27 thoughts on “Ed Glaeser on the Future of NYC”

  1. Glaeser also speaks well of the Dutch Delta plan – a national project, built in coastal areas away from cities, but the Netherlands are so densely populated that even rural areas have a lot of inhabitants. Photo of the 14 huge Haringvliet storm sluices here. The hydraulic rams controlling the gates have the diameter of small cars. The Haringvliet is only one of several barriers on the same scale.
    A quote from Wikipedia encapsulates the stubborn collective will of the Dutch.

    At the artificial island Neeltje-Jans, at one end of the [Oosterscheldekering] barrier, a plaque is installed with the words: “Hier gaan over het tij, de wind, de maan en wij” (“Here the tide is ruled, by the wind, the moon and us (the Dutch)”).

    Can today´s New Yorkers, or any contemporary American community, rise to this – not by improvising in the face of disaster, but by cohesive long-term planning?

    1. cohesive long-term planning

      Sounds like UN-loving Agenda 21 takeovers to me.

      That is: this planner says: ugh.

  2. Glaeser makes sense only if we can get the politics out of politics.

    His argument seems to be that downtown Manhattan can afford its seawalls, and there aren’t too many externalities, so downtown can and should pay for them. This is fine insofar as it goes. Solid Econ 101, so to speak.

    But we don’t live in a uniform spherical world. Downtown is not an atomistic entity; it is part of a polity. The rest of the polity will want seawalls too, and will likely block downtown’s attempt to put one up in an attempt to get downtown to pay for the other seawalls. Things can get pretty baroque from this point on. Think of labor’s attempt to block free trade agreements. They hire competent economists, and know that a free trade agreement is in the US’s interest, and the surplus from a free trade agreement can compensate displaced workers. But they also know that if they don’t block the agreement, the surplus will not compensate the workers.

    That’s the nice thing about the federal government intervening in local affairs: less prospect of gridlock or rent-seeking at a local level. (OTOH, there are problems with federal intervention, too. Who said it was easy? Only Glaeser.)

  3. “His argument seems to be that downtown Manhattan can afford its seawalls, and there aren’t too many externalities, so downtown can and should pay for them. This is fine insofar as it goes. Solid Econ 101, so to speak.”

    There’s a saying that anybody who invokes ‘Econ 101’ to support their position is probably wrong, because the world isn’t Econ 101. It’s nice to see that apparently Harvard only requires Econ 101 to be a economics professor there.

    1. I agree with you Barry, but for one word. I would have said “that anybody who ONLY invokes ‘Econ 101’ to support their position is probably wrong.” I still view Econ 101 as a useful starting point. Econ 101 is necessary in policy debate, but almost never sufficient. Even when the Econ 101 answer is the correct one (e.g., rent control), it is probably only correct by coincidence.

      (The fatal problem with rent control, IMO, is not that it redistributes wealth or destroys incentives for investment, but it grants tenure rights to bad tenants who make life unpleasant for everybody else.)

  4. there aren’t too many externalities

    Glaeser does seem to make this assumption, but he does so in ludicrous fashion:

    We don’t want to go further down a path where every hamlet on the Eastern seaboard feels it has a right to federally financed storm protection.

    Apparently the externalities and cost-benefit calculation are the same for New York and every other “hamlet” on the Eastern seaboard.

    Obviously, the United States has a stake in the economic viability of New York City. But less obviously, chaos creates unpredictable externalities. How much money have we spent because of 9-11?

    Glaeser also ignores the benefits of financing enormous projects federally. And what do we get in return for local financing? Well, we aren’t compelled to protect every hamlet on the Eastern Seaboard, but hey, guess what? We aren’t compelled to put a subway in every hamlet on the Eastern Seaboard either.

  5. I find it interesting that serious people are into discussing the cost of doing up the planet with seawalls…
    Please let me know when the unserious people get some print space to talk about the need for a Manhattan-sized project to engineer bacteria that eat CO2 and convert it into something useful.

    That the countries of the world haven’t co-funded a massive bio lab with the world’s best scientists to do just that is astounding.
    Who is in charge of this planet of yours? A bunch of dummies that can only think in terms of today’s dollars and tomorrow’s non-cents?

    All this is not just “Epic fail”: It’s Epic Fucking Fail: A bird so stupid that it shits in its own nest and then tries to wall off the shit, even as it continues to shit more…
    That ain’t gonna fly Orville….

    Build the lab…
    Fund it prodigiously…


    1. We don’t really need to invent new organisms: cattails in a wetland and switchgrass on dry already sequester carbon quite well, if left to their own devices; where there’s rock, you can use pine trees. Just add time.

      The root of the problem is too many human beings living life out of balance: draining wetlands, burning trees for cooking and heat, plowing, burning coal and petroleum.

      Support Planned Parenthood.

      1. Not only should we support PP, we should support RE (renewable energy) and LWL (living with less). Seeing as we are talking about humans, I’m not excited about our ability to solve this problem.

  6. The city has the money to pay the bill, and it should champion the principle that we only build sea walls or other barriers when the people who are protected pay for them. This helps ensure that the benefits justify the costs. We don’t want to go further down a path where every hamlet on the Eastern seaboard feels it has a right to federally financed storm protection.

    There are other ways to avoid that path. How about a copay, for example? The city pays half, the feds pay half. Not many hamlets are going to want to cough up even half the cost. Or how about making the federal contribution a function of the value of the property being protected, or the population of the protected area? It really doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing proposition.

    Nor, as I continue to beat a now-decomposing horse, is there any good reason the rest of the country should not contribute significantly.

  7. So Glaeser’s argument is that New York is wealthy enought to self-finance to protect itself against a negative externality, therefore it should, even as the regions that produce the negative externality, continue to produce the negative externality.

    1. Those regions also continue to deny that the negative externality even exists, with the result that their disproportionate political power prevents any attempts at mitigation.

  8. Makes perfect sense, seeing as how New Yorkers are single-handedly responsible for global climate change and rising oceans. Also, the rest of the country wouldn’t be any worse off if New York City went underwater.

    In fact, why should anyone share the cost of anyone else’s troubles? It should be every city for itself, every man for himself. A Republican utopia.

    1. Ditto. Why is this any different from having a cyclone or a tornado? Where is this trouble-free place we’re all supposed to move to?

    2. Good point. Anything to keep people from having to pay for the externalities caused by CO2 emissions. Especially the millions of Americans in inland regions burning cheap gasoline and coal.

  9. Of course, along with this idea of self-financing goes the idea that no coastal region should tolerate its residents sending more money to the federal government than the federal government returns to it in benefits.

    But mostly I would like to point out that this kind of reasoning is really really stupid in the case of interconnected infrastructure. If lower manhattan builds seawalls, they’re also going to have to subsidize Brooklyn and Queens to build protections for their parts of the subway system, and midtown to rebuild their storm sewers so they don’t empty behind the seawalls. If the residents of Greenwich want to protect themselves and still get to work or to food stores, they’re going to have to protect South Norwalk. And so forth.

    The last time someone built a really great defensive infrastructure without considering that geographic and jurisdictional boundaries didn’t match up, it was called the Maginot Line.

    (Not that seawalls are even a good answer, btw.)

    1. The last time someone built a really great defensive infrastructure without considering that geographic and jurisdictional boundaries didn’t match up, it was called the Maginot Line.

      Guh. No. I know that this idea that the Maginot Line was a colossal waste and a complete failure is so entrenched in popular thought that no one will ever dislodge it, but it’s wrong. It was, in fact, a complete success. France didn’t fall because the Maginot Line didn’t work; it fell for reasons of poor military intelligence, bad operational decisions elsewhere along the front, stupendously bad luck, and a dash of Belgian perfidy.

      The Maginot Line was never intended to prevent a German invasion. It was intended to shorten the length of the front and allow the numerically inferior French Army (which did not have concrete assurances that the British would be there to help) to concentrate its forces in order to fight the Germans on equal footing in Belgium. It allowed the French to defend their direct frontier with a number of second rate units, who accomplished that task quite successfully. It left their first line units free to fight in Belgium. Interestingly, on a tactical level, the French units along the Dyle acquitted themselves quite well and might have been superior to their Wehrmacht opponents. We’ll never know, since the operational failure farther south cut off the French attacks before the could force a decision either way.

      Arguably, the problem with the Maginot Line isn’t that it was built, but rather that it was never extended all the way to the Channel coast. That would have had all sorts of benefits for the Allies and the French could easily have afforded to do so. In terms of preparation it might have led the Anglo-French alliance to give up on a massive advance into Belgium altogether. The Belgians were problematic non-allies throughout the 1930s despite knowing that the Germans would drive through them again if there was a war. The reason for fighting there was mostly to prevent the French industrial heartland from being devastated for the second time in thirty years, but if the Allies had known that they had extensive fortifications to rely on they may have gladly taken the opportunity to stop relying on the Belgians altogether.

      In the course of actual events, a Maginot Line extension of even 50 miles would have been huge. Granted, in this hypothetical the Germans would never have used the plan they did, but if they had, the ability to delay the Germans for as long as it would have taken them to cross the Meuse against fortifications would have changed the course of the battle. Manstein’s plan depended entirely upon getting past Sedan on the March and not having to slow down. If he had, he was badly exposed to counteratack from the north.

      And that’s the key. The Maginot Line was never intended to be completely impenetrable. It was intended to slow the Germans down and channel their attack elsewhere. It did its job.

      And let this be your lesson never to approach the pet peeves of the guy with Asperger’s.

      1. So, we should stop calling them “surrender monkeys?” (Not that *I* ever do that — I love French culture …)

        1. Stick with calling the officer class a bunch of boobs that sometimes behaved as if they were more scared of their own troops being communists than they were of the Germans and the produced a command/control structure that made it really hard to turn the French Army around when it needed to.

          1. Sounds like a really good case study. Probably it is one. I never knew growing up how interesting military history can be. I had hardly any. Especially the technological angle.

  10. lets see– CO2 rises because oil/coal/gas is burned. that burning takes place allocating profit without pre-paying for the externality (shared atmosphere is a free dump) C02 rise world wide causes seas to rise and storms (with surge) to be larger still. So (glaeser or presumably kahn) cities on the coast should pay for their own protection and poorer ones should therefore not be protected.
    (a) kind of begs the question why isnt the bill for new yorks protection just sent to the company(s) that profited without pre-paying the externalities of co2 burning? oh wait can’t have that it would require federal intervention
    (b) sure lets have cities protect themselves against 3-6 foot rise and stronger storms that will be enough right? wait wait you mean that might be what we get by 2100 but time doesn’t actually stop at 2100? But its going to keep rising after that? well we’ll just keep building barriers higher every decade then, no problem there its so much easier than pricing the damn externality isnt it.
    (c) those poor cities that can’t afford it– let em die. its to much trouble to try to create some unimaginable structure that might charge everyone proportional to wealth or income and use that unknown mechanism (we could call it a xat!) to pay for larger scale protection projects or even perhaps mitigation. that could never work.

    1. AFAICT, Kahn thinks these kinds of arguments do not merit a response.

      I disagree, but then what do I know?

      1. well doesn’t merit or doesn’t have a response. not dissimilar to the so called economists that spent the last 4 years ignoring the fact that we were at the zero bound where multipliers are high when telling people that fiscal stimulus is not effective (sigh).
        still one mustn’t give up hope. Also the point should be there for comment thread readers.

  11. @micromeme,
    Yup! Who profits?
    Maybe only people who profit from infrastructure should pay for it? Maybe only those who profit from war should fight it? It’s all about money, right?

  12. Could someone please explain this nugget to me?
    “[urban voters vote Democratic], since people in vulnerable cities need government more than people in far-flung rural areas do (even though the latter often get more per capita in federal subsidies).”

    I’m no economist, but that sentence seems self-refuting.

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