Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Fatal Conceit of City Planners

Read this article.  It's about how America's "fastest dying cities" are sending government representatives (that is, representatives of the governments of these cities, not the people) to a summit in Dayton to come up with ideas to bring these cities back.

Of course, nobody is asking the questions, "is it even in our power to restore the population and economic growth of these cities, and it is right to use the taxes of what citizens remain to subsidize this effort?"

Although I'm sure the citizens of these cities may be wondering that.  The truth is, people and businesses are not geographically confined, in theory they can go anywhere.  And cities, like businesses and individuals, rise and fall.  Cincinnati used to be America's second city, then that became Chicago.  Now it's LA.  In twenty or thirty years it could be Houston or Atlanta, and in a hundred years it could be some place none of us has heard of.  The number one retailer in this country used to be Sears.  Now it's Wal-Mart.  I could come up with a jillion more examples to prove my point, but this is a blog, not an academic paper.

These cities shrank because of the combined actions of thousands, and, actually, millions of people.  Individuals made choices about where was the best place for them to live, whether one place was more affordable or had better policing or schools or whatever other community amenities were important.  Business leaders, led by the profit motive, made decisions about whether to stay in these cities or if they could have larger profits by moving elsewhere (either to escape taxes, find better labor supplies, or whatever).  Nobody planned for these cities to shrink, although the actions of a small number of political decision makers certainly inadvertantly contributed to this decision, either by raising taxes, extending business regulations, providing poor public services, or whatever.  Other reasons are beyond the control of anybody.  Frankly, people like to live in a place that's attractive and where the weather is nice.  As air conditioning becomes affordable, it makes sense that people would move further south and away from the largely unattractive and featureless terrain of the north.

In short, people weighed up the costs and benefits of staying versus moving (led primarily by the price system), and many moved.  A greaty many of them probably don't want to move back.  My father recently told me that, after moving back to the town he grew up in, he was shocked by how bored he was living there, when all his life away from his hometown he imagined he'd love living there again.

It's only natural that as economies change, and technology changes, and tax and business conditions change in various areas, that new generations of workers will change their location.  These "dying cities" aren't filled with young people, they are filled with older people.  It is primarily the younger and more educated people (who otherwise would have replenished the community's population) who have moved out of the rust belt and other "dying cities."  In other words, society is saying, through the combined actions of millions of people, "we want these cities to shrink."

So why stop a natural process?  Part of it is nostalgia and hometown pride, it's not nice to see the city you grew up in and love become a dystopia.  Part of it is money.  The bigger the city, the bigger the tax base and the more money the politicians have to spend on things (particularly themselves).  Big city mayors can make six figure incomes.  Small town mayors make much less.  There are also the government employees.  As the city shrinks, the need for public services dwindles, which necessitates layoffs.  This makes the gangsters that run the labor cartels (IOW the unions) unhappy.  Another reason is sheer vanity.  Every mayor of a sizeable city wants their city bigger, they all want to be the mayor of NYC, LA, Seattle, Chicago, or some other huge cosmopolitan town.  They want huge, ornate opera halls and sports teams, promenades, piazzas, "revitalized downtowns," shopping centers with upscale boutiques.   You often see city governments throw away tax-payer money on such glittery, showy projects, which often fizzle.

I see three ways for these cities to grow.  Either they need to lure new citizens, bring back the citizens who left, or somehow get their existing citizens to reproduce more.  The latter is unthinkable.  The first two can be done only by giving people an incentive to move to your town, not just urging them.  How do you give incentives?  Create a better business climate, lower taxes, improve public services (if they stank), and generally becoming a leaner, meaner, more efficient government.  This is hard if not impossible for most governments to do.  Another way of creating an incentive is to, essentially, pay people to move to your town.  In desperate circumstances, it can even mean paying people to *stay* in your town.

Ohio gives out money to college graduates to have a down payment on a home (most Ohio college grads plan to leave the state after graduation because if you don't want to be a teacher or a nurse or work at a pizza or sub place, Ohio is not the state for you).  Many times you will see states or cities or counties give tax cuts to a particular industry or a particular business.  This (in theory) amounts to a subsidy, as other businesses which are not so favored by the government pay normal tax rates, so the business in question benefits from government services such as police, trash collection, courts, etc. without paying as much as the other businesses.  Again, I said "in theory," as our tax system is so convoluted and perverse that many other factors are at work besides this one principle.  And, finally, sometimes governments will simply give money to businesses.

Do any of these ways sound very good?  I think the only one that sounds appetizing to an informed, economically literate, thinking person is for the government to clean its own act up.  In the rust belt, one of the biggest things governments could do to improve their economies would be to become right-to-work states, where unions cannot force businesses to make contracts with them or force workers to join them, in short, where unions must stand or fall on their own merits, and not because they receive special "rights" from the government.  More likely than this is more of the same old tactics: handouts, bribes to bring in businesses and hopefully people.  This amounts to ripping off existing citizens, making the place even less amenable.

These city planners are exhibiting just a small example of the fatal conceit of government planners everywhere, the fatal conceit that not only do they know what's best for everybody, but that it is also in their power to make it happen.

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