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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 03/ 4/2011

Why we still need cities

By Ezra Klein

There's lots of interesting stuff in Ed Glaeser's new book, "The Triumph of the City." One of Glaeser's themes, for instance, is the apparent paradox of cities becoming more expensive and more crowded even as the cost of communicating over great distances has fallen dramatically. New York is a good example of this, but Silicon Valley is a better one:

The computer industry, more than any other sector, is the place where one might expect remote communication to replace person-to-person meetings; computer companies have the best teleconferencing tools, the best internet applications, the best means of connecting far-flung collaborators. Yet despite their ability to work at long distances, this industry has become the world's most famous example of the benefits of geographic concentration. Technology innovators who could easily connect electronically pay for some of America's most expensive real estate to reap the benefits of being able to meet in person.

A wealth of research confirms the importance of face-to-face contact. One experiment performed by two researchers at the University of Michigan challenged groups of six students to play a game in which everyone could earn money by cooperating. One set of groups met for ten minutes face-to-face to discuss strategy before playing. Another set of groups had thirty minutes for electronic interaction. The groups that met in person cooperated well and earned more money. The groups that had only connected electronically fell apart, as members put their personal gains ahead of the group's needs.

The overarching theme of Glaeser's book is that cities make us smarter, more productive and more innovative. To put it plainly, they make us richer. And the evidence in favor of this point is very, very strong. But it would of course be political suicide for President Obama to say that part of winning the future is ending the raft of subsidies we devote to sustaining rural living. And the U.S. Senate is literally set up to ensure that such a policy never becomes politically plausible.

By Ezra Klein  | March 4, 2011; 9:00 AM ET
 
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Comments

With all this discussion of cities and unions lately, I'm surprised that no one seems to be mentioning the role that industry has historically played in moving out of central cities to avoid union organizing. A dispersed population is less likely to unionize than a concentrated one. Of course thats just one aspect. The growth of the Sun Belt through government subsidies of defense, agriculture, and energy has also helped spur on suburbanization in areas with no union history also plays a significant role.

Posted by: DavidCEisen | March 4, 2011 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Why we still need rural areas: To grow food. If, in ending "the raft of subsidies we devote to sustain rural living", we are not able to produce enough food for ourselves- we will be in big trouble. Not to mention rural places are our sources for clean (or at least cleanish) water.
When you figure out how to grow the majority of our food in our cities, let me know. Then maybe we can turn those fields back into forests, help climate change and water quality too.

Posted by: Hazelite | March 4, 2011 9:43 AM | Report abuse

"But it would of course be political suicide for President Obama to say that part of winning the future is ending the raft of subsidies we devote to sustaining rural living." The irony, of course, is that ending agricultural subsidies would most likely help revitalize the rural economy by encouraging smaller farms and thus greater employment. Numerous studies also show that smaller farms are more efficient and productive than large megafarms, but distributors don't like dealing with lots of farmers; they prefer coroporate farms. In addition, smaller farms tends to be better for environment and grow safer and healthier food, including plants and animal products. Again, reforming the food production and distribution system in this country is the most radical and anti-corportate action people can take and it's healthy too. My personal food rule is to use the grocery store for as little as possible; it's my way of attacking the corporate power structure and maintaining my health.

Posted by: johnsonr1 | March 4, 2011 9:59 AM | Report abuse

I'm thoroughly unconvinced. The more reviews that assert the case, without even an outline of the key bits of evidence, confirms my doubt.

Consider also this: residence of major cities pass out enormous subsidies to businesses that locate there and perhaps even as much to the local real estate cartels...er "developers".

When you are deeply involved in taxpayer subsidies of the economic activity of cities, how does one make the case that rural subsidies are awful/wasteful?

Posted by: Amphigory | March 4, 2011 10:04 AM | Report abuse

Cities cannot be allowed to have the same representation as unpopulated rural areas. If they did, liberal policies would prevail.

Posted by: harold3 | March 4, 2011 10:20 AM | Report abuse

"The overarching theme of Glaeser's book is that cities make us smarter, more productive and more innovative."

And rural and wild areas inspire us, feed us, and connect us with our natural roots that many have a deep yearning for. We need both.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | March 4, 2011 10:25 AM | Report abuse

""The overarching theme of Glaeser's book is that cities make us smarter, more productive and more innovative."

And rural and wild areas inspire us, feed us, and connect us with our natural roots that many have a deep yearning for. We need both."

You're right. It's those sprawling, wasteful outer suburbs with their cookie cutter McMansions from where everyone has to drive miles to get anything that we could do without.

*Just kidding, but in terms of land availability and energy use and costs, such development is not sustainable and to many is likely becoming less desirable.

Posted by: mkarns | March 4, 2011 10:36 AM | Report abuse

I think a better question is "What the hell do we do with all these little towns?". I grew up in a rust-belt town in PA and watched as one industry after another closed it doors and left. The population of the town shrunk by about 25% while I was growing up. All any of my friends ever talked about was leaving. You can buy a beautiful 4-bedroom house for ~$100k there. But no one will move there because there aren't any jobs. Well, that's not totally true. There is a small college, a very large hospital, and various gov't agencies. But is this the fate of small-town America? It's a tough nut to crack.

Posted by: willows1 | March 4, 2011 10:54 AM | Report abuse

But you can't neglect the hinterlands, as China is doing now and has done in the past for centuries.

It isn't a recent phenomenon that China is devoting most of its resources to cities. If you read Johanthon Spence's writing on China, you can see how rural neglect and the tendency of Beijing and the Manchu ruling class to abuse peasants has always, inexorably, led to upheavals, including the civil war.

Mao convinced the peasants and rural people that he was there to help, but he ended up pursuing the same policies, but with different names, and more with more brutality. The same thing is happening there now, rural China is being neglected and it will have negative impacts in the future.

Posted by: nickthap | March 4, 2011 1:59 PM | Report abuse

But you can't neglect the hinterlands, as China is doing now and has done in the past for centuries.

It isn't a recent phenomenon that China is devoting most of its resources to cities. If you read Johanthon Spence's writing on China, you can see how rural neglect and the tendency of Beijing and the Manchu ruling class to abuse peasants has always, inexorably, led to upheavals, including the civil war.

Mao convinced the peasants and rural people that he was there to help, but he ended up pursuing the same policies, but with different names, and more with more brutality. The same thing is happening there now, rural China is being neglected and it will have negative impacts in the future.

Posted by: nickthap | March 4, 2011 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I've wanted to post on this, and really do it well, but here's the short version:

Selfish, local zoning has been immensely costly to our country.

I remember driving in Silicon Valley through mile after mile of little 1950s houses costing millions each. Selfish locals prevented the building of great cities because clearing away these houses to build condo buildings housing a hundred times the people would have lowered the value of their homes by increasing supply, yet it would have skyrocketed productivity and quality of life for countless families who instead had hours of commuting because they couldn't afford to live near work.

Of course there should be Federal laws preventing this kind of horribly harmful selfish local zoning. The externalites are enormous, and this issue is ridiculously underdiscussed relative to how important it is. And yes, American's rights, families' rights are vastly more important than State's or local rights.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | March 4, 2011 10:13 PM | Report abuse

Do you get points for every time that sleazy fourth grade slogan, "winning the future" is used? Whatever the merits of cities versus suburbs and countryside, should the government have a huge hand in herding people to one or the other?

Posted by: truck1 | March 7, 2011 7:20 AM | Report abuse

The interjection of the slogan "winning the future" (tm) into one's text is an act of fawning obeisance to the administration. utterly servile.

Posted by: truck1 | March 7, 2011 7:49 AM | Report abuse

In a capitalist society, if rural areas do not get a proportionately larger share of government help they just fall further behind; it's not cost efficient for commercial entities to serve their residents. At this very moment, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is ripping Ezra's commentary in a speech before the National Rural Election Cooperative Association. RECs were a Roosevelt innovation; those people did without electricity for decades after the city folk got it, and they may never have gotten electricity without subsidies. I think there's a tendency to equate "rural subsidies" with the small fraction of that money that goes to large farmers. It's a lot, a whole lot, more than that.

Posted by: gjdodger | March 7, 2011 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Subsidies or no, you conveniently overlook the reality that agriculture is one of the only industries in this country that, until the recent economic situation and increasing regulatory burdens from urban voters, is a net EXPORTER of goods. How many tech companies can say that, as they outsource everything from supplies to manufacturing to human resources? Cities make THEMSELVES, not us, richer.

Ironically, a domestic food supply allows Americans the national security to work on getting "richer" rather than worrying about food supply politics like net importers of food have to.

I wonder how long your argument would last if rural producers decided that they would just feed themselves for a month.

You should try reading the Farm Bill and see how much is dedicated to food stamps (used primarily by people in cities) and other political pork.

Posted by: OliviaG | March 9, 2011 4:39 PM | Report abuse

I'm all for getting rid of agriculture subsidies like food stamps and crop subsidies as well as subsidies for mohair, wool, etc. I am a small farmer. I don't take subsidies because it allows the government to tell me what I have to do with my land.

That said, rural electricity subsidies is what makes our rural areas unlike 3rd world countries. We need those to keep our power grid in the 20th (it's not in the 21st) Century.

And some help with rural water. City water is subsidized, after all.

Now, let's ban cities from giving corporations tax write-offs - especially property tax write-offs - because that steals money from the schools.
Oh,and I am against all light rail subsidies, too.

Posted by: BethDonovan | March 10, 2011 9:14 AM | Report abuse

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