Adam Sneed is a senior associate editor at CityLab, focusing on city life and culture. He was previously a technology reporter at Politico and a researcher at Future Tense, a project of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.
America’s biggest, wealthiest cities aren’t succeeding at the expense of others, and breaking them up just doesn’t make sense.
Are cities doing their part to make America great?
It’s the kind of question we apparently have to ask about many things these days, and this one comes from New York Times’ Ross Douthat. Smug coastal urbanites and the social decay they are enabling are a frequent target of the Times’ lone quasi-conservative columnist. But the thinking behind his latest, “Break Up the Liberal City,” is a real head-scratcher.
The exact complaints here are hard to pin down, but they range from the fact that segregation exists to the curious claim that recent urbanization hasn’t given us much more than some “great apps and some fun TV shows to binge-watch.” It’s not even clear which cities we’re talking about here: New York and D.C. are singled out as the bad guys, but the implication is that Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee aren’t liberal at all.
These are offered as counterpoints to a Washington Post op-ed that says President Donald Trump is all wrong about cities, which are “safer-than-ever, culturally-rich, rife with policy innovation, and driving our economic future.” These things are more or less true. America’s cities are more liberal, and they do contribute enormously to the country’s economy, and the world’s. It’s also true that there’s a divergence in regional economies that could spawn a resentment against the large cities and their denizens.
So what big idea could solve this problem?
We should treat liberal cities the way liberals treat corporate monopolies—not as growth-enhancing assets, but as trusts that concentrate wealth and power and conspire against the public good. And instead of trying to make them a little more egalitarian with looser zoning rules and more affordable housing, we should make like Teddy Roosevelt and try to break them up.
What would this entail? Douthat has several proposals, which, he admits, are “implausible, perhaps even ridiculous.” Take federal agencies out of D.C. and distribute them to cities around the country. Tax huge university endowments unless the schools open satellite campuses in other cities. And support “flyover-country” TV stations and newspapers through taxes on D.C.- and New York-based media companies.
These aren’t all inherently ridiculous ideas; indeed, reform-minded conservative politicians and think tanks have recently been calling to relocate agency headquarters for similar reasons. However, government jobs are already distributed around the country: Only about 15 percent of the federal workforce is in the D.C. area. Moving them would indeed hurt D.C.’s economy and benefit other cities, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias has explained. But it probably wouldn’t mitigate the blinding rage some feel toward the capital, and all it represents.
Now, the thing about universities. The idea starts sensibly enough: tax the endowments of “deep-pocketed elite universities.” Harvard’s endowment was valued at $37.6 billion in 2015, Yale’s was at $25 billion, and there are good arguments for changing their tax-free status for the benefit of their cities, states, and debt-ridden students. But then there’s this:
We’ll tax their endowments heavily, but offer exemptions for schools that expand their student bodies with satellite campuses in areas with well-below-the-median average incomes. M.I.T.-in-Flint has a certain ring to it. So does Stanford-Buffalo, or Harvard-on-the-Mississippi.
For a plan to break up the liberal elite, that’s a lot of faith to put in elite institutions. And rather than helping the people of Flint, Buffalo, or wherever Harvard might go, it sounds more like a dare for the imagined caricatures of the liberal intelligentsia: Don’t want to pay your taxes? Fine, sucker—enjoy Buffalo!
Flint and Buffalo, like plenty of cities that aren’t Ivy League-adjacent, already host campuses of public research universities that are not known for how many people they reject or how much debt they pile on students. If you really want to help communities like them, do it by investing more in these kinds of anchor institutions, and in the transit and economic programs that improve access for local residents.
Simply put, cities don’t function like corporate monopolies. They may be geographic concentrations of wealth, but that’s not because of unfair or manipulative practices—it’s a product of the people and economic activity that urban areas bring together and facilitate. “People in cities are more productive, more innovative, and have higher skills because they live in cities,” as Joe Cortright writes at City Observatory. “Absent cities, the innovation and productivity upon which these industries depend for their success, they simply wouldn’t exist.” And after the 2016 elections, it’s hard to argue that liberal cities wield undue influence in the American political system, especially when the policies urban voters choose are so easily overruled by state and federal governments.
But Douthat is absolutely correct in pointing out that it’s too expensive to live in many cities. That blocks too many people from moving there to share those economic benefits, and it locks in others who would move to a more affordable city if there were adequate job opportunities there.
The big failure is to think that some cities win at all the others’ expense. Rather than carving up the successful institutions in America’s biggest cities, other places would be better off tackling some of their most obvious and enduring hurdles. Segregation, housing discrimination, and bad zoning are scourges everywhere, not just in dense coastal cities that vote for Democrats. Sprawl and over-reliance on cars have severe costs and inefficiencies that can be mitigated without creating some morally bankrupt leftist megalopolis. One hitch, though: These changes require an electorate that understands the government’s role in making them happen.