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Posted at 12:57 PM ET, 02/16/2011

How policy stacks the deck against cities

By Ezra Klein

There are three big anti-urban policy biases: pro-homeownership policies that push people from urban apartments into suburban homes, the subsidization of transportation infrastructure in low-density areas and our system of local schooling that pushes so many parents away from big-city school districts. The first two problems could easily be solved if the politics were right. The third problem is the great challenge of our era.

That's from David Leonhardt's interview with Ed Glaeser. Read the whole thing.

By Ezra Klein  | February 16, 2011; 12:57 PM ET
 
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Comments

The system of local schooling doesn't push people away by itself.

Rather, its the chronic culture of failure that perpetuates in these mostly Democratic areas that pushes successful people out.

The problem isn't the system, it's the people there. In education, like in anything, failure perpetuates when failure is rewarded.

That's why the Detroit Public School system gets $50 million in stimulus funded laptops. They voted properly.

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 16, 2011 2:02 PM | Report abuse

Glaeser cites “the subsidization of transportation infrastructure in low-density areas” (presumably meaning suburban roads) as an anti-urban policy bias, but in fact rail and transit are subsidized far more than roads. Read Robert Samuelson’s column on high-speed rail in Monday’s Post. He cites a federal study that found federal subsidies to transit were about $118 per thousand passenger miles (about 12 cents a mile) while drivers actually paid more than the cost of federal spending on roads through the gas tax. A substantial portion of the gas tax goes, in fact, to subsidize urban transit. Counting in state and local spending doesn’t change the result. Overall, road users pay roughly the cost of building and maintaining the roads, while transit users pay only about a quarter of the cost of running the transit systems (the rest is taxpayer subsidies) and none of the cost of building the systems or buying the vehicles.

Glaeser’s right when he states that transportation “investments should be made following rigorous cost-benefit analysis and paid for as much as possible by user fees,” but if this were to ever occur, I don’t think he’d like the result. While transit is obviously critical to a handful of our largest cities (and, of course, to transit-dependent populations everywhere – the poor, elderly, disabled, etc.), outside of these few cities, transit carries high costs and delivers few benefits. It carries too few riders in most places to make much of difference in congestion, pollution, GHG emissions, etc. Yet we continue to spend billions of dollars building rail systems in a futile attempt to lure drivers out of their cars.

There are many reasons that suburbs have grown far more than cities have over the past many decades, but anti-urban transportation funding policies isn’t one of them.

Posted by: Natoman | February 16, 2011 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Since Minneapolis was one of the cities mentioned with regard to education making a city prosperous, I'd like to comment on that (although on the form of education that began to break down there after around 2000 in favor of a return to "neighborhood" schools). The extremely successful (in my opinion) public school system in Mpls. was largely an outgrowth of desegregation policies that were put into place beginning around the mid-1970s. It was a policy of "choice"--purely public school choice--based on educational programs: parents could choose from about five "types" of public school within their zone of the district, depending on their kids' needs and their own educational philosophies: if your kid needed more structure and help in basics like reading and math, you could choose a "fundamentals" school; progressive types often chose an "open" school (with mixed grade levels and team teaching); continuous progress allowed kids to travel to other classrooms for reading in math according to their achievement level, while social studies, art, and other parts of the day were in 'home room'; Montessori was a choice; as was a traditional one teacher-one grade classroom neighborhood school in each zone. This not only brilliantly achieved diversity but led to parental satisfaction and cohesive curricular and teacher focus. I never understood why this model was not used in other cities, except for the very high expense of busing kids all around to different schools. I could go on for many hours about the details of this system and its benefits, but it's probably not something that would be politically viable today.

But I'd also like to comment on the relationship of this post to the discussion of arts funding from the other day. One of the most pro-city policies one can think of is arts funding. Art museums, symphonies, and other cultural attractions are one of the main economic drivers of cities, not only for jobs but in attracting residents, tourists, and ancillary entertainment venues such as restaurants, galleries, clubs, etc. Why would we be against federal funding for the arts and at the same time complaining about policies that discriminate against cities?

Posted by: JJenkins2 | February 16, 2011 2:38 PM | Report abuse

"The system of local schooling doesn't push people away by itself. "

All these problems are representative of how we fund local governments: the dreaded property tax. Local governments have the least ability to raise revenue (because it's *usually* only got a property tax) and the least amount of legal or political power to push back against states pushing services down to the local gov level. So you get graphs like this: http://www.mn2020.org/assets/uploads/article/downhill

The property tax system makes services totally dependent on property wealth. Because land is stuck and the ability to move is difficult, people can't choose their property taxes/services. At the same time, local govs force out costs and entrench wealth in various ways. High service/High cost areas get stuck trying to squeeze every last penny from their low-property-value communities, which wouldn't be the case if those costs were distributed over a state-wide area.

There's a bunch of lefty-like proposals to fix our messed up local gov system:
- Minnesota has the often-attacked-from-the-GOP Fiscal Disparities Act, in which each city contributes 40 percent of the growth in its commercial industrial tax base into a regional pool; that tax base in the pool is then re-distributed back to each location based on the total local tax base and population; and that re-distributed tax base is then taxed by each location at is own tax rate. This helps ease some of the property tax badness and the class/race problems it incentivizes...
- Rusk proposed just running services from the county level...http://government.cce.cornell.edu/doc/summary.asp?id=rusk1993
- Frug proposed regional legislatures ... http://books.google.com/books?id=XtgqTyjN3JYC&lpg=PA86&ots=qe5FaMCYaj&dq=frug%20regional%20legislature&pg=PA86#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Richard Briffault has proposed fuzzing-up the city boundaries to run "needed" services regionally (mainly, schools and hospitals) http://www.jstor.org/pss/1229382

We need to re-design how local governments fund (by moving toward regional structures) or re-design how states and cities interact. You'd think conservatives would get on board with proposals that would mean less government: fewer *local* governments with a lot less power (because the state or a regional body has taken over their powers/services, usually at a lot less cost because of economies of scale). Instead, conservatives focus only on this fuzzy, historical thing called localism to justify how messed up the system is.

... sorry for the crazy-long comment, this stuff is important but never gets the attn it needs!

Posted by: Chris_ | February 16, 2011 2:48 PM | Report abuse

"Rather, its the chronic culture of failure that perpetuates in these mostly Democratic areas that pushes successful people out."

Oh c'mon. Look at look at a map for *any* quality of life measure and you'll see what a "culture of failure" looks like.

Per capita GDP, historically--
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_GDP_per_capita#2004_Rankings_.28Historical.29

Infant mortality--
http://www.statehealthfacts.org/comparemaptable.jsp?ind=47&cat=2

HS graduation rates--
http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2011/dropout08/images/figure_06.gif

You could do this forever, with any statistic -- the culture of failure in Republican areas is overwhelming and wide-spread.

Posted by: Chris_ | February 16, 2011 3:49 PM | Report abuse

"and our system of local schooling that pushes so many parents away from big-city school districts. The first two problems could easily be solved if the politics were right."

A perfectly ridiculous statement that fails to recognize the real problem in city school districts: single parent majority households filled with out of wedlock children, and in other areas majority non-native English speaking students.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 16, 2011 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Actually these are lifestyle choices made possible by economic conditions. There are not many families that like living in a two or three bedroom 700 to 900 sq ft apt with two or three kids.

For the middle class, those whose 1/3 of income to commit to housing is around $1500/mo based on the current median income, moving to the city means less. Less space. Fewer cherry cabinets. No master baths. One bathroom instead of two. Smaller kitchens with smaller appliances. No 8000 watt stereo. No big screen TV. Why? Because in the city $1500/mo buys you 700 sq ft in a neighborhood where you can reasonably expect not to be mugged. Or killed. Because no one is interested in building, or can build, 1500 sq ft apts, build vertically, for that price.

It's not that such places don't exist, it's that they don't exist at that price. This isn't an issue of regulation, or tax subsidies for mortgages. It's just the way it is in the city. It's why in the 40's and 50's, as soon as the first tract housing was built, people fled the city.

Now people are trying to say "let's end this subsidy" or "not build that road." But not doing that leads to a very depressing way of life. A life of less.

People try an romanticize living in the city. They talk about cafes (expensive), theater (expensive), etc. But for most folks, the majority of folks, it's a depressing brutal way of living. Just ask people living in Bejing. Or Singapore. Talk to the Chinese and see if they'd rather live in a nice house where you're not tripping over everyone. I'm betting they say yes.

Posted by: elkiii_2008 | February 16, 2011 7:48 PM | Report abuse

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