Ross Douthat’s city suggestions are satire, right? 

My Asperger’s makes me really dumb about satire, so I often miss things. But I have a lot of people sharing  Douthat’s NYT Op-Ed responding to  Niskanen Center’s Will Wilkinson in his piece on the Washington Post.

First, I gotta say it: DUDES! WRITING ABOUT THE CITY! IN GRAND, ALL-KNOWING TERMS! WHAT A BREATH OF FRESH AIR! Just the thing that urbanism is short of. 


He admits his suggestions are  implausible, but I really can’t get my head around how…anti-market they are.  He’s trolling people , right? Ok, Douthat’s big idea is that cities are not great and conservatives should treat them the way liberals treat corporations: as consolidating, exclusive, wealth-generating organizations.   And yeah, that’s what they are.  Both take advantage of scale.  There is a reason why anybody from the Niskanen Center will be a fan of cities, and that’s because cities and markets go hand-in -hand.  Cities are people; corporations are people. 

The rest of this piece is so silly I think it’s satire. It’s satire, right?  It’s meant to make us reflect on how wrong we are to be suspicious of corporations, not a serious proposal . Right? It’s meant to make urban people feel bad that they have opportunities, and how it is not cool to expect people to move to opportunities in cities if people in cities are not, in turn, willing to move to rural areas and secondary cities. I’m sure I’m right. So I will play along with the silliness. 

Douthat notices that land prices are high in cities. That’s always a sign of failure, right there. It’s so crowded, nobody goes there anymore.  Sure, he’s right, cities should be more accommodating to lower income people, but  as more and more people find housing hard to obtain, the consensus around zoning has dwindled and I think we will see more democratic attempts at reform. Hope so anyway. 

And, yes, we could have more conservatives in the city, and perhaps less segregation, if conservatives were not so ready to move to suburbs, but hey, pay attention; this is postmodern conservativism  where up is down and left is right.  Is there no room for Tiebout sorting? But wait, preference-matching  be damned:   Is there an absence of conservatives somewhere? That’s a problem. A-Ok if conservatives dominate businesses and business schools, but if  universities generally and governments become places where people of similar values wind up going , then we need to set aside quotas for conservatives in those places.   Labor markets need to become regulated, to appease the conservatives.  Down is up, and up is down. Just so, we could  regulate geography as well. Maaaaaybe what we need, just like affirmative action for conservatives, are socialized public housing units for conservatives who show the right ideological leanings.  Vote for Trump, get a loft in Soho at a socialized rate. It’s good for all those elite NY liberals to be exposed to better ideas. Of course, Democrats in Memphis should just suck it up. 

Douthat’s strategy, however, is to break up governmental agencies and nonprofits and force them to move to secondary cities. I don’t understand why. Lots of secondary cities are doing just fine, thanks, and are spots of blue in red states. They are growing. Maybe he means something else?  Sure, again, some misguided souls might point out that the US already has tons of federal district offices spread around the country, with lots of state agency district offices spread all over, not to mention county governments and city governments who already serve as good employers in these places but who need to be cut back because governments always need to be cut back, right?  Why would you simply support the Fish & Game office of some rural location when you could make them a black site for the CIA? 

  He suggests universities should be included in this plan. This will be a big surprise to the universities already in those locations, as plenty of those “secondary cities” are only on the map already because states about 100 years ago recognized that they could do economic development with universities. But the strategy from the conservatives has been to hamstring those institutions, not to support them.  I suppose it would be great for Las Cruces to have an MIT annex there, but we could also just try to stopping it with the  yearly budget cuts and demonization of the “gummint workers” who are already there at New Mexico State and give them a budget where they could hire more locals.  We could just try to support the ones that are there already. 

Nah. That’s silly.  

And why do big urban centers get all the nonprofits? We should make nonprofits even less profitable by requiring they commute 300 miles to reach their client  populations. Fund-raising is _so_much_easier_ in Peoria, where all the wealthy philanthropists live, than in those big, liberal cities. Yes, some misguided souls might think you could just support the nonprofits that are already serving rural client populations, but no. (In reality, his tax thing would probably just be a built-in kick to urban nonprofits, not a boon to rural ones. I doubt his plan would include churches, which annoys me greatly, but I simply fail to see why nonprofits serving urban populations deserve a kick simply because they are leveraging scale.   There are more raw numbers of poor people in metro regions than the countryside, even if the countryside is disproportionately poor percentage wise, and there are plenty of ways of making up the productivity gap betweeen urban and rural nonprofits  due to latter’s inability to leverage scale (through no facult of their own) without sticking it to urban nonprofits. As in: just fund rural nonprofits if you want them funded).

In the end, I think Douthat has great ideas here.  Nothing makes more sense, in terms of efficiency and wealth creation, than forcing institutions and people to live in places with locational disadvantages. It’s magic. You build, people come. It works every time.  There’s absoultely nothing redistributional about it. If there is one thing planners and architects know, it’s that economic geography is shaped with a flick of the policy switch.  

Douthat closes by telling his colleagues at the NYT that they should meet in Akron. But I bet money that somebody already covers Akron for the NYT, and that what the Akron-Beacon journal and the Akron News Gazette crave  is more competition for the local news market from the NYT…or that what the NYT needs is the extra expense of trying to fly those in their international desk out of Akron rather than NYC. 

PS: Still blogging from my ipad which suuuuuuuuuucks.