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Business > Politics and Prejudices

Men of the people

 

Published 4/5/2006

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Edward Glaeser is a man who lives on a six-and-a-half-acre estate in rural Massachusetts, and likes wearing tailored suits, a pocket watch on a gold chain and large silver cuff links. A man of the people, in other words.

He is also a brilliant economist who is regarded as a "genius" and the "most exciting" expert on cities. He was made a full professor at Harvard University when he was only 30; eight years later, he is also director of one of the nation's leading institutes on state and local government. And professor Edward Glaeser thinks the nation should allow the city of Detroit to slide right down the shit hole.

"Places decline and places grow," he said with an apparent shrug, in a major, adoring profile in The New York Times Magazine a month ago. "There's no reason not to let decline go forward. We shouldn't stand in the way of that," he added, saying that went for New Orleans as well.

That was so startling that I had to talk to him myself. Yes, that is exactly what he meant. What about all the poor people living in Detroit now? Most of them can't exactly get in the old Lexus and motor off to a new job making semiconductors in the Denver suburbs.

He sounded a trifle impatient. "Just once I would like to see politicians have their voters' best interests in mind instead of their own best interests," he said. What he actually meant was that John Conyers, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick and Detroit's other elected representatives should be encouraging their people to flee the city.

Matter of fact, he added, the only reason Detroit still has as many people as it does is the housing. Poor people can come here, he said, and get some sort of a house to live in cheaper than anywhere else.

He actually seemed to believe that while people are fleeing in droves, plenty of other people are still migrating to Detroit because it has cheap and durable housing that hasn't completely fallen to pieces yet.

"What do you think will happen eventually?" I asked him. If Detroit is allowed to continue to decay through a policy of "benign neglect" will it touch bottom and then start staging a comeback?

Traditionally, that's what conservatives say; when it makes economic sense to build, the market will. But the good professor's response startled me. "No, I don't think so. Not in the central city."

In other words, Detroit is doomed to eternal night, with the rats scampering through the rubble till the next ice age. The best we can do is help the poor blacks get on a freight car to somewhere.

And, happy Easter to you too.

What bothers me most is not that Glaeser believes that, but that his ideas are being taken seriously. What we have here is a rich, brainy aristocrat who grew up in expensive Manhattan neighborhoods and was sent to a private school.

Naturally he thinks we should all move away, and that if we run out of bread on the long march, we should break out the best cake. Glaeser doesn't have any personal knowledge of what it is like to be poor or to have your identity defined by an extended family and sense of place.

We like to think of ourselves as always making progress. But back when Edward Glaeser was hatched, in May 1967, no politician of either party was capable of saying anything as stupid as that our great cities ought to be allowed to collapse into ruins.

His mother was pregnant with him when Bobby Kennedy, then a United States senator from Glaeser's native New York, said something that would sound hopelessly out of date in today's politics:

 

The plight of the cities — their physical decay and human despair that pervades them — is the great internal problem of the American nation, a challenge which must be met.

Edward Glaeser would meet that challenge by letting them rot, or at least letting cities like Detroit and New Orleans rot. What is most surprising about that is not the callousness of it all; rich young boys with University of Chicago Ph.D.s seldom win major prizes for compassion.

What is surprising is his apparent ignorance of our geography. Had Detroit sprung up in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, or even in some part of the water-deprived American Southwest, one could say, OK, maybe the professor has a point. Perhaps this wasn't meant to be a place to try and sustain more than a million people.

Yet Detroit has magnificent water resources. We are on the St. Lawrence Seaway, an important international border crossing, and a major water, rail, automobile and air transportation center. That's why there was a city here in the first place; that's why there always will be one.

Bobby Kennedy knew that too, when he was the age our young genius is now. Here's something else he said, which presumably wasn't in the econ textbooks Glaeser would study at the University of Chicago:

 

Our gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country.

It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

 

Bobby Kennedy knew something about urban economics, all right, although he came from even more of a privileged background than Eddie Glaeser was to have. However, along the way, he grew a heart.

He especially came to understand people, poor people who live in inner cities among them, after his brother was assassinated, when he was almost exactly the age the young economist is now.

But Bobby Kennedy himself was assassinated when little Eddie Glaeser was only a year old. Caring about the poor went out of fashion long ago. Caring about Detroit is out of fashion now.

And Bobby Kennedy, and what he stood for, has been nearly forgotten, though not by me. Fashions change, and there is always hope, of course. As RFK once said, every generation helps make its own future.

Don't you think we ought to start?

 

Term limits and our Legislature: During the past several months, I have interviewed a lot of our elected lawmakers, most of them in connection with issues they care about or bills they are promoting.

It was once said of one newly elected Republican U.S. senator that if he had one less IQ point, he would be a tree. I can now report that Lansing ought to be declared a petrified forest.

I talked to one lawmaker who was convinced the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution under divine guidance in the U.S. Capitol. (It was swampland then.) Another told me that he wanted to allow companies to bottle our water, but only to sell within "the boundaries of the Great Lakes basin." Well, I asked, what's to prevent people from loading it on trucks and taking it to Texas? Why, that would be illegal, the man said.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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