is a fellow. Professor Glaeser was a frequent contributor to the New York Sun when I was its managing editor, though I don't recall ever dealing with him directly.