Occasionally, in addition to my regular textbooks, during the school year, I’m required to read books written by leading academicians in specific fields in order to get a more complete knowledge of one or more areas of public policy. More often than not, these books are far more enlightening than the traditional textbooks assigned (which I hardly ever read, when I realize that they contribute to most of the lecture), and I’m able to wrest far more specific and detailed information with practical applications than the vague ruminations that comprise my average textbook. Some academic books that I’ve had to read include Healthcare, Guaranteed by Ezekiel Emanuel (yes, he’s Rahm’s brother and it’s about what you think it’s about), The Coming Generational Storm by Kotlikoff and Burns (about social security), and Rights Talk by Mary Ann Glendon (on the way American discourse has diminished the concept of rights by framing every political debate within those terms). For the most part, all of the books have been interesting, even when I disagree with them, and the book I just finished, Harvard Economist Brian Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, is no exception, though perhaps Glaeser can be too much of an economist for his own good (a pseudoscience if there ever was one).
Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier is Glaeser’s aptly titled ode to urbanization and his attempts to dispel myths about how cities are natural breeding grounds of poverty and disease, but that, in fact, urbanization provides our rural poor with opportunities for health and prosperity they would never achieve in the countryside. Glaeser also shows the manner in which cities are far less harmful to the environment than sprawling suburbs. Examining which cities have failed over the last century against those that have managed to succeed and comes up with a variety of political and industrial symptoms that have plagued our nation’s (and the world’s) most suffering cities and comes up with what he sees as the best way to succeed. With in-depth analyses of cities from New York to Boston to Mumbai to Bangalore to Detroit to Chicago to Dubai and many more, Glaeser provides a political and economic history lesson while offering up insightful meditations on the triumphal nature of cities and how allowing them to properly grow (rather than the current morass of zoning regulations and anti-city national policies), we could provide modern economic growth that clinging to an ancient industrial model will never satisfy.
The most pleasantly surprising aspect of the book is how moderate and rational Edward Glaeser is despite being an economist to his core. When I think of most economists (Paul Krugman and John Maynard Keynes excepted), an image of stuffy Ayn Rand acolytes suckling at the teat of laissez-faire free market capitalism immediately springs to mind (wow I sound like a socialist). While Glaeser certainly respects the notion of the free market (as even I do), he also recognizes that government’s have a responsibility to help out its poorest citizens, a task that cities are far more equipped to handle than rural isolation. One of the primary themes of the book is the greater environmental costs that suburban and rural citizens acquire, through longer commutes by car (as compared to a lot of walking and mass transit in cities), greater energy costs for home heating (because the homes are generally larger and more exposed to the environment than in denser areas), and through using much more land to house far fewer people. Economists tend to ignore the environment, and here, Glaeser makes it a central theme of his book. There are few occasions, although when they happen it’s very upsetting, that Glaeser sticks solely to the dogma of the conservative economist elites, and it’s a refreshing change of pace.
I can actually recommend this book to non-Academic types because rarely does Glaeser find himself lost in the esoteric argot of the economist trade. It’s written in a fairly humble and readable prose that never stumbles into academic pretension. While he does spend a significant portion of the book laying out specific policy proposals, he also spends a large amount of time on urban history lessons, and for any history buffs out there, they are almost always insightful and interesting examinations of why our cities have turned out the way they are. In fact, it would be fair to argue that out of all of the academic texts I’ve had to read for college thus far, this was easily one of the most accessible. Glaeser has a natural gift for storytelling, and for a policy advocacy oriented book, there are distinct narrative threads to grasp which is a rarity for anything not written by Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer.
While there were many points in Glaeser’s book with which I took umbrage (mainly concerning his call for a public voucher school system, though he still says a socialist system like France’s could work), he had much to say with which I agreed. I am an urbanist, and as soon as I graduate from college, I’m moving to a big city (I’m thinking Boston, NYC, or San Francisco), and so many of his notions are grounded in a logical reality that is impossible to ignore. His most basic prescriptions on how to lower prices in the cities by allowing for greater development of high-rises and skyscrapers is completely sensical and it is true that most of these buildings are stopped by rampant NIMBY-ism. While I can respect a Walden-esque call for a return to nature, unless that return to nature is met with a complete dropping of modern amenities likes cars and heating, then you’re doing more damage to the environment than those in cities. I have to write about 8 pages on this book for my actual class, so I’m saving a really in-depth analysis of the book for that paper, but needless to say this was interesting and all of my politically minded friends would definitely find this interesting.
Final Score: A-