Ed Glaeser Should Get Out More

Ed Glaeser may be a terrific economist. But that doesn’t mean that he has any idea what he’s talking about. Maybe just the opposite.

Harvard’s Ed Glaeser has long been regarded as one of the most astute economists around: economics Nobel laureate George Akerlof thinks he’s a “genius.” But if he keeps writing posts like this, it will serve as evidence less about him and more about the collapse of economics as a serious profession.

Glaeser and my UCLA colleague Matt Kahn compared the carbon footprints of urban dwellers versus suburbanites:

In almost every metropolitan area, we found the central city residents emitted less carbon than the suburban counterparts. In New York and San Francisco, the average urban family emits more than two tons less carbon annually because it drives less. In Nashville, the city-suburb carbon gap due to driving is more than three tons. After all, density is the defining characteristic of cities. All that closeness means that people need to travel shorter distances, and that shows up clearly in the data.

Great. And it’s something that smart growth advocates and new urbanists have known for more than a decade now. That’s why they are smart growth advocates and new urbanists.

But Glaeser bizarrely goes on to insist that his findings demonstrate the intellectual flaws of environmentalists. His evidence for this? Did he check with the Natural Resources Defense Council, or Environmental Defense? Oh no–that would be too dependent upon facts. And gosh, we can’t expect that out of an economist, can we?

Instead, Glaeser cites Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, a book published nearly four decades ago. The Lorax doesn’t like cities, Glaeser says, and so that means that environmentalists don’t, either, and so that means environmentalists are wrong.

Let’s put aside the notion that Glaeser badly misreads The Lorax itself: the book condemned environmental degradation, but literally as any six-year-old knows, it was hardly a paean to suburbia. More significantly, he seems to have no idea about what the environmentalist community thinks nowadays.

Consider SB 375, California’s landmark smart growth bill, which attempts to tie transportation funding to more compact, sustainable development. Its sponsor was the California League of Conservation Voters, which did extraordinary political work getting it through. Meanwhile, it was opposed by virtually every Republican in the Legislature because it seeks to curtail suburban sprawl. Republican Tom McClintock, a right-wing knuckle-dragger elected to Congress after parachuting into a blood-red district, decried the bill on the state Senate floor as “one of the most authoritarian, far-reaching and elitist bills that has ever made it to the governor’s desk” and compared it to Soviet style planning.

During the debate over the stimulus, it was the environmental community that fought for more transit funding and battled against the powerful highway lobby. And where was Glaeser? Reading the Lorax — badly.

To be sure, many — too many — environmentalists still see all development as anathema, either not realizing or not wanting to realize that forbidding urban development just means more sprawl. But if you compare them to libertarians like Glaeser, it’s not even close. I’m still waiting around for libertarians to get serious about carbon taxes, for example.

It’s bad enough that the Grand Obstructionist Party has decided to stake its own future on destroying the planet’s. But it’s just as bad that it has enablers like Glaeser, who can brilliantly analyze statistics but remain completely unable to see beyond “the fully buttoned pinstripe vest draped with the gold fob from his pocket watch.”

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.