The Life Of the City

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The New York Sun

“This book will probably strike many readers as the work of an ill-tempered and mean-spirited fellow.” These words begin Edward Banfield’s 1970 classic, “The Unheavenly City,” one of the most contentious, interesting, and insightful books ever written on urban policy. Banfield was often right, but he was never more accurate than in foreseeing the storm of angry reviews that greeted his book.

Banfield described “The Unheavenly City” as “an attempt by a social scientist to think about the problems of cities.” In the late 1960s, America took its urban problems and its public intellectuals seriously. Banfield was a serious scholar who stood at the center of the national debate on urban America.

Banfield’s core, correct message was that the utopian policies meant to solve America’s urban problems were going to fail. Few today will rise to the defense of the dense housing projects that concentrated the poor, or urban renewal, or the Model Cities Program. Banfield’s statement that mass transit would not “make any contribution to the solution of the serious problems of the city” today seems far wiser than the contemporary denunciation of that claim in the pages of the New York Times.

Overturning the tectonic shifts — like changing transportation technologies — that cause urban change is near-impossible and usually counterproductive. The Model Cities Program was far too weak a policy program to take on Rust Belt decline, for instance. Urban renewal was no match for the car. Moreover, the existence of older, decayed housing isn’t even a real problem: Destroying lower quality, older homes means destroying affordable housing for the less fortunate.

Banfield understood that cities exist in a remarkably fluid urban system. Cities are filled with poor people, not because cities are bad for poor people, but because “the city attracts the poor” by “offering better conditions of life.” When government policies make cities better places for the poor, then more poor people will come to cities. This argument does not imply that spending on urban poverty is a mistake, but that the impact of anti-poverty spending may be to increase, rather than decrease, urban poverty.

The most hotly debated part of “The Unheavenly City” was Banfield’s sociological depiction of urban poverty and his link between social class and time horizons. According to Banfield, upper-class people think of their historic legacy, and middle-class people plan for retirement, but lower-class people live for the moment. Impatience, not impecuniousness, is the key characteristic of the lower classes.

By linking poverty with a durable, cultural tendency towards impatience, Banfield cast doubt on all government policies meant to turn the urban poor into prosperous city burghers. The past 38 years of social science have not been that kind to Banfield’s impatience hypothesis. Impulsive behavior along one dimension, like overeating, is not strongly correlated with impulsive behavior along other dimensions, like risky driving. After all, some scholars can puff happily on a life-shortening cigar while writing articles that they hope will be read for decades. Short time horizons are a common human trait, not one that uniquely belongs to the least fortunate.

Banfield’s broader point, however, is that government policy has a limited ability to remake human society, and he was surely wise to counsel a hearty skepticism toward the ability of governments to work miracles in cities — or anyplace else, for that matter. America has seen cities, such as New York, come back from the distress of the 1970s, but those urban comebacks have far more to do with individual entrepreneurs than with big government.

Many of Banfield’s specific policy recommendations are less defensible than his overall policy worldview. His view that many poorer people should leave school at 14 seems at odds with the reams of evidence showing robust private and social returns to schooling. I see little to like in Banfield’s suggestions that would reduce the freedom of the poor to move and spend and have children.

But Banfield’s greatness was as a skeptic, not as a proponent of particular policies. By challenging the widespread view that large-scale government projects could fix urban poverty, he displayed the intellectual courage that was his, and any public intellectual’s, greatest asset. Often Banfield’s unpopular pronouncements proved prescient, but even when he was wrong, his words improved the quality of public debate. As the policy fulcrum moves back toward big government, the need for critics of public policy increases. I can only hope that our age will produce thinkers as bold and brilliant as Edward Banfield.

Mr. Glaeser is the Glimp professor of economics at Harvard, director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government, and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

The New York Sun

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