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Steve LEVITT: My guest today, Ed Glaeser, is a Harvard professor and the world’s foremost economist of cities. He’s the author of the best-selling book Triumph of the City. And now he’s back with a new book, co-authored with economist David Cutler, called Survival of the City

Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.

LEVITT: Have you ever noticed how all economists kind of sound the same when they talk? We’re not especially articulate and we tend to speak using the stilted language of academic writing. We love to talk in great detail about the technical aspects of our research projects, but more often than not, we have a hard time explaining what people should actually care about the work we’ve done. Ed Glaeser does not talk like an economist. He’s almost poetic. And so smart, whether it’s over lunch in the faculty club or walking through favelas in Rio de Janeiro, which I once did with Ed many years ago, he always teaches me things. I think this is going to be a real treat. 

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Steve LEVITT: So back in 2008, Ed, you wrote a book called Triumph of the City and now 13 years later you’ve got a new book called Survival of the City. Has your optimism about cities dwindled over the last 13 years, as much as the change in titles would suggest?

Ed GLAESER: Probably not. And fundamentally, Survival is also an optimistic book, but it can’t be denied that the reappearance of pandemic has been something of a body blow for urban life. If cities are the absence of physical space between people, then social distancing is like the rapid-fire de-urbanizing of the world. 

LEVITT: Now certainly cities have survived bigger challenges than Covid — 

GLAESER: Much worse, yes. 

LEVITT: The black plague — all sorts of things. Do you think this is a passing fad or you think there’s something more permanent that’s going to transform cities — by this, meaning Covid? 

GLAESER: I think it’s both Covid and the work from home thing, which are sometimes seen as being a double threat to urban life. Do I think that either of these things mean that face-to-face contact is gone and the cities that enable that contact are irrelevant? No, not at all. This is nowhere near as bad as the 1970s, when you had the shock of de-industrialization and suburbanization at the same time, and cities found themselves on the brink of fiscal disaster. The way that I think about it is not that urban life as a whole is under threat, but that individual cities are more vulnerable than ever. And the competition for global talent is likely to become stiffer because of the ability to move more readily across space. 

LEVITT: Let’s go back to the 70s, cause we’re both old enough — barely, to remember when New York City was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy — the New York City blackouts had a big effect on me viscerally in 1977, the looting and violence spiked with crack cocaine in the late 80s — there’s urban flight and depopulation. I think it was conventional wisdom, was it not, back in say 1990, that big cities were in trouble? But that prediction turned out to be really far off the mark. 

GLAESER: Absolutely. My first Journal of Economic Perspectives paper on this was “Are Cities Dying?,” which I answered emphatically, “No.” And certainly, New York had an amazing Renaissance over the next 20 years. Now, we should be a little bit nuanced in the sense that Detroit has not had an amazing Renaissance, nor has Cleveland, nor has St. Louis.

LEVITT: Correct.

GLAESER: So, the comeback is not uniform. And I expect post-Covid that cities, probably including Cleveland and Detroit, will continue to have a tough time reacting. But certainly we’ve been in a place in which cities looked like they had far less of a future than they do right now and cities came back from that. 

LEVITT: Is it fair to say that you have a love affair with cities? I get the sense you just love cities, both on a personal level, but also as an economist. 

GLAESER: I do. I do. Partially, it’s because I see in cities choice and freedom and liberty. So many things that you can do. And that’s what I think fundamentally is the goal of functioning economic systems is to give people choices and cities enable that to happen. 

LEVITT: And it seems to me, reading your books, that you would argue that basically everything good that’s ever happened for human progress happened because of cities, and maybe a handful of really special moments that emerged in particular cities, where for one reason or another, all of a sudden, innovation exploded. So Athens in 500 B.C., Birmingham and the industrial revolution, Detroit in 1900 — can you make the case that everything good happens because of cities?

GLAESER: So, the easier case to make is that pretty much every idea that our species has had that’s worth something comes out of some form of collaboration. You’re building on something else. You’re learning from someone else. It’s Socrates and Plato bickering on an Athenian street corner. It’s the architects in Chicago after the great fire who collectively figured out the skyscraper. It’s the stuff that you and I have experienced in the social science building at the University of Chicago, where creative people bump into each other and learn from one another. Now that’s not automatically urban, but cities are ultimately about enabling that kind of connection. And so, a disproportionate number of these types of connections, which give us these breakthroughs, have occurred in history. A vast number of them have. And so I can’t claim that there has never been a creative connection in low-density areas that mattered. But ultimately, we are a social species that gets smart by being around other smart people. And I believe that because I have lived that. Now, you look at the things that we should be really proud of as human beings — the creation of democracy or a sense of human rights. These were very rarely solo inventions. And they very often happened in the Greek Polis, like Athens creating democracy, or the cities of the Netherlands in the 16th century when these merchants got together and figured out they wanted to create their own functioning republic, free of Spanish Habsburg rule. These are things that happen in cities and they are fundamental to our achievements as a species. 

LEVITT: And maybe it’s just hard to see greatness when it’s too close to you. But when I look at cities, I see less of the things you’ve said, which I totally understand intellectually, and I see more people just having fun. It seemed like the real point of the modern city is it’s a great place to have fun compared to any other sort of place, which there’s nothing to sneer at, but would you see that as being a big part of cities as well these days?

GLAESER: I think in the experience of the average person, the fun is much more important than the spark of true brilliance. It’s just, those sparks of brilliance play an outsized role in the history of our species, in the history of humanity. But, why do I believe above all that people are not going to Zoom from home forever? Because being with other human beings is just a lot more fun. And why do I believe that people will still want to be in Chicago over the next five to 10 years? Because the city is really fun and because they want to be around other human beings. 

LEVITT: Having spent a little bit of time wandering around declining cities, it is really shocking. Intellectually, I never really understood that as a city declined — sure, there’s depopulation, but why is that so bad? It’s only when you start walking around those neighborhoods and every block has two boarded-up buildings. I always imagined that when cities declined you knocked down a block at a time and everything was fine. But declining cities are just a mess.

GLAESER: It is sort of amazing. I wandered around, before writing Triumph, Detroit for a while and this sort of queer empty moonscape. And you don’t even feel unsafe in many of the blocks. There just aren’t any people. There’re just these empty buildings and they’re boarded up. Now there’s still people having fun in Detroit and there’s still creativity in Detroit. I think it’s important we don’t forget that.

LEVITT: Yep.

GLAESER: But it is true that decline can be pretty bleak. There’s also an interesting fact on happiness in cities, which is that as far as I’m able to figure out, declining areas were unhappy first before they started declining.

LEVITT: Interesting.

GLAESER: So, it’s not that they just became unhappy when they were declining but the old cities of the Midwest and many of the former mining areas, in particular, were really not very happy in the 1940s. We have in mind a compensating differential model that said that they had a bunch of disamenities that were made up for by really high wages. And then the wages disappeared and then people decided, you know what? Scranton, P.A., it’s just not the most fun place to be in the U.S. so I’m going to move to L.A. Not that there’s anything wrong with Scranton — I want to say I have a lot of relatives from Scranton, and I think it’s actually a spectacularly beautiful part of America. 

LEVITT: I remember sitting at the table over lunch at the faculty club at the University of Chicago, probably 20 or more years ago. And you explained to me a basic economic truth that still rings in my head. I asked you, “Why does anybody still live in Scranton or Detroit?” You said, “Because buildings last a long time, even when you don’t invest in them.” 

GLAESER: I have certainly made that point. About 16 years ago, I published an article in the Journal of Political Economy with Joseph Gyourko called “Urban Decline and Durable Housing,” that makes the point that the slow decline of cities is very much mediated by the stock of durable housing. That the homes don’t disappear overnight. And so year by year, decade by decade, the population slowly diminishes as the homes decay and are gradually left to be vacant. One of the jobs of economists is to remind people that cities are not structures. Cities are actually humanity. That’s the part of cities that matter. As opposed to architects, who tend to think the important thing is the structures — it doesn’t matter if people are using them or not. I actually — there’s a painting in the Walters Museum in Baltimore, this is by a Renaissance artist that shows what they claim is the ideal Renaissance city. And it has all these amazing pieces of architecture, but there are like three people walking around it. And it just suggests that they completely missed the point of what is a great city. Which is a city that like, makes people joyful. It makes people productive. Even though cities are not structures, structures do really matter. And Detroit, probably the most productive place on the planet in 1950. Built for 1.85 million people. It becomes less productive over the course of the ’50s and the ’60s. It doesn’t disappear overnight because you still have those structures there and gradually they lose their price and gradually they become abandoned, but it’s a process that takes decades. This is actually an important point also with regard to what’s going to happen if we see an increase in work from home, post-Covid, in terms of the office market. So imagine, for example, that there’s a whole bunch of companies who say, we can actually send 20 percent of our workforce home every day and let them Zoom in. So that’s a pretty significant drop in demand for commercial real estate in New York or San Francisco. But the way that’s going to play out is you’re going to have some kind of a drop in real estate prices. Let’s say a 20 percent drop in real estate prices. That would be pretty big, but that’s still way above the price level that you need to maintain those office structures. And so different businesses will come into it. Maybe you’ll have younger scrappier businesses that were priced out beforehand, but they’re not going to lead to empty office vacancies. The structures are still there, so the number of people working will remain roughly the same, and all the businesses that rely on people working there will also remain more or less the same. 

LEVITT: And so structures are, in essence, a means to an end, as opposed to an end in themselves.

GLAESER: Exactly. Exactly. 

LEVITT: Whereas people like Vespasian, might’ve disagreed with you — there’s a long history of emperors creating monuments to themselves. 

GLAESER: Yes. For sure. Imperial cities are a major fact of life, partially because if you go back before 1900, every one of the really big cities in the world was an imperial city. You look at Rome, which is probably the first city to have reached a million people, which it did around 2000 years ago, or Baghdad under the Abbasids, or Zhang Heng in China or, Edo under the Tokugawa shoguns. All of these cities were the capitals of great empires and the leaders had vast resources. They tended to redistribute those resources towards people who were nearby either because they were trying to placate them, so they wouldn’t rebel — think about bread and circuses that your friend Vespasian would have been so fond of — or they are trying to summon their nobles nearby. Think of Louis the 14th at Versailles or the Tokugawa shoguns did this because they wanted their donjons — they wanted their lords to be close to them so they wouldn’t be setting up their own regional power bases. Power attracts human beings like a picnic lunch attracts ants. And so the cities grow up. Now, you often see an architecture that mirrors that. So, long boulevards, for example, which make it easy to have sightlines of impressive buildings. You have large monuments. And of course, these various columns that were built in classical Rome are one example of that. You see modern examples of this — let’s say in Astana, which is a classic modern imperial city, where it’s huge structures. Utterly unrelated to any economic necessity, but it’s serving to impress. And of course, the greatest of modern imperial cities in a sense is Beijing, which has a very interesting architecture, big buildings, typically surrounded by green space. It just radiates power. Washington D.C. is that in some sense on a smaller scale. Nothing about Washington was built to be practical or pragmatic. It’s supposed to remind you of some kind of people’s power but it still is there to radiate political ideas, not economic functionality. And if you just compare that with what Chicago looks like or New York looks like or Shanghai looks like, they’re just very different feeling cities. They’re much more compact cities. No one’s particularly worrying about the sightlines too much. A mercantile city and an imperial city just feel fundamentally different. 

LEVITT: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a paper I was a co-author on, and it strikes me as being highly related to the concept of dying cities and how buildings surviving leads people to stay in the cities. So the question we were trying to answer was how bad was Hurricane Katrina economically for the people who lived in New Orleans at the time the hurricane hit. And we were able to get depersonalized I.R.S. data, income tax returns, and follow people’s tax filings across years. So we did the best we could based on pre-hurricane Katrina data to try to match people living in New Orleans, to someone whose economic and demographic characteristics look similar but they live somewhere else, say in Jackson, Mississippi or Richmond, Virginia. And then we looked to see what happened to the earnings and we compared after the hurricane hits New Orleans, did the residents take a real economic hit. So, in the year following Hurricane Katrina the incomes of people who lived in New Orleans at the time of the hurricane fell by about $2,000. Not that much. The year after hurricane Katrina, their wages stayed low by about $2,000. By two years after Hurricane Katrina, the people who lived in New Orleans at the time of the hurricane, actually their incomes were back even with the matched pairs from other cities. And following that, their incomes actually exploded. And in the long run, say 10 years later, they had earned far more than the people who looked like them but weren’t affected by the hurricane. It turned out, at least in our data, that being decimated by Hurricane Katrina was a positive economic shock, not a negative economic shock. I think roughly one-third of all the residents of New Orleans left and never came back and our leading hypothesis is that people are just stuck in places like New Orleans. It’s where they grew up. There’s a phobia of change and being forced out of a really bad economic situation into a much more vibrant city — a lot of people who left New Orleans went to Houston —.

GLAESER: Right, right. 

LEVITT: Which was a much better place to try and craft a living. And, I got to say — it never even occurred to us when we started the paper that Hurricane Katrina could be a positive shock for people. But that’s what it looked like from the data. How, how does that jive with your own views of how cities work?

GLAESER: It feels totally reasonable to me. I think the question is whether or not we are going to be hyper-rationalist about this in which we say, all right, they earn more but they have to pay somewhat more in housing. Plus, they lost the unique cultural benefits of New Orleans. So they were no better off by being kicked out. The other view is that they always should have been thinking about going somewhere else, but they were trapped by their past into this relatively underperforming metropolitan area. And so that it actually was better for them certainly in the long run by being kicked out. It often feels as if people are sitting in underperforming areas for long periods of time and living pretty miserable lives. And if they got themselves somewhere else, they would do better. New Orleans is part of this eastern heartland of America, which I don’t know if you’ve seen this stuff that I’ve worked on a couple of years ago with Larry Summers and Ben Austin. But I managed to convince myself that rising joblessness in America was our largest unmet social crisis. That in 1967, one in 20 prime-aged men were jobless. Over the past decade, three in 20 — 15 percent of prime-age men have been jobless. And there are parts of America, especially in the eastern heartland, where one in four prime-age men are jobless. And you just look at these sort of dysfunctional areas. Again, it’s a swath that starts in Mississippi and Louisiana. It runs up through Appalachia and ends up in the rust belt cities of the old Midwest. And you just say, why don’t they get out? Now, part of it is they’re living on their parents’ couches. Thirty-five percent of these men are living with their parents and the parents aren’t about to move. But it’s hard to know whether or not the right answer is you’re just gonna accept that they’re optimizing or more that in fact, a kick in the pants from their parents would probably do them some good. I’m not gonna embrace either viewpoint, but I think both are perfectly reasonable.

LEVITT: So, moving away from dying cities, to cities that are growing, but that the critics would still point to as being an example of why cities are terrible. Let’s take Rio de Janeiro. There are huge numbers of poor people living in Rio, coming to Rio and living in slums we call favelas. Critics would say, “Oh, this is a tragedy. It’s a failure of cities.” But I suspect your response is that these critics need to learn some basic economics. Am I right about that?

GLAESER: Most of the available data we have on the alternatives suggest that Rio is really functioning pretty well. And it’s not just functioning well in a static sense, in the sense that the people who live in favelas are much better fed, much healthier, much less likely to be really poor than the people living in the rural northeast of Brazil. But we have this dynamic picture of life in a favela from a distinguished social scientist named Perlman, who shows the extent to which over 30 years, their lives have really gotten much, much better. They’ve gone from being really poor, like they were in the rural Northeast to living lives that are really vastly improved. So, I’m not saying that every disadvantaged area is doing all that it can to be a pathway out of poverty, but plenty of them are. And certainly, the favelas of Rio have a reasonably good track record of enabling upward mobility. Now, Rio does have the problem of crime, which, you know more about than I do, but it is still a place that has more future, more possibility than many of the rural parts of Brazil. 

LEVITT: Rio is really an odd city in that the distance between the poor and the rich is much less than I’ve ever seen anywhere else. I spent a day at the house of one of the richest people I’ve ever known. And he couldn’t have been more than 50 yards from a favela. He had original Calder mobiles inside the house, and he had barbed wire and big brick walls and armed guards on the outside of the house. I’ve never experienced anything like that.

GLAESER: It is amazing, isn’t it? Just the complete proximity between wealth and poverty and the sense in which like the physical threat is just there. You and I have both walked together through favelas in Rio and like, that didn’t feel safe at all. You can get kidnapped in a heartbeat. And it’s particular to Latin American cities really that you have that degree of threat. But it also exists in some parts of Africa. India also has this proximity, but it doesn’t have the same danger. 

LEVITT: As an American, when you go to Dharavi, one of the poorest places you’ll ever find — a slum in Mumbai, you feel totally safe, and everything functions, and it seems impossible.

GLAESER: It is amazing. So I think these areas appear to have relatively well-functioning social systems that basically protect their own. Certainly, no one has ever given credit to the Mumbai constabulary for doing this. I have experienced in other Indian slums in Mumbai where there’ll be some form of a village elder who will come, usually surrounded by 30 children, and he’ll ask you what you’re doing. And you know, you’re a stranger, and they’ll figure out what you’re doing. And while you’re walking around as a stranger to the community, they’ll have eyes on you. So, that sort of bespeaks of very well-functioning social community. You have a sense that everyone knows what the rules are and people aren’t violating those rules. 

LEVITT: So, I remember reading maybe five years ago, that China was trying to build a bunch of huge cities from scratch, or at least huge by American standards. What do you think of that concept? And do you know how it’s turning out in China?

GLAESER: It’s hard to tell. I wrote a paper with Andrei Shleifer and Yueran Ma a couple of years ago on the Chinese housing bubble. And we thought that the level of vacancies, as far as we were able to tell, outside of the tier-one cities — so the tier one cities are Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen. The levels of vacancies are just enormous. And what’s interesting is they’re vacancies that are kept on the books of developers, which is not a thing see in the U.S. because if you’ve got a developer who is sitting on a project that isn’t all sold, there’s a lender who’s breathing down that person’s neck — you’ve got to flip the properties to sell it. Whereas in China, they appear to get forbearance from state-connected lenders or state-owned banks that they weren’t going to pressure them to sell because they didn’t want to get a huge drop in housing prices. What we think is going on is that there was a massive provision of housing that is a relatively high quality, probably higher quality than the incomes in many of these places, and a lot of it’s just sitting on the market unoccupied and it’s going to sit on the market unoccupied for a while. That’s what we were able to figure out. Obviously, in the long run, there’s huge demand for urban space in China, but it’s not uniform. The coastal demand is much higher than the inland areas. 

LEVITT: It’s interesting. I’ve never heard about this before. I’ve always operated under the impression that there was an endless supply of farmers in China who wanted to be anywhere but on their farms. And they would do anything to get off of those farms. Maybe that’s not inconsistent with what you’re saying, because you’re not saying that, you’re saying they just don’t have enough money to buy the relatively fancy housing that’s being built.

GLAESER: That’s right. I was in one hotel in the inland of China, maybe three or four years ago. And it was nicer than any apartment building I’d ever lived in. And as far as I could tell, I was the only person there. I remember being shown around by one developer in the same town and the buildings were very nice, but building after building was completely vacant. Finally, I saw a building that had people in it. I said, “Oh, finally, a building that’s occupied. So he managed to sell those ones?” He said, “No, we didn’t actually sell those. Those were the people that we had to move to make our buildings. So we were forced to relocate them to these structures.” So, it’s not that people don’t want to be in cities. It’s just, they don’t have the space to buy a New York-style condo at full-market value or anywhere close to it. 

LEVITT: I see. So, China has had a different policy than Brazil. Brazil, basically, has let people flock to the main cities and build cardboard housing around it. China has prohibited that. It sounds to me from what you’ve said so far, that you actually like the Brazilian solution better than the Chinese one.

GLAESER: So, it’s hard to say. I mean, look, China has robust control over the rule of law. They can stop people from building shantytowns quite easily. And that’s true of most of the East Asian societies. Many of the poor parts of the world just don’t have any control over it. So it’s not as if Brazil wanted to have a favela. It’s just they had no legal capacity or political will to actually stop it. And so they would just build — and the same thing is true for the shantytowns in India or equivalently in Africa. And there are real problems of having vast areas where property rights are so poorly defined. So, sometimes you have an inability to upgrade the physical structure because you don’t know if you’re going to keep it. You can’t upgrade it. You can’t necessarily rent it. You can’t use it as collateral for a mortgage. You can’t sell it. You have a very tiny sliver of what we think of as normal property rights associated with having property. When you think about the cities of the West, they pretty much were all built by land assembly and apartment buildings. It was mostly rentals, initially. I mean, 95 percent of New York city was rental in 1895. Builders had access to credit, they built these structures and they rented them to poor people. That just is not what’s happening in the developing world. And I see a lot to like in the favelas of Rio, but I’m not sure it’s better than the way that we built up Chicago or New York in 1910. 

You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with Ed Glaeser. After this break, they’ll return to talk about what makes Ed different than other economists.

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LEVITT: Hello, Morgan. What do we have going today?

Morgan LEVEY: Hi, Steve. So, we have a question from Jordan and he writes: “Steve, since you have quite a large family and are a thoughtful person, I want to get your opinion on the morality and ethics of procreation in the face of climate change.” It sounds like Jordan is thinking about starting a family and wants your opinion on having kids since you have six of them. 

LEVITT: So Jordan, I do have six kids and I have to say in having those kids, I don’t think climate change ever crossed my mind. Here’s the thing, there are 8 billion people on the planet. So, if you add one more, it doesn’t really matter. And what I do doesn’t affect anyone else’s behavior. If my having a kid led hundreds of other people to have more kids, then it might be a different story. To me, it’s a microcosm of the exact problem we face on climate change generally, no individual’s behavior actually matters very much but collectively we all have to act together. When I think about climate change I really look to other kinds of solutions, whether it’s technology, like taking carbon out of the air, or doing something at a larger scale, like paying off the Brazilian government to protect the Amazon rainforest, which I did a Freakonomics Radio episode on. So, if it feels wrong to you to have kids, that’s totally your prerogative. But at least for me, I would not put climate change near the top of my list of reasons to have or not have children.

LEVEY: So, Jordan also wanted to know if you thought that your kids will struggle in the future as a result of climate-induced issues like food security, pandemics, water shortages. If this is something you thought about and were worried about. 

LEVITT: I’m not a climate scientist and I don’t own the exact answer, it certainly is an impression people have that weather patterns are getting wilder and it’s probably true. I also think, though, there’s a bias towards people assuming that every time something extreme happens, that’s caused by climate change. Too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry. And some of those, maybe many of those are caused by climate change, but my impression is that the really destructive impacts of climate change are much farther in the future — that at least for Americans in the next 50 or hundred years, there’s no reason to think that our quality of life is going to dramatically degrade. As I sit here, just pondering whether I think my kids will have a better or worse life than I had, I think probably better. Morgan, I don’t think Jordan’s going to like my answer very much. What do you think?

LEVEY: To be honest, Steve, I don’t like your answer very much. I think what you said sounds a little insensitive considering the fact that there’s already millions of climate refugees around the globe, people have had to move because their homes are unlivable. We’ve just had the hottest month on record in human history. And extreme weather has been undoubtedly linked to climate change. So when I think about just 10 years from now, I worry about my own future, let alone if I have kids and what their future would be.

LEVITT: First, with respect to people much less privileged than those in the U.S. — who don’t have resources, who are more subjected to climate shocks, I think you’re right. It’s a totally different story. And the other thing to keep in mind is that the ability of humans to accommodate is really strong. So, if it turns out that there’s more smoke in the area, we’ll figure out either how to take the smoke out of the air or how to develop filters for breathing or whatnot. Just like air conditioning made the South livable. And human progress tends to figure out what the problems are and make them better. But on the other hand, on the sense of sounding insensitive, I don’t really mind if I sound insensitive about climate change, because look, I am totally committed and my R.I.S.C. Center is trying to do all sorts of things to fight climate change, but I don’t think it’s that helpful for people to exaggerate the effects of climate change because the actual likely effects are bad enough as they are. So anyway, if I sound insensitive, it’s not coming from a place of callousness; it’s coming from a place of trying to make a difference and feeling like most of the things that people are told to do to make a difference are actually a complete waste of time.

LEVEY: I think I’m going to agree to disagree. I also just think this is a case of you just being an economist.

LEVITT: Well, that’s my job. And I hope that people want me to speak like an economist because it’s more or less the only way I know how to speak. For better, for worse, that’s what I am. 

LEVEY: Anyway, Jordan, thanks so much for your question. If you have a question for us, please write to pima@freakonomics.com. And Steve and I read every email you send.

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LEVITT: I love listening to Ed Glaeser talk. It’s how I wish I spoke — so articulate, so much knowledge about the world. Now, I’d like to move our conversation away from cities to try instead to see if I can get him to talk about himself, because he’s so different from almost every other economist I’ve ever known. But I can’t say I really understand how he managed to break out of the economist mold. And I’d like to get to the bottom of that. 

LEVITT: Can I tell you the question that reverberates through my head, as I read your books, Ed? How can anybody possibly know so much stuff? I expect your work to be full of economic insights, but I can not believe the breadth of your knowledge about historical facts and interesting tidbits that I’d never imagined. And I think anyone who’s been listening to this podcast has probably had the same reaction that you do seem to be full of knowledge, at least on the topic of cities. And I’m just wondering, have you followed some particular life strategy to assemble such an amazing breadth of knowledge?

GLAESER: Well, that’s incredibly kind of you to say, Steve. Really it’s all about reading. It’s this wonderful 15th-century technology that we have for learning from other people via the printed word. I’ve always been in love with books and I’ve been always a voracious learner about anything to do with cities. And that’s my life. That’s who I am. 

LEVITT: It’s interesting you say that because you and I are about the same age and we’ve really been in the same profession doing the same stuff. And I took my role as being a producer of knowledge, as someone who created ideas and did research, so seriously that I would say for 20 years, I read less than one book a year. And it’s interesting to me to hear that you kept up investing in this peripheral knowledge, which is something I didn’t do at all. Maybe it was just consumption, but an investment you’ve made over all these years.

GLAESER: So, surely part of it is like who we grew up to be. But I would also say that my mentors in graduate school, above all José Scheinkman like José always reading something that was unrelated to economics. There was no sense in which Josie thought that like the only knowledge that was worthwhile, and he’s a great economist, but there’s no sense in which he thought that was the only kind of knowledge that was worth anything. And I think I imbibed that partially from him as well. 

LEVITT: So you and I, we came from the same intellectual tradition in economics. We’ve both been heavily influenced by the great Chicago economists like Gary Becker and by the many brilliant thinkers at Harvard and M.I.T., Becker, in particular, had this magical ability to simplify to take a complex real-world problem, whether it’s crime or discrimination, the workings of the family, and to strip it down to the bare essentials to capture what I might call universal truth. To me, it seems like stripping away is at the core of good economics models. Would you agree with that characterization? 

GLAESER: Yes. I think figuring out what is essential in a problem is part of good economic modeling. If you ask yourself, who is my north star in economics? There’s only one economist whose picture I have looking at me in my office and that’s Gary. I teach the introductory micro class for our Ph.D. program and I very much see my job as updating what Gary taught me 30, 33 years ago. He was always trying to get to what was essential. Figuring out how to clear away the claptrap that confused you to understand “What are the central issues?” And that’s certainly what I think the economic approach to crime and punishment does. And he did that in paper after paper. 

LEVITT: Yeah, absolutely. But here’s the thing. So economic analysis has this intentional sterility, this bareness to it. But I’m struck by the stark contrast between that economic approach and the incredible richness of the argumentation that you use in your books. Your storytelling embraces specifics. You try to capture what makes Mumbai or Houston or Paris special and different. And you emphasize the particular pivotal roles that individuals have played. Haussmann, redesigning Paris, or Mayor Curley in Boston. Yours is a world where individuals matter and things are local. And it’s interesting to me because I’ve always had a really hard time trying to integrate that sort of storytelling with economic models. And I just feel like you’ve done a better job. I’m just curious. Do you see a conflict or does it all just feel natural to you?

GLAESER: It sure feels like a conflict. It was very hard when I started working on Triumph 15 years ago to remember that you’ve got to tell stories with narrative because we just purge it in our economic papers. Scientific writing is just different, fundamentally, than popular writing. And it’s not incompatible with the models. It’s more orthogonal to them  in the sense that individuals matter but they’re the error term in our regressions. They’re not things in which we can fundamentally predict that you will get this person or that person. It’s just this random stuff, which we all accept is going on. And so in some sense, what you’re doing is you’re telling stories about the random stuff that then wraps around the core economic ideas. 

LEVITT: I think that’s partly true, but I think it’s deeper. Like you’ve probably talked to a lot more historians than I have, but when I talk to historians about research questions, I’m often left frustrated because economists value simplicity and historians value complexity. The best historical stories wrap around long sinuous paths that lead to something happening. And for me, it’s a struggle to try to have intellectual conversations in that space. Maybe you’re saying, I’m not really embracing complexity. I’m just doing storytelling. It’s a very different thing.

GLAESER: Let’s take the story of Rawdon-Hastings, which I tell in my new book Survival. So this is this somewhat rapacious British general who’s at the battle of Bunker Hill and then goes on to be governor. Sort of this military leader in India. And he’s got this diary, which tells of the coming of cholera. So it’s this first-person narrative about how cholera is spreading throughout his army and what he thinks about it. And in some level, he’s there to make it real, but he’s not just there to make it real because he also is making the point, which I try to make in this chapter, that the 19th century has this broad shift from a point which governments are basically about killing people. They’re, basically, about military and they do a little bit of extra stuff. And sometimes the killing people is benevolent in the sense that you’re killing foreigners who are trying to kill off your people, but it’s still fundamentally about killing people. Whereas over the course of the 19th century, you have these cities that come together and actually start building sewers and start building aqueducts. And like a major function of governments is actually keeping people alive rather than just killing them. And so Rawdon-Hastings serves as a symbol of an old style of government that then changes. So usually when I have a story they’re also trying to get at these underlying tectonic shifts, as well as just the randomness of that individual. So, that’s at least what I try to do. So, usually the people are serving a little bit of a pedagogic goal in the sense that maybe I’m illustrating a comparative static or what I view as being a time trend. But then I use people to illustrate that as well as data points. 

LEVITT: Something I was really struck by in Survival of the City was when it came time for you and your co-author David Cutler to offer your advice to public policymakers — what should we be doing to build thriving cities — you emphasize that the solutions are complex, not simple. And almost no book says that because no policymaker wants to hear that the solutions are complex. It seems like a virtual guarantee that the solutions will never be implemented. 

GLAESER: You’re probably right. But the beauty of being an economist in public life is we have an obligation to tell the truth. We’re not ultimately expected to implement things at least within the next year. If you think about how many decades it took Milton Friedman‘s idea of vouchers to turn into charter schools like we should be expecting a long game. So, in the case of gentrification and housing prices, my solutions are pretty simple. There I just think you got to build more stuff. You got to just make it easier to build. When it comes to policing, how to get cops to be a little bit less brutal or how to fix schools. These are complex organizations and I think we’ve actually erred, at least in the case of school reform over the last 20 years, by thinking that we could just impose Race to the Top and then all of a sudden it would be great. Or just impose No Child Left Behind and all of a sudden it’d be great. And so we’ve got to understand that these reforms require a long game that requires serious investment in administrative change. 

LEVITT: So, when I was a graduate student, many years ago, I was interested in what economists call urban economics. And I studied the literature and I even wrote a theory paper on how the presence of local governments would lead to the over-provision of goods with negative externalities. And following the logic of the research published before me, I wrote down a formal model that quickly became hopelessly difficult mathematically because people move around and that just makes the math almost impossible. And the point is, urban economics was really caught in a trap, a kind of modeling approach that was leading to dead ends. And I stuck my toe in and I got nowhere. And I concluded that urban economics was a bad topic to research and I moved on. Now, at roughly the same time, you also started working in urban economics and you saw things differently and you looked at the problems in such a fresh way that you almost single-handedly brought urban economics from the periphery of the profession to its current place of vibrancy. Do you remember back to the beginning? Did you have a vision from the start? And how hostile were the economists who had guided urban economics down that dead-end path to what you were doing?

GLAESER: No. I think in many cases they were doing more interesting work. They weren’t very good at the public relations part of it, but many of them were actually very, very fine economists. They were just happy to have anyone under the age of 40 who was interested in it. So, I never encountered anything that was negative or hostile, just, “Oh, great. You’re interested in something to do with cities. That’s fantastic.” The thing is, I was never inspired by the literature very much. I was inspired by my firsthand knowledge of cities. I’ve never said to myself, “If I take these three papers, what’s the logical fourth paper?” You go to Dharavi and you say, “Wow, what’s weird about this place? What’s good about this place? What’s functioning well? Is there a paper here? Is there a policy idea that we want to follow up on?” I think in the flowering of urban economics there’s been a lot of engagement with the real world and that’s been great.

LEVITT: So, I’ve known you a long time, as is clear, and you’ve always been different. Now in the old days, the University of Chicago economics department was very hierarchical and at academic workshops, the faculty sat around the table and the grad students were in the periphery. But you were the one exception. As a grad student, you just sat with the faculty at the table. Did you do that consciously or were you just so unaware that you didn’t realize that you were challenging these deeply ingrained social norms?

GLAESER: So, I didn’t originally. I just gradually — if I had something that I thought was not stupid and I said it, and I got relatively positive feedback from Gary and others. And so, that combined with maybe my natural, something — arrogance, whatever you want to call it, decided I could take the risk in moving up and I didn’t get my ears boxed, so it felt O.K. So, I don’t know. I think there’s a lesson there, which is not to be cowed by existing social norms, although you should listen and hear whether or not people thinking that you’re doing something helpful or that you’re doing something harmful. And at least, I was lucky in the sense that the people that I revered were deeply encouraging to me.

LEVITT: So, I tell many of my guests that I think they’d make a great President of the United States and I encourage them to run and to let me be one of their advisors. I have to say, I think you would be an excellent president. I feel like you aren’t very electable. You don’t really somehow feel like a man of the people to me. But have you thought about getting into politics?

GLAESER: No. No, absolutely not. And in fact, I’ll go further and I wonder if you’ve had the same thought — you must have had the thought before you wrote the abortion paper, that like we make a decision early in life as to whether or not we want to be confirmable by the Senate —

LEVITT: Yeah. 

GLAESER: Or whether or not we don’t. And sometime in my first year of being assistant professor, I decided you know what, I’m not going to play by those rules. I’m going to make sure that I write exactly what I want to say. And I’m not going to worry at all about whether or not this would cause me hell in a confirmation hearing in 20 years. 

LEVITT: Yeah, so very early on in my career, and not only did I do exactly what you’ve described, which is to say I’m going to do whatever research I want to, not worry at all about the implications, but I also, very self-consciously, from the very beginning when I first hired a nanny, I declared publicly, I am not going to pay my nanny social security because I do not ever want to make the bad decision that I’m going to go to Washington because I should not be in Washington. 

GLAESER: Part of the point of being a scholar in public life is that we should be saying things that will lose us 80 percent of the votes because that’s how actually you change people’s minds, in the long run, is saying things that are not mainstream. You can count on politicians to say things that are wildly popular. It’s gotta be people who aren’t running for office who say things that are unpopular. 

I’m not sure whether that last comment I made about the nanny made sense to people, so let me explain. Back in the 1990s, there were two high-profile cases where President Clinton‘s nominees couldn’t get Senate confirmation because they’d hired illegal immigrants as nannies and paid them under the table. Now, immediately, all the young economists dreaming of someday having a good government job started hiring legal nannies and paying Social Security taxes on them. But I intentionally didn’t. I wanted a tarnished record just in case one day I was overcome by temporary insanity and deluded myself into thinking I should take a high-ranking government job. It’s what economists call a commitment device, taking an action now that rules out future options that might seem attractive. And indeed, the one time a presidential administration expressed the tiniest bit of interest in me, my ego completely overtook me. I wanted that job and I cursed my commitment device. The nanny question was right there on the disclosure form and I withdrew from the process. In the end, though, a friend of mine got the job. And from his description, I would have absolutely hated it. Whew. Bullet dodged. If you liked this conversation with Ed Glaeser, you can hear more from him in a few different Freakonomics Radio episodes, including “Why Are Cities Still So Expensive?,” “Why Rent Control Doesn’t Work,” and “Is New York City Over?” You can probably guess his answer to that question. As always, thanks for listening.

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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. This show is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio.. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. Our staff also includes Stephen Dubner, Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Jacob Clemente. Theme music composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at pima@freakonomics.com, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com Thanks for listening.

LEVITT: I felt like there was roughly a 50-50 chance that the car that was going to take me to the airport was actually going to lead to execution. 

GLAESER: Oh my goodness.

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