Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics
Senior Fellow for Global Health, Economics, and Development
Council on Foreign Relations
Edward Glaeser, Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard University, discusses poor world megacities, the reasons their growth differs from previous patterns of urbanization, and the implications for their residents and the world at large as part of the Global Health, Economics, and Development Roundtable Series.
THOMAS BOLLYKY: Thank you for coming to this event on poor world cities. In the 18th century, the world’s largest cities were in the most advanced countries. Cities like London, Paris, and New York were centers of the industrialization and they had relatively high wages. Even 60 to 100 years ago, larger cities were still in advanced countries and those cities were growing pretty much as fast as urban centers in poor countries were.
Well, today, to paraphrase our newest Nobel Laureate for literature, times, they haven’t changed—(laughter)—and today’s largest cities are in poor countries. Some of the world’s largest urban centers now include cities like Dhaka, Kinshasa, and Lagos. These poor world cities are three to five times larger than they were in 1950. They are not—many of them are not manufacturing centers and their explosive rates of growth are now generally seen as a sign of poverty rather than prosperity.
This is leading some to question some of the long-standing assumptions we’ve had about urbanization. This is particularly true in sub-Saharan Africa, where urban centers or cities have shown extremely high rates of fertility by historical standards, relative to their level of urbanization. That is, of course, leading to fast population growth, particularly among the urban poor, which has led to slums and congestion. These trends may be overwhelming some of the benefits that we’ve long associated with cities whether that’s agglomeration or skills transfer—the kinds of positive aspects of cities that our speaker today has written so powerfully about.
And with that, let me segue to introducing our speaker because we are enormously fortunate to have him here. Ed Glaeser is the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard where he has taught since 1992. He is truly one of the world’s leading experts on the economics and law of cities. For those of you that have not read it, he has authored a spectacular, completely broadly accessible book titled “Triumph of the City.” I highly recommend it to you. I’ve been a big fan of Ed’s work for a long time and I’m very pleased to have him here. He’s going to speak for 10 to 15 minutes and make some opening remarks to set the stage to help us understand the phenomenon of poor world cities, why they have risen and what their implications might be not just for those nations but, perhaps, the world. After he has made those remarks, I’m going to ask him a few questions after which time you will have the opportunity to do the same. So start thinking about your questions now.
This meeting will end promptly at 1:30. This meeting is for attribution, which means anyone can cite anything that you, Ed, or I say. If you haven’t already, please turn off your phone. It is awfully rude when it goes off when people are speaking and you will earn dirty looks and the silent scorn of your neighbors. (Laughter.) And with that, let me turn it over to Ed to start.
EDWARD GLAESER: Thank you.
BOLLYKY: Thank you.
GLAESER: Thank you so much for having me here and thank all of you for sharing 60 minutes of your incredibly valuable time with me, although I suspect some of you are just trying to get away from the election. (Laughter.) The rise of poor world megacities, the rise of poor world urbanization, is certainly one of the most amazing facts of our time.
If you go back to 1960 and you ask yourself what share of the world’s poorest countries—let’s say, those countries with per capita incomes below $1,000 in modern dollars—what share of those countries were more than one-third urbanized? It’s a really easy number to remember. The number is zero—not a single one—because in 1960, as had been true throughout almost all of human history, to be poor was to be rural.
Flash forward 50 years. What share of the poorest countries are more than one-third urbanized? The number is 42 percent. If you go to countries where per capita incomes are between 1(,000 dollars) and $2,000, again, in constant 2012 dollars—1(,000 dollars) or 2,000 (dollars)—we’ve gone from about one-fifth of those countries being more than one-third urban in 1960 to 60 percent being more than one-third urban today and amazing, amazing change.
This is a change that really starts in Latin America. And just to keep things in perspective, so the U.S. became more an urban nation, became preponderantly urban in 1920. The 1920 Census is the first one in which we were majority urban. Our per capita income then in modern dollars was about $7,500. So Mexico becomes 50 percent urban in 1960 when its per capita income is about $2,400. Brazil becomes 50 percent urban in 1964. Its per capita income is about $2,000. And we have places—again, it’s sort of extreme—but Kinshasa is a megacity of 10 million people and its per capita incomes are well below $1,000.
One question we might ask is why did this happen, and I’ll talk a little bit about that. I think more importantly we ask what are the effects of this and whether or not the right answer to this is to try and stop the process of urbanization or to fight to make these cities of the developing world better.
I have very strongly the view that the right answer is the latter and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve walked into government offices in the developing world and asked to talk about their urban problems and they said yeah, the problem is these people keep on coming to my cities and we want them to stay home on the farms, right, and it’s—I’m going to try, at least, to make the case that I don’t think that’s the right answer. But the larger case I’m going to try to make to all of you is just that these cities—the poor world cities—are incredibly important, they’re fascinating, and there’s a knowledge mismatch in a sense that the field of development has been too long overwhelmingly focused on farms and the field of urban studies has been too long focused on the wealthy world, right, and there is a need for intellectual capital of the caliber of the people in this room to actually use some of that intellectual capital to think about poor world cities and to think about how you can make them better—how we can make them better.
So the first question is why—why did this happen. I think the right answer is that, well, traditionally the West didn’t—wasn’t able to become urban until we had food surpluses on a large enough scale to feed our cities, right. That’s why the U.S. didn’t become 50 percent urban until 1920 because it required a(n) incredibly impressive transportation network and a lot of agricultural surpluses to actually move in the wheat from Iowa to the rail depots in Chicago and move them to the markets to the east to feed the vast urban populations on the East Coast.
What happened over the course of the 20th century was that agricultural productivity increased rapidly in poorer countries. So I think the story of Mexico is very much tied to the green revolution increasing yields in—after 1944 in Mexico and also international trade. So Brazil is able to feed itself not with its own agricultural surpluses in the 1950s but with wheat imported from Argentina. And today, right, Port-au-Prince doesn’t need to feed itself. Rice can be shipped out of New Orleans to feed the urbanites of Haiti.
One interesting economic point about this is actually our formal model gave an interesting twist, which is that in a closed economy—in a world in which all you’ve got is your own country—typically, agricultural productivity increases urbanization, and that’s certainly been the history of the West. And the way that works is that agricultural productivity essentially reduces the returns to farming in the long run by reducing farm prices and by creating enough agricultural surpluses to enable urbanites to live—to feed.
In open economies, the reverse occurs and, essentially, what happens is if you’re bad at agriculture because the price of agriculture is fixed by world markets, you get out of agriculture, and that’s another way of understanding what’s happened in sub-Saharan Africa. These are places that are poor partially because their agricultural conditions are dismal. And so in an open economy where they can be fed by exporting natural resources and bringing food, they naturally specialize in cities.
Now, the larger question is, is it good, is it benign, or is this something that we should be fighting hard against. I guess I see very few pathways out of poverty into prosperity that don’t run through cities. When I look at the favelas of Rio or the slums of Mumbai, I could not be more aware of the tremendous downsides to the lives of people there. But it’s always a mistake to compare their lives with our own, right.
The question is to what extent are their lives worse than the people who are living in the rural northeast of Brazil, to what extent are they worse than rural Indians. And I think when we—typically, when we look at the data about the rural lives that the migrants leave behind it is very hard to make the case that they were fools or idiots to come to these—to come to these cities—that, in fact, for a variety of reasons there is economic opportunity in these cities that do not exist elsewhere. There’s the prospect of some sort of change. There’s a sense of freedom that comes from this.
And it’s, you know, this way of thinking but focusing on the migration decision and we’ll, I think, probably come back to fertility in the—in the questions. It reminds us that actually often things about cities get turned on their head. So urban poverty, from a perspective of if you think about people making choices, urban poverty is not necessarily a problem, right, and let me just—let me just suggest what I mean by this—that, in fact, the fact that poor people live in cities is not a sign necessarily that cities are failing poor people. It’s a sign that cities are actually attracting poor people.
So, for example, my own work in the U.S. with Matthew Kahn shows that where you build new subway stops after the Federal Highway Aid Act of 1973 in the U.S. poverty rates went up, right. This does not mean that the subways were impoverishing the people around them. It means they were attracting poor people to live there. And, throughout history, cities have often attracted poor people with the promise of economic opportunity, with a better social safety net, with the ability to get around without a car for every adult. So it’s really important when you look at cities and you think about urban poverty to recognize that enormous migration margin.
Now, economically, we don’t just look across countries and see that when you compare those countries that are more than 50 percent urbanized to those countries that are less than 50 percent urbanized, that more urbanized countries have incomes that are five times higher and infant mortality levels that are less than a third. We look within countries as well, and I’ve just completed a study looking at India, China, Brazil, and the U.S. and, essentially, the same patterns if not more so appear for these countries in terms of strongly higher wages in dense areas.
Particularly, skilled cities do much better both in terms of their growth and in terms of their wages, and there’s very little reason, when you look at these cities, to think that they are in any sense losing the ability to be economic dynamos in the long run and, certainly, the Brazil story in 1965 was one in which experts all said oh, this is a catastrophe—they’re urbanizing—they’ve not become rich yet—what’s going on with this.
Fifty years later, right, this looks like it was part of the process of Brazil modernizing and it’s not a process that’s done and, certainly, there are still tremendous downsides. But I suspect with 50 years of hindsight we will be saying the same thing about Lagos and Nairobi in sub-Saharan Africa.
And I think it’s also important to recognize that the down—it’s a sort of strange paradox that the death of distance, the rise of communications technologies appear to be making cities more, not less, dynamic and economically important over time. I think the way, at least, I understand this is what all this new technology has done. What the globalization has done is they’ve radically increased the returns to being smart and we are a social species that gets smart in cities, and that is true in Dhaka just as it is true in Washington, D.C., as it is true in Paris.
Now, the case against cities all has to do with recognizing that there are also demons that come with density. If two people are close enough to exchange an idea face to face they are also close enough to exchange a contagious disease and if someone is close enough to sell you a newspaper they’re close enough to mug you, right.
And those downsides require effective governance and that is, in fact, what we’re seeing in the developing cities of the world. We are seeing the failures not just of poverty but of effective governance and that’s in some sense the critical difference between Kinshasa or Lagos and 1st century Rome, right. The—1st century Rome is—per capita incomes today, let’s say, maybe $1,500—also a—also a poor place but, you know, with a capital of a vast empire precisely because the Roman government was the most effective government in its region during its time period. And when Julius Caesar wanted to fight traffic congestion he could just ban wheeled vehicles from Rome during the first 10 hours of every day. Good luck getting that done in Port-au-Prince today, right, or good luck building the aqueducts or handling the Cloaca Maxima in much of the developing world.
And it’s this failure of governance that’s really central. Now, let me just mention four major forms of these downsides of density. I think the most obvious and important one is contagious disease, right. There is no crime wave that is as deadly as a cholera epidemic. Traffic congestion, mobility, is a second one. Crime and high housing costs sometimes fits in this category and sometimes doesn’t. I will—let’s see, I still have two minutes. I will say a couple—a couple of things about them.
So crime I’m going to skip over and maybe we can come back to it—come back to it in the questions. In the case of traffic, I’m just going to say two things, one of which is infrastructure is never enough. It’s true in the U.S. as well, right. You actually need both infrastructure incentives. A fact that you should have in the back of your mind is what’s called the fundamental law of highway traffic, which is identified by Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner, which is that vehicle miles traveled increase, roughly, one for one with highway miles built, OK. If you build it, they will drive it, and that will also be true in the developing world as well as it is in the U.S. It is not just enough to build more stuff. You need to be thinking about pricing the roads from the beginning.
Remember, Singapore was not a rich place in 1975 when it implemented congestion pricing and I cannot see a world in which the streets of Sao Paulo or Lagos or Jakarta become livable until you actually—useable until you actually charge people to drive. Singapore, by the way, is going to a fully GPS-ed form of congestion pricing. So it just happens automatically at all points in time.
Second point about traffic congestion—there’s an old joke among graduate students that 40 years of transportation economics at Harvard can be boiled down to four words—bus good, train bad. OK. There are many reasons for this. Most of all, it’s just straight costs, right. But the other thing is that buses are flexible and whether or not you’re thinking about structures or infrastructure in the developing world, flexibility is absolutely key because anything that is right for Lagos in 2016 will, hopefully, not at all be right for Lagos in 2046, right.
So thinking about infrastructure and structures than can change, that can evolve, that can adapt to rapidly rising incomes is really key and buses are far more adaptable than trains are. The other—you know, we have these great examples starting with Curitiba moving to Bogota and the TransMilenio bus rapid transit. It’s affordable, it can carry massive amounts of people, it’s the right technology, particularly when supplemented with smaller buses that then can be connected via electronic technology—essentially, up the minivan technology that’s such a crucial part of mobility in the developing world.
High housing costs, you know, I think—I think the largest—there are two ways that people go wrong with structures in the developing world, one of which is the sin of monumentalism, which is building structures for its own sake. I often use the example of Istana but, you know, I will make the claim that actually China is also building too much, away from the core—the core east coast—the core area on the coast. Even in the interior there is too much.
On the other side, there’s NIMBYism. Mumbai labored under a floor area maximum of 1.25 for much of the last 50 years, right, which means the average height is one and a quarter. This policy was implemented in part by a benighted attempt to think that these policies would keep out poor people, right, from coming to the city. But it also was an embrace of the British Town and Country Planning Act, right, and I will also say that anything that is appropriate for Devon is not going to be appropriate for Mumbai, right, and that seems obvious.
The last point on which I’ve spent a fair amount of my time lately thinking about is in the area of contagious disease. The most important thing that city governments do is water and sewage. This is, again, something which is about both incentives and engineering, and I will just tell a story from U.S. history that I think is helpful for me. So I grew up in New York City, and the story that I heard of New York’s health—remember, the life expectancy gap in New York in 1900 was six years, right? Today—I mean, a boy born can expect to live six years less than the national average. Today, the life expectancy gap is two years plus in the other direction, right?
The story that I was raised on was what an engineering triumph lesson—that, you know, great engineers built things like the Croton Aqueduct and then the clean waters from upstate New York flowed in and made New York safe. That story is half right, right. The clean water was necessary but is not sufficient. New York continued to have cholera epidemics for 25 years after the Croton Aqueduct opened. My great-great-great-grandfather died in the 1849 cholera epidemic in New York City. And it would have been a surprise to him that the Croton Aqueduct, which opened seven years earlier, had solved New York’s contagious disease problems.
The problem is exactly the same problem we see in Africa today, which is what we call the last mile problem. Some well-meaning agency backed by USAID or some other—you know, or the Gates Foundation builds a water main, right, just like they built the aqueduct in 1842. Then it’s left for somebody else to deal with the connections, right.
The government—the local government has a view they don’t subsidize stuff, right, and typically as economists we think it’s OK if they don’t subsidize stuff. But in this case, it can be deadly. They don’t subsidize stuff. And poor guys say it doesn’t make sense to pay the thousand bucks in a per capita GDP country of less than 2,000 (dollars) to connect to the water main, and so they don’t connect. So you have this great white elephant infrastructure running through the city.
Now, anyone who actually knew the right story of New York would have known that’s exactly what New York dealt with for 25 years, right—that, in fact, poor people had to pay for connections to the sewers and the water pipes and they didn’t pay—entirely understandably, right. There were free hydrants in New York from which you could get water but there were about—I forget what is is—3,000 in the island of Manhattan, one for every 10 blocks, right, and water is heavy to carry. So you didn’t do it.
It wasn’t until the 1866 epidemic where Dr. Stephen Smith was given control of the Board of Public Health in which he was allowed to actually penalize people for not connecting to the water. So if you were a landlord who owned a tenement, you were legally obliged to connect to the water or else you would face a penalty, right. And that reminds us that in cases in which subsidies are limited in which you don’t an infinite amount of money, it’s very hard to try and run a city without penalties and, certainly, our own cities couldn’t have become safe without them.
Now, in the developing world there are two problems with that, one of which is you don’t trust the cops, right; the second of which is you don’t know who owns the land. The not trusting the cops can probably be solved because, look, you didn’t trust the cops in New York City in 1866 either, right. These were—so you have a parallel police force that does health inspections that answers to the docs.
The other—the other thing is that is a real thing is in New York City you knew who owned the land, whereas in Dharavi and Mumbai you don’t, right? So the—so the—and it reminds us that land ownership—the land ownership agenda is not just about empowering the owners. It’s also about imposing obligations on them. OK.
And I do think, just to end on this, when one—one more point after this—just when you think about punishment there’s a tradition in economics about thinking about having low probabilities of arrest and huge punishments for maximum things. That is exactly the wrong thing. In a world in which abuse of penalties, in which there is corruption, there’s extortion, this is completely the wrong answer. The right answer is light penalties—humane penalties.
So I do—I want to penalize kids for open-street defecation in Mumbai. I want to penalize them by making them read for an hour in a community center, right. That’s the kind of penalty that I have in mind in this stuff, so stuff that actually my kids find painful but it won’t do them actually any harm and it certainly won’t lead to—lead to corruption.
One last point—so it is sometimes tempting to look at the problems of developing world megacities and, you know, just give up and think, you know, this government will never get their act together to make this happen. But I think you’ll have to ask an even deeper question, which is in the long run are rural areas ultimately going to up the quality of government or does that come from an urban middle class.
And I think about this idea that urbanization has the capacity to build civic capital and create political change. I call it the Boston hypothesis because I think always of John Hancock and Sam Adams concocting an American revolution through the density of Boston. Cities enable organization. They certainly, historically, have toppled dictators, and we have both history and statistics on this. It’s less clear that they always lead towards a demand for democracy.
So, because of these downsides of density, there often is an appeal of strongmen, right, whether Lee Kwan Yew or Duterte. When I was in the Philippines last summer working on water I almost uniformly, apart from the USAID workers, heard from people who thought Duterte was great—that he was going take a hand dealing with urban problems, right, which was, you know, very different from the normal perspective one gets in—elsewhere. And, again, I’m not—I’m as horrified as him as any other—any other USAID aid worker, so I’m not—I’m not disputing it. But it was interesting hearing well-educated urbanites, you know, make his appeal.
So I think we don’t really know. But, certainly, when I think of the arc of the West I think of democracy and good government as starting in places like the cities of the Low Country and Bruges and Ghent where, you know, the—a weaver and a butcher come together to defeat the flower of French chivalry and fight for a little urban freedom on the fields of the Battle of the Golden Spurs in the early 13th century and that’s sort of my model about how America built its freedom as well, in some sense copying our Declaration of Independence from the Low Countries.
So I guess I’m hopeful that the governments that we have now won’t be the governments we get in years precisely because cities will make them better. So that’s what I’ve got for opening remarks.
BOLLYKY: Those were great opening remarks. Let me ask a few questions. (Clears throat.) Excuse me.
So you touched upon sub-Saharan African countries and their persistently high fertility rates. And one of the arguments about this trend is that most of the urbanization in these cities is actually not from migration. It’s from natural growth, meaning it’s people who live in the cities still having lots of kids. It’s also from the reductions in premature mortality made, despite lack of infrastructure, through global health programs and other initiatives. So the thought behind this trend is that the natural growth of populations in these cities is faster than the accrual of benefits you might get from being in a city such as the ones you’ve identified—agglomeration, the ability to trade ideas, and build skills. And the fear is that this trend will perpetuate poverty—
BOLLYKY: —and you will see the population in these cities continue to grow. Is that an accurate representation of what’s happening and is there a more hopeful example of a city where something like this happened before, perhaps Mexico City, that we might hold to say here is a positive example of that dynamic that ended up turning out more favorably?
GLAESER: Right. So, certainly, the fertility-led growth in African megacities is something of a surprise. I mean, that’s a way in which they differ radically from the cities of the West in which there was always—they were always losing natural population because of the death rates and relatively low fertility rates and they always had to be made up for by large flows into the—into the cities from rural areas.
It is still true that there are—this claim that sort of rural dwellers are still choosing to move in cities that is still going on. That’s not in any sense—you know, it’s not as if you don’t—you know, when you go to African cities it’s not as if you don’t meet plenty of people who have chosen to come there from rural areas. But, certainly, there is a surprising amount of fertility-driven—fertility-driven growth.
My view, again, is that we don’t want to artificially restrict the option to come to the city. We do want better rules and better management for the downside of urban areas. I think it’s also worthwhile asking—wonder why it is that we have—you know, why the fertility rates aren’t lower in these cities and in line with Western norms.
And one possibility is this has more to do with the nature of informal work in the developing world and often the absence of work in these—in these areas. So if you think about it sort of historically, your sort of model is that most traditional human tasks—hunting, gathering—was actually kind of hard to have a lot of kids with because you actually have to carry the kids around and it’s actually not an easy job to have kids.
Traditional subsistence agriculture was actually the easiest thing to have kids with because you put your kid out in the middle of a field and if they’re like my kids they start eating dirt and they’re perfectly happy with that—(laughter)—and that’s all—that’s all great for parenting. And then you move to an industrial work and then you’ve got to leave and go to work and it’s actually difficult to take care—take care of the kids.
The interesting thing is the extent to which the cities of sub-Saharan Africa have, you know, environments in poorer areas which sort of feel more like subsistence agriculture than they do like, you know, industrial Birmingham. And the question is whether, over time, that would continue to be so. And I think that’s at least—my own guess is if things work right you’ll see fertility declining naturally without—you know, without that much need to do—to do very much about it because of the same things that happened in the West as industrialization and as formalization of labor markets have occurred will apply there.
BOLLYKY: Great. And that’s a great segue to my second and last question. So people who have questions, start thinking about them, and I’ll call on you in the order I saw you.
You mentioned that, particularly for open economies, agriculture has played a different role in spurring urbanization than it did in closed economies such as in East Asia, where you have large agricultural surpluses which in part allowed these countries to urbanize. I wondered if there wasn’t an additional benefit of agriculture in terms of building the foundation for future enterprise, maybe through building entrepreneurship or commercial concerns with economies of scale —something that you might look at that may have set the stage for manufacturing. Because one trend that people have started to talk about on the sub-Saharan African side is the pattern of skipping agriculture productivity, skipping manufacturing, and moving straight into services. And the theory is how that pattern might have implications for the rising urban middle class. If you don’t have the possibility of gainful employment, is that a recipe for political instability? Is there a link to persistently high fertility? What is the role of agriculture in the different paths that countries have taken to urbanization and is there any tie to the future industrialization of those economies?
GLAESER: So if we think about what—I mean, there are a number of things which—in which agricultural wealth made it possible to manage cities better. First of all, we had, certainly, built up an entrepreneurial class around dealing in agriculture, right, so that that was a—you know, that had built up in a world that was before industry, and many of those skills ended up being fungible into certain areas.
We had developed—you know, America’s agricultural wealth had helped develop a political class that actually was able to do things like write the U.S. Constitution, come up with (a variety of different tools ?). And you are asking, like, these cities to manage urbanization and manage a service economy without a lot of background, without a lot of, you know—I don’t think there’s a—it’s a reason not to—I mean, it’s going to happen anyway. It’s not like we can say no. I don’t think it’s going to be easy. I don’t think it’s impossible, but sure, it makes things more challenging, absolutely.
BOLLYKY: OK. I have five people on my list so far to open it up to questions. I have David, then Irving, then Francisco, then Aubrey, and then John. Why don’t we start with David? If you can just state your name and your affiliation. Make your question actually sound like a question—(laughter)—and try to keep it short so we can get to everybody.
Q: Thank you. I’m David Fontana. I teach at GW Law School.
I do have a question but if I don’t I’ll make sure my voice ascends so it sounds like it. (Laughter.) So both my questions are about whether cities in the developing world have some differences compared to urbanization in the richer world—first, about economics, second about kind of government and politics.
On the economics, I wonder if the mechanism for urban growth in wealthier countries is spillovers from proximity. We’re more likely to learn from people who are across the street from us than across the country. Is that at all different when we’re talking about let’s call it catch-up growth? Is it what people are learning that’s helping these economies grow? Is it just as important for them to be across the street as across the country?
And then second of all, is there some sort of eventual demand ceiling where, you know, even if I’m learning from the person across the street from me in Dhaka it’s still not going to be the same as Manhattan. So you could kind of over produce urbanization. The equilibrium wouldn’t be, you know, kind of maximal or, you know, perfect urbanization. And I’m thinking, say, of a lot of the Arab Spring countries where there were too many educated people and there wasn’t enough of a demand for their kind of high human capital services.
On the political point—and the evidence, as you know, and written about on this is mixed—I wonder what kind of concentrations of population mean for political stability. Is it that, you know, it makes strong governments—it makes it cheaper for strong governments to be strong because they can more cheaply monitor people who are across the street than across the country, on the one hand? On the other hand, they can more easily control some disruptive political force that’s across the street compared to across the country.
And so I wonder if the equilibrium for urbanization isn’t, say, you know, a primate city, one huge city dominating a country but the U.S. or China model with a lot of big cities, you know, maybe specializing in different things but still benefiting from urbanizations, question mark. (Laughter.)
GLAESER: So, if anything, I mean, when I—when I wander around developing world cities, I think the amount of learning and I think that the—you know, the way that interpersonal education works out is even more impressive there than it is in the West. I mean, you see—you know, you walk around a place like Dharavi and you see, like, guys who are recycling boxes by cutting them open and just turning them inside out so the old labels don’t show and then there—there’s, like, a ceramics cluster and the woman who is making pots is so proud of them they won’t even take any money from you, and you go a little bit further down and they’re doing something like recycling copper, they’re recycling plastics, right.
How the heck did they learn that there was money in that, right? Nobody comes out of the womb knowing that. The city told them that, right. They learned that from other people who had been doing it, right, and they’re able to get—I mean, they’re not organized. They’re not part of some corporate hierarchy. They’re just individual entrepreneurs who are using the wisdom of Dharavi to actually figure out how to make a living in this.
I mean, that feels enormously vital and important and, look, I mean, that whole passage of knowledge from developed to developing world, cities make this much easier, I mean, at the—at the very lowest end or at the highest end as well, right, because the cities are the conduit across continents, across cultures.
Can you have too much education? Well, I wouldn’t say you can have too much education. What you can have is too much regulation that stops the educated people from doing meaningful stuff, right. I think that’s—that would be my model of the Arab Spring, not that—not that education is intrinsically bad.
Certainly, you know, you can—you can be educated in the wrong things perhaps. That’s certainly possible. But, you know, when I—when I’ve done work on the connection between local area wages and earnings, I’ve seen nothing but a hyper charging in the developing world of the importance of skills in terms of generating. So, I mean, I think it’s very hard to sort of beat education as being the long-run investment in things.
Now, the political stability point is a fascinating one so a point that I—an empirical point that I documented about 22 years ago was that countries with unstable democracies or with dictatorships had much larger primate cities which were almost uniformly capitals than stable democracies and that’s because the basic tendency in an area in which—unless you work very hard to stop it, the basic tendency is to spend money on people who are close to you, right, both because they’re just the natural instincts of dictatorship and also because you’re trying to buy them off, right, and it’s only in stable democracies, and only a few of them, right, where you actually have these very strong checks against overspending in Washington, right. So think about the structure of the Senate. Think about various other limitations that our Founding Fathers—including building a capital city on, like, you know, in this place—(laughter)—instead of putting it in Philadelphia or New York, right, that we’re about limiting the transfer of grants near to the—near to the capital.
So that’s certainly true. What I see—I just actually wrote a paper on this idea of this Boston hypothesis and I think there are three questions to ask about whether or not urbanization leads to better government, one of which is does it lead to the toppling of dictators. I think the empirical answer on this is unquestionably yes, right.
So if you look at sort of overall political stability it’s orthogonal, but that’s because there’s two things going on, one of which is more urbanization means more stable democracies, right, where they sort of changed governments but they changed governments in safe legal ways and they also—but they also mean more revolutions that actually topple dictators.
The second question is, conditional upon having a revolution is urbanization push the demand for a dictatorship versus democracy, and there it’s ambiguous. It’s unclear, right. So in the sort of social urban externality realm it pushes for actually more demand for a strong government and actually there’s a—you know, in some sense, the way I like to think about it is there’s a reason why people in Manhattan like government more than people in Nebraska do. They actually need it more. They actually—you know, big dense cities actually require more effective government. On the other hand, the economic needs for freedom in the cities and the upsides of trade, actually, that increases the demand for democracy. So those two things go against—go against each other.
And then there’s this last possibility that maybe cities build more civic capital in the long run. That’s really more of a pure hypothesis than anything else.
BOLLYKY: Great. Good answers. I next have Irving and then Francisco.
Q: Irving Williamson, U.S. International Trade Commission.
One of—to go back to—before you started talking about the downsides of density, you mentioned distance and telecommunications and what I’m trying to—the question I’m trying to ask, how do we get enough jobs in urban areas so that they do develop and what strategies work on that? I mean, all of the small individual entrepreneurs, I understand that’s really exciting. You look at how urban—cities in the U.S. that are doing well, and it’s all about the services trade and the Millennials who want to live downtown and the synergies that come out of that. So but you think about these megacities—the poor cities that you’re talking about—how do we get enough jobs there? And then another small question is when do you start—when do you start—
GLAESER: Was that question small? (Laughter.)
Q: That may be a big one. When do you start thinking about new cities versus growing Lagoses and Kinshasas as a strategy?
GLAESER: So they’re both—they’re both huge and great questions. I tend to be more of an incrementalist than a believer in building cities de novo, in part because the track record of new cities is profoundly mixed and it doesn’t solve the problem that you do have to make Lagos more functional. So I’m not—not that I would have a hard and fast rule on that, but I would tend to—tend to favor the incremental improvement of existing cities more than thinking that you’re just going to build something on its own.
Where does the economic engine of these cities—of these countries come from? Now, that’s—the cities in these countries come from? First of all, you’re starting from a—let’s start at the structure of the country as a whole, right, in which case you ask a question where is any economic thing that’ll come out of this—out of this country beyond, perhaps, the natural resources that they’ve been endowed with.
I think in the long run economic growth is ultimately about education and decent rules, right—that, basically, it’s about some combination of, you know, having—investing in people and having some combination sort of rule of law, reasonable regulations about new business—this is not rocket science—which means that I don’t think of myself as thinking that I need to know what the ultimate end game will be in this relative share of services versus manufacturing in Lagos. But I know that we have to work better on both fronts in terms of both education and rule of law.
And there’s plenty of room to move forward on both of these fronts. There is a question as to what extent we should focus on the rules that affect foreign direct investment versus the rules that affect local entrepreneurs, right. So when I talk to my friends in the U.K. Department for International Development, they sort of see very little hope in local entrepreneurs making a difference and think it’s all about making sure that you get multinationals to invest. That’s a plausible hypothesis.
I guess I look at the career of Soichiro Honda, right, who started as a guy with his own garage 80 years ago and think that, you know, local entrepreneurship can also do some pretty amazing things. So I’m not at all sure that you want one versus the other. In all cases, basically, you know, my model for economic development at the local level in the U.S.—and it’s pretty much elsewhere—is to attract and train smart people and then get out of the way, and I think that’s where I would be focused on this as well.
But attracting and training smart people isn’t a recipe for laissez-faire. It’s for making this area livable. In some way it’s for dealing with the downsides of density. And, you know, every one of the developing world countries has a radical need for improvement in the educational sphere. That’s critical.
BOLLYKY: Great. Francisco.
Q: Thank you. Francisco Martin-Rayo, The Boston Consulting Group.
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the role of technology that you see in the future of urbanization, more specifically, if there’s a few technologies that you think will be extremely influential in the next couple decades.
GLAESER: You know, everybody’s all about autonomous vehicles all the time. (Laughter.) I don’t—I guess I don’t have a—have a—I mean, will autonomous vehicles matter in the U.S? I guess it matters primarily on the regulatory stance we take toward them. I would like to see, given my fears about reducing the costs of driving causing more driving, I would like to make sure that we do have AVs in the U.S.—that they are taxed with GPSes from the get-go, right.
One of the things we learn about the political economy of tolls is it is very hard to put tolls on streets that have always been free whereas if you open a new service it is usually fine to putting a toll on, which means that’s it’s really critical that we start with the idea that we’re going to—we’re going to toll these things because otherwise all these engineering improvements that, you know, that pro-AV forces say, you know, it’s going to improve efficiency, it’s going to do other stuff, there’s just going to be a massive behavioral response that’s going to undo that, right, until you have something that puts the brakes—the brakes on it.
So I think AVs are interesting but I—you know, they’re also quite possibly important in the bus—in the ridesharing areas and I think that certainly is important. In the case of the developing world, I almost give more credence on things that are going to be—more attention to things that are going to be improving the functionality of the minibus network. So and in some sense, I think about a lot of—a lot of the cases of—so I like a framework which is in much of the developing world you have two parallel technologies.
OK. One is the technology that’s usually borrowed from the wealthy world or, if you’re in South Africa, it’s the white technology, or you have a—you have a technology that’s local and cheap. So in the case of transportation, you know, if you were in Johannesburg you could take the Gautrain, which is sleek, fast, largely not all that crowded, and relatively expensive or you can take the minibuses—the rapid bus thing which are, you know, dangerous.
They wait for you to be full up before they go—they go, and one’s cheap and one’s expensive. Or you can build public housing units which look kind of like U.S. public housing units or you could have metal shacks in the background. So my driver, when I was in Johannesburg last year, his dream was—his neighbor had put 17 metal shacks into his back yard to rent out at $70 a month and he wanted—that was his dream, except he had to use money to buy goats for his girlfriend so that he could marry and then give them to the family as a bride price.
So the things that—I tend to be enthusiastic about things that improve the quality of the cheap technology rather than feel like they’re straight importation of Western technology. So things that actually can make the minibus system more safe, more functional, more friendly, those technologies are the ones that I’m most enthusiastic about rather than thinking that this is about importing something that we do—we do here like AVs.
BOLLYKY: Great. Aubrey.
Q: Yes. Thank you much.
So I’ve been a long-time advisor helping companies invest in African markets, focused solely on Africa. I also advise African governments on attracting that investment. I couldn’t agree more about the over focus of the development community on agriculture and the cult of the small holder and this bucolic view of what it’s like to live in rural areas, and I believe strongly in the power of states.
I guess I would ask how can African governments—let’s assume they take a radical approach—I’m sure you’re familiar with Paul Romer’s work—harness this kind of power of attracting and training smart people, free cities, that type of idea, and really harness that economic complexity because where we have seen interesting reform of governments would be like Lagos’ state government. It has made incredible improvements to Lagos, reducing traffic, all these things, very responsive and very supported by Lagosians in this process. So I do think you see some of the innovation at a city level in Africa but how could governments kind of fast track that with even radical approaches?
GLAESER: I think things that do allow more independence for city government are right. I mean, so I agree with—I agree with Paul about many, many things. I’ve been friends with Paul for 28 years and, you know, I think the politics of actual charter cities are a nonstarter, but—in most parts of the world—but policies that allow more independence as a city government seems absolutely right.
BOLLYKY: Can I pause you for a second—
BOLLYKY: —just so that people in the audience know? Can you very quickly describe what a charter city is?
GLAESER: Charter. So the idea of charter cities was not just we’re going to have independence from the national government, some sort of relatively autonomous zone like Lagos or Delhi, for example, which has become independent, but actually the charter city actually becomes independent of the national government as well. So it’s beholden to different courts and answers to the court of the—British House of Lords actually was going to become the ultimate legal repository and, needless to say, there was one that was tempted to be done—
GLAESER: —that broke down, right—broke down in local politics, and I think that’s likely to be—I mean, it sort of smacks of colonialism to a certain extent, although the basic model, which is sort of Hong Kong, has a—has a relatively benign history. So it’s not that it’s—it’s not that it’s bad on the economics. It’s bad on the—on the—on the local politics.
The—so my favorite example of this is Mumbai, right, which, you know, there’s an old line by George Washington Plunkitt, the Tammany Hall politician, that New York City is pie for the hayseeds when he was writing 100 years ago, meaning that the politicians in Albany were extracting lots of rents from the productive engine of New York.
Well, if New York was pie for the hayseeds, then let me tell you, Mumbai is, you know, a vast Indian feast for the policymakers of Maharashtra, right, because much more so than New York the rural areas have historically been vastly over represented. In some areas, it’s as much as 15 to one, meaning the ratio of representatives to population in rural areas relative to urban areas. So the basic political machine tends to be very sort of pro-rural and has made it—this lack of local autonomy, this lack of local power makes it very, very hard to make changes.
Now, that being said, there are countries—so if I thought about—let’s move from Lagos where we have a fair amount of scale—we move from Lagos to Lusaka, right, in Zambia, the countervailing force is if you’re talking about a—you know, if you’re talking about a country with relatively limited political, you know, strength to begin with and pretty much all of it is at the national level and if you think that your—that’s such a small scale then actually giving more power to a locality might just end up with people who just aren’t very good at what they’re doing. So there is—there is a slight trade-off on that. But I think once you’ve reached the kind of scale of Mumbai or Lagos it’s a no-brainer. You want—you want more autonomy.
BOLLYKY: Great. We have three people with questions and about 14 minutes.
BOLLYKY: So that should work out perfectly.
GLAESER: I’ll be less long-winded. (Laughter.)
BOLLYKY: We have John, then Kate, and then Beverly. Let’s start with John.
Q: Just to follow up on some of the political stability stuff we were talking about earlier. I work at the State Department, largely on Africa issues. In a lot of parts of Africa, urban areas tend to support opposition to politicians, and I think that’s increasingly the case. I mean, in Uganda, Museveni did very poorly in Kampala recently, had to get a lot of votes in the rural areas. ANC in South Africa increasingly gets its votes in the rural areas. You know, in the Congo, very concerned about what’s going to happen in Kinshasa as the next round of elections come up. What does this mean in terms of stability nationally and, particularly, in the cities if the cities keep getting larger and if the support for opposition politicians, particularly in some of the more heavy-handed countries, continues? That seems like a recipe for violence, among other things.
GLAESER: Yeah. It certainly wasn’t our own history, right? I mean, these urban—the urban connection of John Adams and—John Hancock and Sam Adams certainly led to unfortunate violence against our British overlords. (Laughter.) I’m not sure that I see that as being a bad outcome. The—so, I mean, I guess if I were betting on freedom in Africa I would bet on, you know, cities continuing to do there what they did in our own—in our own past.
But yes, absolutely I think there’s potential danger there. I am more afraid of this instability in Asia, particularly in China, than I am in Africa in terms of the global consequences. I am more afraid of what happens if the Chinese system breaks down in part because of, you know, someone within the system demagoguing it, trying to bear the palm alone, and pushing a combination of economic populism and virulent Chinese nationalism than I am about Uganda.
Uganda is very, very personal to me. Actually, that my parish in Boston is actually one of the largest centers of Ugandan émigrés to the U.S., where they’re perpetually protesting the Ugandan embassy over this stuff. So, yeah, I think—I think it’s a recipe for instability, and I guess I kind of think that’s good.
BOLLYKY: I have a two-finger question on that, in that that also sounds a lot like the Middle East. And I wondered whether or not what you saw as the tie between urbanization and some of the instability that’s happened in the Middle East, Syria in particular, and the ties between that and some of the refugee migration issues that have happened.
GLAESER: Right. So the one place in which urbanization has really worked well is Tunisia. I mean, my—two of my closest friends are experts on Tunisian politics. And the Tunis story is one in which—I mean, although the initial self-immolation didn’t happen in Tunis, the revolt wasn’t successful until it actually did come to—did come to Tunis. And I think they are lurching towards something that looks like an attractive future.
In much of the rest of the Arab Spring, it doesn’t look so good. So, again, this is showing the capacity of cities to topple dictators but not necessarily to replace them with a functional democracy and that’s—you know, I guess I’m in general pro-instability in some of these regimes but there’s no question it’s always dangerous. There’s no question it’s always risky and I don’t mean to—I don’t mean to minimize that at all.
BOLLYKY: Great. I have Kate and then Beverly.
Q: Thank you. I’m Kate Schecter. I run a relatively small NGO that does primarily rural development in 13 countries around the world, and what you’re describing is exactly what I’ve seen in all 13 of the countries that I’m working in.
And, of course, all of those countries remain agricultural and so the tension about, you know, this favorite new term, “food security,” is very high in all of those countries and what I’m also seeing is some incredible creativity going on in agriculture in urban areas, so innovations in agriculture within an urban setting. And I’m curious what you’ve seen, if you have some good examples of that, because we’re getting a lot of pressure to go to the slums of Nairobi, of Lima, you know, these huge slums where people are feeding themselves now and to start to work with them in the same way that we’re working with rural farmers.
GLAESER: That’s fascinating. Yeah, I mean, and, obviously, look, I’m not—I think there’s been under attention to urban problems in the developing world. We still need rural development, just to be clear. There’s no—there’s no anti, you know, improvements in—and it’s—I mean, I have been a little bit skeptical about some of the claims made around urban agriculture in the U.S. and particularly the environmental claims because, actually, it’s much less energy intensive to move food than it is to move people. So if you put low-density stuff in the middle of high-density stuff you actually end up moving people around a lot.
Now, that doesn’t mean that—you know, having some illustrative farm so that poor kids can actually see tomatoes growing, that’s still surely a benign thing so as long as it’s kept relatively minor. Now, I have—I have seen relatively little, and maybe it’s because I was always looking at the sewers when I walked through disadvantaged areas whether in Manila or Lusaka I haven’t been focused on agriculture. But I’d love to learn more and certainly it’s traditional that there was, you know, some forms of agriculture going on simultaneously. So I’d love to—I’d love to read what you’re finding out and think more about it.
Q: Beverly Lindsay, University College London and University of California multi campus.
You said bus slow, train fast.
GLAESER: Nice. (Laughter.)
Q: How does one deal with some of the psychological issues? Why would you spend much more time on a bus than you can on trains? On the other hand, the buses follow routes that have already been established so there’s not the disruption of the infrastructure. So how does one deal with some of the psychological I want to get to work fast or I want to go from here to Atlanta on the Amtrak. The second part is on a different line and that deals with education. Part of this stems from my National Science Foundation grant. Most of the better universities in the world are in huge cities—millions of people or more.
Yet, there is a vast difference as to who has access to those universities in terms of socioeconomic status. Are there any factors that you can think of within the cities that might provide more access to people from different socioeconomic classes or in countries where there are various ethnic groups? There are always “minorities” or under represented. How do we get more access to those who we might call disadvantaged?
GLAESER: Both are great questions. So the actual speeds—if you have a functioning bus rapid transit, the actual speed differences of a BRT can—with a—with a train can be very, very small. Remember, the principle of bus rapid transit is you’re running a bus on a dedicated lane, right. That’s an absolutely central aspect of this, and there’s really not a lot that you can do with an urban train that you can’t do with a bus on a dedicated lane.
Now, in our country we have traditionally treated buses as the ugly stepchildren of transportation and I think it’s tragic, right, and it’s—I think that’s specifically because they have become the de factor transport option for poor Americans and, consequently, we have not invested in them. We have not created cool buses like they have in—have in London that, you know, have a lot more capacity. But there’s no reason why buses can’t be cool and fun in the U.S., and there’s certainly no reason why they can’t be a great way of getting around developing-world cities. But they do need to have dedicated lanes. They do absolutely need to have their own—have their own infrastructure. The difference is that you can in fact—even if you build a dedicated lane you can actually then repurpose it for cars if you don’t need the bus route anymore whereas a train route is a train route is a train route and you’re done on that.
On education, the inclusivity of education, the inclusivity of educational institutions in the developing world—it’s not like we’ve solved this problem so well here in the U.S., right. It’s not like they’ve solved this problem so well in Paris or in London. I would have said that you need to start—I mean, they’re both policies around the universities but you really need to start early on that. I mean, you really need to be focusing on early childhood and figuring out a flexible means of delivering skills. In many cases, we need to sort of be in the business of radical experimentation and evaluation. We need to try new programs constantly. Some of the programs can be delivered directly by the state.
Some of them can be competitively sourced from nonprofits or even for-profit providers as long as they’re rigorously evaluated and appropriately regulated. I think we have to just start with our ignorance and understand that it’s going to take a lot to fix this and to make progress on this, and I think just for those of you who are involved in the policy world around this, remember, if you did something new and great, if you didn’t randomize control trial it, it’s like it never happened. OK. (Laughter.) And unless you actually put the proper work to do in a serious evaluation of your new project, it will have vastly less impact than it would if it were actually properly evaluated from the beginning.
BOLLYKY: Great. Dawn?
Q: Yeah. My question is just on climate change. You mentioned coming in you’d say something about—
Q: —the impact that that’s going to have on the world’s cities.
BOLLYKY: Great. Dawn, do you want to say who you are?
Q: Oh, I’m sorry. Dawn Calabia, Refugees International.
GLAESER: So I’m of multiple minds on this. This is an area in which one of my dearest, you know, friends and co-authors, Matthew Kahn, and I have disagreed very substantially about it because he has a much rosier view of this than I do. One aspect of it is the role that cities play in just creating carbon emissions and I think there’s sort of two effects to think about on this, one of which is if urbanization is part of economic development, as it surely is, when countries get richer they use more carbon, right, and that’s surely going to happen, right. But the right answer is not to say that we want India to have low carbon emissions by keeping it in abject rural poverty, right.
Then, holding income constant, density is actually part of the solution, not part of the problem. You can see this in the U.S.—you know, the U.S. as well—that if you look at people who live in higher-density areas, controlling for income, controlling for family size, they have significantly lower carbon emissions both because they drive shorter distances, and in the U.S., with very few exceptions, it’s really not about public transportation because Americans drive. It’s really about driving three miles instead of driving 30 miles to get to work that’s making a huge difference.
And, of course, it’s about smaller housing units. So it’s not that apartments are inherently greener—it’s just when people own apartments they live in with 400 square feet per capita instead of 800 square feet per capita and that leads to less home heating and home cooling—home cooling.
So I think, you know, in some—another factoid for keeping this is if the great growing economies of India and China see their per capita carbon emissions rise to that seen in the sprawling United States, global carbon emissions go up by 130 percent. If they stop at the level seen in wealthy but hyper dense Hong Kong, global carbon emissions go up by less than 30 percent.
So cities are part of the—I believe densification is part of the solution on climate change or, at the very least, not putting barriers to cities that naturally grow enough. The second question is what’s climate change going to do to cities, and I think there are different aspects of climate change that I don’t really—you know, I can’t really say that. So the slow warming of the globe and possibly the melting of the polar ice caps creates a particular problem for coastal cities. To the extent to which this is a slow problem, my view is the wealthy cities of the West will adapt to this, right, in terms of that aspect of climate change. So the stuff that is sort of slow and foreseeable, if you’ve got enough money, if you’ve got decent governance, you’ll figure out how to do something or rather, whether it’s sea walls or moving populations.
Even if it’s slow and predictable, the less-well-governed cities of the world will not be able to fix it, right. Even if it is coming straight at them and it is coming straight at them for five years, I think many of the cities of the developing world will not be able to respond appropriately without a lot of help and the effects can be quite disastrous for low-lying coastal cities.
Now, there’s another hypothesis which I don’t know, which is the extent to which—and this is—you know, I need climate scientists to answer more definitively on this—is the extent to which we’re going to have a higher rate of major league natural disasters that are going to be related to climate change. That I have no confidence that America will do a great job of handling something that is not slow and predictable but that is very unpredictable and very much unclear on, certainly, in the developing world it’s going to be even worse. So this is unquestionably a dangerous thing.
Now, it’s not clear to me that the natural disasters risk argues for or against densification so—and this is because the densification means that it increases the risk because an event in one area can do a lot of damage at once. It also creates the possibility of having a citadel, right? It is possible to imagine erecting a sea wall that protects downtown Manhattan. It is not possible to imagine having a sea wall that protects all of the New Jersey coast, right. So, consequently, and, in fact, there’s an argument historically that the ability to produce walls was the original agglomeration economy. It was the original advantage because it scales up, you know, the square root of city populations, essentially, not at—so it’s, actually, per capita it’s going down as you get better cities.
So I think—I think it’s unclear whether or not a natural disaster makes the case for or against. The same thing is true for terrorism—that terrorism is both a threat to cities but also one in which it’s easier for cities to actually protect against because it’s such a narrow—a narrow area.
But, no, I’m quite worried—I’m quite worried about the cities of the developing world, particular the low-lying coastal ones, and I think this is yet another thing for us to—us to worry about. But it still doesn’t make the case for not urbanizing, right. So you think about subsistence agriculture in Africa. If you have climate change that impacts their ability to farm, there’s going to be deaths.
There’s going to be major league famine from it. If they are integrated—and I don’t know what they’re doing, again. The fact that there are many call centers in Nairobi or Lagos or whatever else they’re doing, they’re part of the global trading system. And globally we’re much more insured against this in terms of at least agriculture, right? So forget about the, you know, possibility of large-scale natural disasters—just that the general move of temperatures is going to have winners and losers in terms of agriculture. So, you know, they can—they can—they may not be able to farm in Kenya as well but if they could do call centers they can buy wheat from Siberia. So that’s a—that integration creates a certain amount of insurance and a certain amount of safety.
So I certainly wouldn’t be pushing against—pushing for subsistence agriculture as being the right response to the risk of global warming.
BOLLYKY: Two questions to let you finish up. One relatively small one and then a bigger picture one that ties together some of your initial remarks with our subsequent discussion. First, most of the urbanization occurring, depending on the region you’re talking about, is in secondary cities—cities of fewer than a million inhabitants. That’s particular true in sub-Saharan Africa, but also to some extent also true in parts of Asia as well. Is the agenda different—
GLAESER: The secondary cities in China have like 5 million guys. (Laughter.)
BOLLYKY: OK, maybe not China, but elsewhere in Asia. Is the reform or investment agenda different for secondary cities? So that’s question one. And then question two—and you can weave this into your final remarks—what is the global agenda around poor world cities? What I haven’t heard is the role for collective action. A lot of the steps you described as things that would help poor world cities—education, better governance—are measures that the development community is lousy at, or at least they are not historically our strong suits. We’re better at delivering food and vaccines. What is the role for the international community in addressing poor world cities? What does that agenda look like and how will it move forward?
GLAESER: So secondary cities first. So the main thing that’s different with secondary cities is the politics is totally different, right. So a revolt in a secondary city doesn’t matter the same way a revolt does in the capital city. They—you know, having a thriving set of secondary cities is usually a sign that something’s not totally screwed up in the politics—that actually—that you are able to exist even if you don’t have access to the direct capital.
So I don’t—and usually their problems are slightly less severe although they usually have less of an economic upside in being globally connected relative to the capital cities. So I see there as being sort of minor differences but, rather, not crucial ones. In terms of the collective action of the wealthy world on this, I guess I’m at a point in which I think we do know the answers to some things and you’re right, vaccines are a big deal.
There’s a reason why cholera still rages in Africa but it kills a lot fewer people than it did in 19th century America, right. It’s a much less deadly disease precisely because we have medicine that can actually save people on this. So, unquestionably, these are—the areas in which we know what to do we should continue to do—to do them. But over and over again there are areas in which I feel like we are sitting on a—you know, on a cliff overlooking an ocean of ignorance, right, and I see the largest agenda as being engagement and learning.
So you asked a question about education. We have hints from the U.S. We have hints from the developing world in terms of education programs, some of which work more than others, and education, of course, is different with the larger problems—the largest problem in Indian schools is they don’t show up, right. So the attendance issue is—which is—and no matter how bad you may think some American teachers are, they typically do, in fact, show up; it’s a—at least in body.
So this knowledge agenda, at least, feels to me like the most important thing and we have to understand better what’s going on in terms of education. In terms of infrastructure, it’s really about figuring out how to get the right balance of incentives and infrastructure right. So figure out about how to actually, you know, get it so the water mains aren’t just out there, figure out how to deal with the septic tank issue where a city like Manila of 25 million people is served primarily by very high-density septic tanks. So, again, it’s an issue of knowledge but, again, I would put primacy on the global health-related issues of sewers and water above all. So, I mean, that would be what I would—what I would raise the agenda on.
And, again, I would—I would emphasize the downsides, figuring out how to deal with the downsides of density more than anything else. I actually think on transportation we actually know a lot of stuff that’s going on. I mean, it’s more an issue of, you know, it’s—I mean, the bus rapid transit innovations have occurred. We actually know that they work. We need to spread and push them. Congestion pricing again.
Part of it—part of the problem is it’s so politically unpopular. But there’s no other solution, which means that anyone who’s not running for office, which is essentially what—feels like, you know, should be saying how great congestion pricing is essentially all the time. It’s actually the one thing—so I’m very reticent about making very strong local pronouncements in different countries for understandable reasons, because knowledge doesn’t always go over. The one thing that I—which I’ve always said aggressively is in China the time for congestion pricing is now. And I’m pleased that Beijing is actually moving—you know, moving towards this, which is—which is great.
So, transportation, I think we do know what it is. Sewers, education, less clear. We need to—we need to push the knowledge agenda forward. We need to engage. And we need to learn.
BOLLYKY: Great. That’s a great note to end on. Please join me in thanking our speaker. (Applause.)