Ed Glaeser on the City: Uh oh

Maybe Ed Glaeser should revisit basic American history.

Today I received in the mail Ed Glaeser’s new book, The Triumph of the City.  Glaeser is a leading intellectual, and rightfully attracts a lot of attention: his work on urban segregation, for example, has been quite pathbreaking.  But he is often sloppy in ways that call his judgments into question.  Flipping through the book, I found his discussion of house prices in Houston versus the coasts (surprise: Houston’s are way cheaper), and came acroos this doozy:

The Texas State Constitution of 1876, written as a renunciation of big government during Reconstruction, creates a number of roadblocks against any state income tax.

(emphasis added).  This truly deserves the John McEnroe response.  First, as Kenneth Stampp demonstrated more than half a century ago, Reconstruction governments were no more profligate than their “Redeemer” successors, and usually less so.  But one really has to question the historical knowledge — or indeed even the basic intellectual seriousness — of anyone who suggests that white southerners’ reaction to Reconstruction was about “big government.”  Hopefully, the rest of the book avoids this kind of shoddiness.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

9 thoughts on “Ed Glaeser on the City: Uh oh”

  1. He is a sloppy thinker. He thinks that increasing density and reducing the price of built space results from building skyscrapers, for example.

  2. Neither of your arguments seems responsive to Glaeser’s actual claim. He isn’t comparing Reconstruction and Redeemer governments, or even suggesting that those hostile to Reconstruction were motivated by opposition to its profligacy (which, according to Stampp, was real). He’s saying something more specific: The 1876 Constitution was “a renunciation of big government during Reconstruction.”

    I don’t think you can seriously deny that the Constitution was written during Reconstruction, so I assume your disagreement is with the first part of the clause. I’ve never heard anyone question the sincerity of the Grangers’ commitment to lean government — they famously refused to publish a record of the convention in order to save money — but I’m happy to be proved wrong.

  3. @RK — Well, as I understand it, the “Grangers” actually strongly favored railroad and agricultural regulation: Munn v. Illinois was their case, and they won it. So I have a hard time seeing them as a laissez-faire group.

    As for the reasons for whites changing their Reconstruction constitutions, if Eric Foner, Kenneth Stamppp, and every other historian since the mid-1950’s isn’t good enough for you, a comment on a blog post isn’t going to change your mind.

  4. What is most interesting to me – not the fact that Glaeser like the rest of us is not always correct – is that the libertarians took some of his work and clutched it to their breast. One wonders whether he’ll be the pro-suburbia darling after word of this book trickles down to libertariana.

  5. Jonathan, I don’t know why you’re treating me and Glaeser like unreconstructed Dunning School historians. In fact, I believe Foner (in _Reconstruction_ — see the chapter on the Depression of 1873) and other modern historians like James McPherson explicitly note the hostility to government and political centralization that was just as much a part of Southern Democratic ideology as white supremacy, and not just a cloak for the latter.

    The Grangers did favor railroad regulation, and the 1876 Constitution gives the Legislature the power to regulate railroad rates. They weren’t Randites avant la lettre: They were skeptical of both big government and big business, and their political platform (which included things like temperance and and the direct election of senators) seems more quixotic to us today than it was in the 19th century South, when the most salient divide was between industrialists and agrarians (something Foner described throughout the book). They quickly lost influence in Texas politics after getting the Constitution ratified, but their most prominent 20th century descendants were actually the Progressives.

  6. How come you call it the McEnroe response? much more recent is:

    CNSNews.com: “Madam Speaker, where specifically does the Constitution grant Congress the authority to enact an individual health insurance mandate?
    Pelosi: “Are you serious? Are you serious?”
    CNSNews.com: “Yes, yes I am.”

    Of course, in the Pelosi case, seriousness has crept in…

  7. Knowing that Conservative News Service is an agitprop arm of the Noise Machine, I spent a few seconds on The Google to find the text that CNS cherry-picked and withheld from patriotic Americans. The Noise Machine has flooded the zone with that talking point, and it takes too long to find the quote in its entirety. Good job Noise Machine!

  8. The fact that Glaeser is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute should be a tipoff to expect some slopping thinking.

  9. Just took a look at the Manhattan Institute’s website. Don’t know if the impulse to barf or guffaw is stronger. The F.A. Hayek Prize? Really? And this title: How the Rise of Women Turned Men Into Boys. Oh, God!

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