Tyler Cowen links to an article by economist Ed Glaeser on urban political activists Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. Moses, who ran various NYC government commissions in the mid-twentieth century, is famous for organizing the construction of bridges and structuring the financing so that he controlled the flow of money from the tolls. This independent source of funding gave him a huge amount of power within the government to do almost whatever he wanted–for awhile, until Jacobs and others mustered the popular support to stop him. Given my experiences at Columbia University, I can appreciate Moses’s bureaucratic acumen: in any organization I’ve been involved in, there aren’t so many sources of free money–that is, funds that haven’t already been allocated to some expense. Free money is a source of power. I imagine this is true within corporations as well.
That’s all tactics, though. What’s relevant for Glaeser’s article is what Robert Moses did with his money and power, which was to build some highways and attempt to build others that, on the plus side, would make it faster for people to go through New York City on the way to or from other places and, on the minus side, would destroy some neighborhoods and make many of the un-destroyed neighborhoods less pleasant to be in (by being next to a highway, disconnected from the rest of the city, etc).
What about the specifics? Glaeser agrees that Moses’s proposed lower Manhattan expressway was a bad idea, as was his highway that destroyed a neighborhood in the Bronx. On the plus side, Glaeser supports Moses’s parks and swimming pools and describes his roads and bridges as “not all bad.”
One thing that interests me about Glaeser’s discussion is that, implicitly, there are two levels of liberal-conservative dispute here.
One dimension is private vs. government: Moses was government all the way (Glaeser writes, “Moses gave his life to his city and his state, earning far less than he could have in the private sector”–although I wonder how much of this private-sector income would’ve been based on his government connections), while Jacobs actually was in the private sector and also favored private solutions. In her writing she expressed disdain for large-scale planning.
The other dimension is what the government is doing. It’s liberal to support government-funded health care, moderate to support government-guaranteed student loans, and conservative to support government-funded highways. I think it’s probably possible to do some sort of analysis that would make sense of liberals supporting government spending on trains and conservatives supporting government funding on roads.
The relevance here is that I think Glaser, as an economist, is put in an awkward position by the specifics of the highway-building question. For example, he writes, “Except for Los Angeles, every one of the ten largest American cities in 1950 lost at least 10 percent of its population over the next thirty years. New York is exceptional not in its decline but in its resilience, and perhaps Moses deserves some credit for that. New York and Los Angeles are the only two of those ten big mid-century cities that have gained population over the past sixty years.” This I don’t see. I’ve been to most of the largest U.S. cities, and all the ones other than New York seem to have a lot more “Mosesification” than New York. Even small U.S. cities are crossed through with highways, and often the center cities are occupied by huge parking garages. Just for example, check out Richmond, Virginia.