Ezra Klein on the Importance of Cities

+ Brandon Fuller

Ezra Klein has a nice post summarizing a common thread in recent books by Edward Glaeser, Ryan Avent, and Matt Yglesias: the notion that inefficient rules hamper welfare-enhancing urban agglomeration in the United States. Each author highlights restrictive rules that cut people off from the social and economic benefits of city life:

Yglesias’s pulse is quickened by height restrictions, like the ones here in Washington. Avent takes aim at the local coalitions who band together to fight new real estate development for all manner of parochial reasons. Glaeser is particularly eloquent about the way ordinary buildings get designated “historical” to impede new development. But all make basically the same point: Because we don’t fully appreciate how important cities are in stoking economic development, we dismiss the economic costs of regulations that make them too expensive for many to live in.Which gets to their solutions. They’re not arguing for pro-density policies. All three are careful to say that Americans should live where they want. They’re criticizing anti-density policies that make it effectively impossible for Americans to live where they want. The means should thrill the right, as the agenda effectively boils down to deregulation. The ends should engage the left, as the people who are priced out of the cities — and thus of the benefits they bring — are the poor and the middle class, not the wealthy.

Cities are, in Klein’s words, “remarkable growth machines.” This is true in part because cities allow us to share ideas in face-to-face exchanges with ever more people. By excluding people from this exchange, the restrictive rules that Glaeser, Avent, and Yglesias describe may impede human progress, not just in the United States but anywhere they’re put to use.

Klein suggests that the US would do well to look to China, a country he sees as more embracive of urbanization. There’s no doubt we can learn a lot from rapidly urbanizing countries like China, but they might do just as well to acquaint themselves with our urban policy missteps.

Tile image by Barbara Krawcowicz.

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