By Ben Adler
The most famous cliché of editorial advice — “write what you know” — has always served me in good stead. I’ve often regretted ill-advised ventures outside my areas of expertise. (In 2006 I wrote a screed complaining that critics over-rate Ghostface Killah, based on my deep knowledge of hip-hop circa 1997. And don’t ask me about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ever. Please.) Ed Glaeser, Harvard economist and author of Triumph of the City, has just made such a mistake. While Glaeser knows free-market economics, he clearly knows nothing about the people who live in cities.
In the current issue of City Journal — house organ of Rudy Giuliani-style neoconservatism — Glaeser contends that it is time for cities and Republicans to put aside their history of animosity and come together. He makes three arguments, each less true than the next: that Republicans would benefit politically from appealing to urbanites, that urbanites will be receptive to their entreaties, and that Republican policy ideas would substantively benefit cities. Glaeser writes:
The GOP has an urban problem. And it’s partly a self-created one. The party, nationally and even locally, has focused on winning suburban and rural votes and has stopped reaching out to city dwellers.
The cities-as-foreign-territory approach is bad politics for the Republicans: after all, successful cities like New York and Houston surge with ambitious strivers and entrepreneurs, who should instinctively sympathize with the GOP’s faith in private industry. The Republican move away from the cities is also bad for the cities themselves, which have hugely benefited — and could benefit a lot more — from right-of-center ideas.
Let’s take these assertions one at a time.
• “The cities-as-foreign-territory approach is bad politics for the Republicans.”
This is a good example of the Pundit’s Fallacy. The Pundit’s Fallacy is the convenient belief that whatever you believe in must surely also be in the political best interest of the party you seek to influence. Conservative talk radio hosts, for example, frequently insist that truer conservatism would help Republicans win. Glaeser, a libertarian who lives in Massachusetts and grew up in Manhattan, naturally wants the fiscally conservative party to appeal more to cosmopolitan conservatives like him instead of the proverbial pickup-truck-driving, gun-toting, uneducated, white voters who constitute the Republican base. And so, surely, it must be in the best interest of Republicans to do so.
But it isn’t. As anyone familiar with the electoral college could explain, wasting time and money campaigning in New York City, Los Angeles, or Boston, only to lose by a smaller margin in New York state, California, or Massachusetts would be a terrible misuse of resources for the GOP.
More to the point, it is precisely Republican demonization of cities and their residents that attracts the culturally conservative suburban and rural voters. Having covered Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign, I can tell you that appeals to resentment of young people, urbanites, atheists, and racial minorities helped him win the South Carolina presidential primary. And when Gingrich attacks “elites” who live in Manhattan and ride the subway as a defense of the home mortgage interest deduction (a tax policy that benefits the suburbs at the expense of cities), that is a pure expression of modern Republicanism: It is identity politics for older white people in suburbs and rural areas, stripped of any connection to conservatism as legitimate or consistent ideology.
Glaeser actually mentions the fact that President Obama has left the home mortgage interest deduction alone as a rebuttal to the Republican platform’s false assertion that Obama “pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.” Glaeser does not bother to reflect, however, on the irrational spite for cities and their inhabitants that this quote evinces. If he did, he might realize that he is asking a group of people who are deeply biased against cities to embrace a more urban agenda — and then realize how silly that is.
Republicans have a number of positions — opposition to immigration, opposition to gun control, subsidizing farms and oil production, demagoguing cuts to Medicare providers, wasting enormous sums of money on the military — that flow from these cultural politics. They often contradict the supposed Republican commitment to free markets and fiscal discipline. But they are designed to appeal to the constituency that provides Republicans with their votes. Abandon these positions — or the anti-immigrant, fear-mongering, rurally biased frame for the whole Republican platform — and their voters may abandon them for a third party, or stay at home.
• “Successful cities like New York and Houston surge with ambitious strivers and entrepreneurs, who should instinctively sympathize with the GOP’s faith in private industry.”
This is a variation of a complaint one frequently hears from conservative intellectuals in the wake of their second consecutive thumping in a presidential election. Typically, the target demographic is Latinos or Asians, who are hailed as natural Republican constituencies owing to their supposed industriousness.
Conservatives making these arguments simply treat it as self-evident that entrepreneurs would “sympathize with the GOP’s faith in private industry.”But why would they? Faith in private industry is not a policy; it is, as the word faith implies, an anti-empirical mindset. Republicans are indeed a party of blind faiths — in God as the creator of humans in their present form, in private industry as preferable to government, and so on. But one usually gets ahead in business by making informed decisions based on dispassionate reading of data, not on unwavering faith.
Not all entrepreneurs necessarily share Glaeser’s and the GOP’s ideologically rigid, and unwarranted, faith in the free market. Empirically speaking, private industry does not always meet all of society’s needs. Consider, for example, the case of providing health insurance for the ill or elderly.
Living in a city — as opposed to Glaeser’s 6.5-acre spread in Weston, Mass. — tends to help one understand areas where the private market fails. See homeless people; note that private schools do not serve the poor; use sidewalks, subways, and roads; or call the police after being mugged, and you are likely to lose your faith in private industry to solve all problems.
Glaeser also does not consider who actually lives in cities. They are not actually all wealthy entrepreneurs. Many of them have economic interests that clearly lie with the Democratic Party. Let’s use Glaeser’s own examples of New York and Hoston: 19.4 percent of New York City residents, and 21.5 percent of Houstonians, live below the federal poverty line. These are the people whose food stamps and Medicaid benefits House Republicans are trying to cut.
Here are a few other interesting facts about Houston and New York: They are both about a quarter African American and even more Latino. And more than 45 percent of residents in both cities speak a language other than English in their home. Glaeser, naturally, thinks they would be inclined to vote for the party pushing an “English-only” bill in Congress.
Cities are filled with racial minorities, immigrants, gays, and unmarried women, and Republicans oppose equal rights for all of these groups. They oppose banning discrimination against gays in the workplace and allowing them to marry or even serve in the military. They encourage cops to stop any Latino and demanding to see his immigration papers. They have blocked laws to protect women from pay discrimination and they seek to outlaw abortion. Republican appointees to the Justice Department [PDF] and federal bench are chosen for their hostility to civil rights. Republicans have also passed laws designed to disenfranchise large numbers of young people, poor people, city dwellers, and minorities by requiring possesion of a government-issued photo ID (aka a driver’s license) to vote.
Even if Republicans deserved all the credit Glaeser gives them on economic, criminal justice, and crime-fighting policy, the Republican platform is generally more hostile than helpful to most urbanites.
• “[Cities] have hugely benefited — and could benefit a lot more — from right-of-center ideas.”
See the sleight of hand? Suddenly we’re talking about “right-of-center ideas” as if that were synonymous with “Republican governance.” Glaeser burnishes this point by noting that Richard Nixon and his HUD secretary, George Romney, moved from public housing to housing vouchers for low-income families, and increased flexible block grants to cities. Well, yes, Richard Nixon also famously created the Environmental Protection Agency. Alas, that tells us nothing about the modern Republican Party, except how far right it has moved. Someone with Nixon’s or Romney’s politics today would be a Democrat.
It is Democrats who have expanded housing voucher programs such as Section 8, and applied its lessons of dispersing low-income housing through President Clinton’s Hope VI program. Republicans, meanwhile, have proposed to do nothing with Section 8 vouchers or Community Development Block Grants, except to cut them.
So what qualified in 1970 as a right-of-center idea can be helpful to cities. But Republicans no longer support those ideas. It is telling that Glaeser has to go so far back to offer a Republican contribution to urban policy.
And those policies are arguably not even right-of-center. They are based on the premise that government can and should offer assistance to disadvantaged families and urban communities. They simply believe in using free market approaches rather than top-down government. One might properly term that center-left, or neoliberal, rather than right-of-center or conservative. Certainly, the politicians promoting such ideas today — an individual mandate to buy health insurance, a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions — are Democrats. (OK, with one notable exception, former Rep. Bob Inglis [R-S.C.] — but you’ll recall that he got chased out of office by the Tea Party.) Most Republicans refer to such proposals, inaccurately, as “socialism.”
Glaeser goes on to credit Republicans such as Giuliani for making cities safer. “The GOP, historically the party of law and order, can convincingly make the case for urban crime reduction,” he writes. He mentions New York’s vaunted Compstat system for identifying crime hot spots, and adds, “Simply hiring more cops also helps.”
More cops? Far be it from me to offer a mathematics lesson to a professor of economics, but hiring cops requires paying them, and paying them requires money, and that money has to be raised through taxes. And yet it is Republicans like Glaeser and Giuliani who claim ad nauseum that high taxes to provide such social services chase businesses and high earners out of cities.
It is Democrats such as Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama who have offered funds for cities to retain and hire more police officers. Mitt Romney, George’s son, mocked that notion on the campaign trail, snorting, “[Obama] wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”
Things get truly surreal when Glaeser labels congestion pricing – in which drivers pay a fee for using traffic-clogged streets in a city’s central business district — a Republican idea. It has had proponents and opponents in both parties. But Glaeser clearly has no appreciation for the larger debate about transportation policy. The Republican position on transportation boils down to: Mass transit bad, roads good, but we don’t want to raise gasoline taxes to pay for them. The gasoline tax has the same principles as congestion pricing, in that it taxes driving to reduce it and raise funds from users for the transportation system.
Congestion pricing is indeed a good idea, and one that follows free-market principles of eliminating a wasteful subsidy and putting a price on a negative externality. (Negative externalities are unfortunate byproducts, such as pollution, of doing the things we we will do to excess if we are not forced to pay for them. In this case, the main externality is traffic jams created when we all drive to the same place at the same time.) But Republicans don’t believe in taxing negative externalities! Just ask them about cap-and-trade or carbon pricing. The sad truth is that these days, Republicans are not a party of innovative policy ideas from anywhere on the political spectrum.
A much more serious, honest take on Republicans and cities was offered in The New Geography by Aaron M. Renn. Renn argues that Republicans should try to actually understand and respect people who live in cities and their values, such as their need for more government, and more environmental regulation, and their appreciation for diversity.
Renn is correct in his understanding of some of the Republicans’ problem with urban voters. But Republicans do not lash out against density and environmental initiatives in a vacuum. It is how they keep sucking up money from the oil, coal, and construction industries. It would be nice if adopting a greener, more urban agenda were in the GOP’s interest, as Glaeser and Renn argue it is. But that just may not be the case.
Ben Adler is a contributing writer for The Nation.
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