Politics and Identity

Sarah Goodyear chats with Ed Glaeser, urbanist and right-of-center economist, about why America needs to show cities some love. Here’s his idea for relating to the populist nationalist authoritarians who are the core of the conservative movement in America:

You talk about all the factors, like the mortgage tax deduction, that are not just facilitating sprawl, but really, pushing people into living in sprawl. Yet now, there’s this perception that when the Obama administration is doing anything to create better conditions in cities, that that is coercion. There’s a lot of talk on the very far right that we’re being pushed to live in cities. Where is that perception coming from?

A. It gets back to your first question, why have cities fared so poorly in the political discourse over the past 200 year? The truth of the matter is that I think that the Obama administration is simply trying to give us a level playing field. It needs to be presented as that. To those Republicans, to those Tea Party activists who believe in the home mortgage interest deduction: Shouldn’t the U.S. government stop engaging in social engineering? Shouldn’t the U.S. government stop engaging in those policies that artificially push people out of the homes that they would have? Haven’t we had enough of activist government trying to shoehorn us into low-density living?

That’s how I try to present it, and I actually believe that. I have some libertarian bent. I think that things are problematic in part because they impinge on basic human freedom, the ability to choose cities if you want to choose cities. Given how anti-urban the broad spectrum of public policy is, if anyone attempts to depict the tiny things that are slightly pro-urban as being an attempt to socially engineer Americans into cities, I find that quite odd.

As you know, I agree with these sentiments. But I think there’s no reason to believe this kind of argument will be remotely persuasive. It’s certainly an interesting fact about conservative identity politics in the United States that it’s associated with talking about “freedom” and “free markets” but as Glaeser well knows actual public policy in the United States has basically nothing to do with this. If conservatives read Glaeser’s book (and they should—review forthcoming!) they’ll like his swipes at historic preservationists, at the environmental review process, and his skepticism about high speed rail. But they’re no more going to turn against pro-suburbanization or rural subsidization policies than Tim Pawlenty is going to cut an add about how about the gay wedding of two immigrants from Mexico exemplifies the true spirit of American liberty.

Anyone actually interested in the subject will swiftly see that (a) American public policy is strongly biased against high density living and (b) that this outcome is predictable from the structure of American political institutions. That people don’t realize this is largely a matter of willful ignorance.