Paul Romer is a Smartest Boy Urbanist and I wish he’d sit down

I do this sort of rant-y blog post on occasion, and it’s not very nice, but we who toil in relative obscurity for years and years need our petty outbursts when the Paul Romers of the world descend from Mt. Olympus to grace us with their embarrassingly banal insights.

I like and respect Emily Badger’s work very much, and I get that this is the New York Times after all, where puff pieces for NYU darlings are bread-and-butter. But this piece makes me want to stab things. There’s some nice stuff in this piece about the actual management of a big festival and how to think about street grids, but….um, there are a lot of people who write about planning for and around mega-events (Eva Kassens-Noor at Michigan State, for one) and um, yeah, the grid has a fair few people who have written about it.

And honestly, changing street safety is something Mexican moms have been working on in LA and Mexico City and lots of other places for a long time but it’s not NYT-worthy (sponge-worthy) until it’s Paul Romer and BURNING MAN and I really just can’t.

Paul Romer! Is going to Burning Man! He discovers the Things! The Things to Fix the City! Here are the things making me stabby from the get-go.

It’s a case study. Economists have pissed on every single case study ever done in the history of the world to elevate their own claims to scientific rigor BUT OH BOY PAUL ROMER IS DOING A CASE STUDY SO CASE STUDIES MUST BE ENLIGHTENING TO US NOW BECAUSE AN ECONOMIST IS DOING ONE. Let’s all pay attention to Paul and his case study because it’s an economist but if it were a historian or a planner or a sociologist doing the case study it would be SPECIOUS BECAUSE IT’S NONGENERALIZABLE DUH PEOPLE WHERE DID YOU GO TO SCHOOL, HUH?

Paul Romer’s major gifts, as far as I can tell, are talking about Paul Romer and making obviously basic ideas sound profound. And he has a Nobel Prize, which lest you didn’t get that from the headline, Romer will remind you:

He doesn’t want to give speeches cheerleading his field. But he believes winning the Nobel has expanded his possibilities. More people will listen to what he has to say, if he can just decide where he wants to direct our attention.
Maybe it’s here.
Mr. Romer came to the desert imagining himself as an objective outsider: de Tocqueville among the Burners

Oh boy. Where to start? de Tocqueville…huh. Mmmkay.

At the far edge of town, they found a roller coaster that looked likelier than most things at Burning Man to harm you. It was designed for one fool at a time, strapped into an oversized car seat that shot down one side of a 31-foot wooden U shape and up the other.
Mr. Romer, surprising himself, walked up to it.
“Should I do this?” he asked Coyote. “If you kill a Nobel Prize winner, it’s on you.”

Maybe Romer could just have a non-Nobel-prize-winning economist try the roller coaster in order to protect the Nobel winner. Or a sociologist.

Levi, who did not know whom he was talking to, mentioned to Mr. Romer that his hero was Daniel Kahneman, the 2002 winner of the Nobel in economic sciences.
Well, I won the Nobel prize last year,” Mr. Romer said. “So Danny is a fellow laureate.”

Oh, did you win the Nobel Prize, Paul? We didn’t know that. Now, in fairness, this is right before a little interaction with a young guy where Romer sweetly offers to provide the young guy with a recommendation and gives him a hug. That’s a nice thing. It’s also known as what the rest of us in the professoriate do all the time and not just something we do in between mentioning our Nobel Prizes and breathlessly hagiographic profiles in media outlets. But still. Romer’s status gives him the best “I’m busy” excuse ever, and he still made the time to be nice, so some points there. It WAS sweet and generous.

In Mr. Romer’s Nobel lecture, he implored people to think of cities, especially in the developing world, as places where people get the benefits of interacting with one another.

This is so cute! The cutting edge of economics in 2019 is where the cutting edge of sociology was in 1912. Impressive! Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs would be gratified.

And then, of course, we need the hint that Romer The Economist is Improving Upon Urban Planning because of course urban planners just haven’t had any ideas before a doggedly fame-seeking economist shows up to show us the way:

The proposal forced Mr. Romer to learn the mechanics of cities. He persuaded N.Y.U. to create a new institute devoted to them, and two planning experts gave him an education. Shlomo Angel taught him the foundation of good street grids. Alain Bertaud gave him a framework: Urban planners design too much, while economists cede too much to the market. The answer lies in between — in drawing the street grid on the desert.

Yeah, the answer DOES lie somewhere in between, but that’s area where urban planners exist and HAVE EXISTED FOR AT LEAST A CENTURY, YOU JERKS. Hey, I got an idea, let’s create some straw-man of urban planners as relentlessly controlling government types and then use them to display OUR GREAT WISDOM in deviating from the market fundamentalism that has enriched our discipline for decades and then use that as evidence of OUR GREAT INSIGHT in repudiating that fundamentalism because it’s not like TONS of other disciplines, including urban planning, haven’t been pointing this out FOR DECADES.

I’m sorry, but YOU CAN BITE ME AND MY ENTIRE PROFESSION. Just because YOU never bothered to understand urban planners and stayed WILLFULLY IGNORANT about what we actually do and study does NOT mean you DISCOVERED a thing and then get to dismiss us from it. Thanks for Columbusing us.

Here’s the actual sentence you need there: Urban planners did a whole bunch of valuable work and research before I showed up.

And the final thing…OMG:

A global economy built on ideas no longer has to be zero-sum, he argued. Everyone can use ideas at the same time. Someone living in America benefits if someone in India becomes better off and invents a vaccine.

But we have to make the cities viable first, in this moment when it’s still possible to draw what they might become.

“If we take a pass on this,” he warned, “the opportunity will be gone.”

OOOooooooOOOooooo a warning! A warning of what, who the hell knows? Cities aren’t viable now? They seem to be kinda…well, here even if they aren’t viable in the mysterious dimension that Romer hints at. Um….viable in conforming to Romer’s framing so that Romer can be right about something? What the hell is he talking about besides apres moi, le deluge?

Yes, Romer, you’re very important and your insights on whatever it is you are talking about here will save us all. If we are voting on what to change now before it’s too late, I’m voting for climate change.

Gah. Bad thinking, praised because of celebrity.