Urbanization and Free Markets

I’m not an environmentalist. I find global warming problematic because it will likely make living on Earth more expensive for humans. Preservation of natural resources is not inherently important to me because I don’t find it morally wrong to consume these resources at high levels. Nonetheless, it could be valuable to preserve natural resources if there is a tragedy of the commons where resources are underpriced by the market and are thus being inefficiently overconsumed. I also think humans tend to enjoy at least visiting and observing pleasant natural land and seascapes, but it only makes sense to preserve them to the extent of which the value of observing these natural areas outweighs their economic value in improving human lives through development.

Unfortunately, I find a lot of the arguments for urbanization tend to emphasize the environmental benefits. These types of arguments will not do well in convincing libertarians that they should also promote urbanization. The goal of this post is to present an argument for libertarians, classical liberals, and free market economists on why they should be interested in urbanization and urban policy.

Cities

Cities are a vital part of human civilization due to specialization, economies of scale, and network effects. You can’t build a hospital with specialized departments and research facilities in a town of 100 people. You can’t make an engineering startup in a town without stores that sell specialized equipment. You can’t teach specific niche courses in cryptography if your city can’t support a university large enough to have advanced Math and Computer Science departments.

Cities also provide more for their inhabitants to consume due to economies of scale. Cities have more diverse food and cultural entertainment like museums, concerts, or festivals. These experiences are also in constant competition, spurring innovation. We think of cities as being more expensive than living in the country, but that’s somewhat misleading; diverse experiences are available in cities rather than rural areas because they can only be provided cheaply in cities. The selection of products is much narrower in less densely inhabited areas. In cities, supply chains can focus on getting tons of varied products to a single location where everyone lives, rather than transporting fewer standardized products across a giant area. The internet is a mitigating factor to some of this, but it’s also true that you can’t get continued technological innovation without concentrating innovators in cities!

There’s another important point about cities from a libertarian or postlibertarian perspective: they offer anonymity and individuality. Cities pack enough people into an area that you can make choices about your social interactions. Unlike a small town where your personal relationships are limited by geography to the few people in the town. It is far more likely you can meet with others that share your obscure interests in a large city rather than a small town. You’re not forced to conform to what your few neighbors believe are acceptable social behavior or beliefs. Diverse cities allow for varied cultural norms, and I’d argue increased tolerance.

The policies and discussions surrounding urbanization and urban planning have mostly been driven by those on the political left. Their political enemies, the Red Tribe (for more explanation, see section IV of I Can Tolerate Anyone Except the Outgroup), is often identified by its opposition to rich urban elites. Libertarians themselves have streaks of this disdain for progressive cities and yearning for an idealized Jeffersonian yeoman farmer nation, where everyone lives on their own separate plots of land and does as they please. But postlibertarians and the Grey Tribe should not cede urban policy to the left so easily; cities are largely vital for the economic reasons I’ve put forward. While today they are often bastions of progressive politics, cities are too important to be left to be governed by the ideas of a single political group.

Dense Cities

Since there are benefits to people who live in cities as described above, it seems to follow that denser cities might emphasize those benefits to a greater degree.

The economic argument seems to make sense here: if cities concentrate people, denser cities should concentrate logistical costs. That means less investment cost in infrastructure per person and less cost to deliver a larger amount of physical goods to the same people. There should be better economies of scale for transportation when cities are packed together. Another interesting benefit might be that with locations closer together, fewer people would use cars, so there would be less total hours wasted in traffic for a city of similar size but lower density. Perhaps this would be offset by longer total transportation time since walking is slower than driving. Certainly it seems that fewer people would die in car accidents at least.

Another benefit specifically for libertarians might actually be fewer road square footage per person. Roads are expensive, are often centrally managed by the city, and so don’t respond to price signalling. Optimal road work is thus not easily achievable, leading to poorly timed construction (overabundance of construction due to road opportunity cost not being priced) or not enough road repairs (too little construction due to no consumer payment for roads). Narrower streets specifically would essentially privatize space in a dense city, space that is highly valuable.

There is also a little bit of anecdotal evidence for cultural benefits of dense cities too. For example, we might expect denser cities to have more people from an odd subculture willing to meet than the population of the city might suggest (due to close proximity). As an example, let’s use Slate Star Codex’s series of local meetups earlier this year. If we expected SSC meetup populations to be based solely on total population, we’d see it match the US Census’ Core Based Statistical Area ranking: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami.

If we expected denser cities to show the social/cultural benefits to a greater extent than spread out cities, we should expect the SSC meetup populations to more closely match the population density of top cities. Unfortunately there’s no exact definition for a dense city. The simple way to define it is total population within a city’s political borders divided by the land area under that polity. However, cities usually extend beyond the political boundaries specifically because those municipal governments get in the way. If we go by this definition, the top US cities should be New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Miami. Now this actually matches the top SSC American cities pretty well, with the exception of Miami which didn’t meet the 10 person minimum despite being in the top seven cities in both total population and density. Another way we can represent density is through the number of high density areas in each metropolitan area. This yields in order: New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Miami, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco.

There are obviously other factors at work in the SSC meetups including culture of the city (Silicon Valley/startup culture is probably the best predictor of SSC readers, as we see small Silicon Valley towns like Mountain View on the list) as well as a number of English speakers (explains why dense foreign cities are not high on the list), and college degrees. This last point is interesting. This article discusses how denser cities only seem to realize productivity gains in high human capital situations. Finance, technology, and other professional industries requiring higher education stand to gain from higher density cities. One question then is whether college graduates are attracted to dense urban cores or whether urbanization simply occurs around where college graduates tend to be (around universities?). To me it seems that cities clearly predate modern universities and college graduates. The establishment and growth of cities seems fairly organic, emergent, and spontaneous.

Too Dense?

This brings us to the next point: cities don’t require urban planning to exist. Humans are completely capable of decentralized self-organization of urban areas, and cities existed and continue to exist without strong municipal governments, zoning laws, building codes, etc. Nonetheless, with close quarters comes externalities, and so governments arguably have a lot of benefits to offer residents of cities over not having governments. Yet, as urban economist Issi Romem writes, American cities tend to expand outwards, and those cities that don’t expand geographically see large cost of living increases. Relatedly, as this Forbes piece points out, many of the highest density cities in the world (Dhaka, Delhi, Karachi, Mumbai)  are also relatively poor. Cities can be rich, but density doesn’t seem to be a requirement for being rich. In the U.S., most new housing comes from urban expansion, not density increases. This seems to beckon that it is not only cheaper to expand at the outside of cities than it is to expand the interior of cities, but more desirable to residents. Given the benefits of cities and density, how could this be?

One possibility is that it could be more expensive to bring goods into a city center than we thought. Maybe economies of scale don’t work as well due to increased traffic. I don’t have much evidence for that, but I guess it’s possible. This seems unintuitive though, as living in the suburbs means dealing with much more driving and traffic anyway.

However, some goods don’t need to be transported into the city…like housing. Once it’s there, it is consumed slowly over time. Yet rent is fairly correlated with density.  I don’t have good data on it, but I took at look at padmapper.com in a couple cities that I knew the general density of. I took the price slider and noted where the high priced places were compared to the low priced areas. It wasn’t a perfect correlation, but it did match my general feeling that more density was associated with higher prices. So if we assume that a housing market is in equilibrium, differences in price for dense and non-dense areas indicate on the demand side that there are plenty of people who would prefer to live in urban dense cores over suburbs given the same price.

Next, on the supply side, differences in price between dense and non-dense areas indicates higher marginal cost in dense areas compared to less dense areas. So what is driving that cost?

Certainly more complex tall structures are needed for dense living, although part of that cost is spread over many more inhabitants. Additionally, there is more reliance on public transportation infrastructure than is needed in the suburbs, which might lead to higher taxes to pay for it. However, other infrastructure costs are lower per person in the city than in the suburbs (lower fixed costs to build water, sewage, electrical, internet, and roads because they scale largely with horizontal distance, which is minimized in a city). Additionally, if cities are supposed to help make people more productive then we might hope similar tax rates would bring higher revenue in dense cities than suburbs.  It’s hard to know then whether tax burdens should be higher in cities, but it seems colloquial wisdom believes they are (high density cities don’t seem like low tax areas). I did find this 2005 paper from Harvard indicating that multi-family buildings (apartments) had a higher tax incidence than individual family homes. Moreover, as Stephen Smith at Market Urbanism pointed out, much of that local tax money goes to roads and schools, things denser urban dwellers likely use at lower rates than suburbanites. Finally, the federal mortgage interest tax credit further makes housing cheaper for suburbanites over urban core residents.

Free Market Perspectives

So while it’s possible to say that it simply costs more to live in a dense city, it’s also true that government seems to cost a lot in cities. Perhaps that’s a necessary part of living in cities, but if we leave urban policy as the sole domain of the Left, there will be no counterbalancing philosophy that understands market forces. Without that check, government will cost more than its benefits.

Moreover, raising tax revenue and providing services are not the only functions of municipal governments: they also create regulations, which are another way they contribute directly to the cost of living in cities. Here it seems there is little nuance to be had: most high productivity cities have far too restrictive housing regulations. This has reduced the ability of labor to relocate to more productive areas of the economy, and according to this NBER paper, has allowed for massive missed opportunities in economic growth. And this makes intuitive sense; over time, technology should allow us to build denser and denser cities more cheaply, yet new housing in some of the most productive cities has not kept pace with demand. The explanation must be regulatory hurdles on new housing.

Such an outcome squares well with the common opposition to urban development known among the urban policy community with the pejorative NIMBY (not in my backyard), and it applies not just to housing, but to any development in a city. Elected municipal governments are responsible to the people who live in the city at present, not to possible future citizens. While this may seem just, it is emphatically a net negative in a utilitarian calculation; improvements in human lives should not be discounted based on where that human lives. Policy that makes it harder for people to move to a city to make it denser, when those people want to move there, creates worse outcomes than we would otherwise have.

Finally, let’s take a step back: I’m not saying that people have to live in dense urban cores; people should live wherever and however they would like to. I’m saying that governments can mismanage urban policy in ways that prevent people from moving to where they would actually want to go. Bad policy changes the nature of cities and reduces the potential benefits they can bring. Because urban policy tends to rely significantly on some state intervention, I find that there is not a plethora of free market urbanists. Nonetheless, cities are an important part of the modern human experience and they will continue to be in the future. Libertarian perspectives have much to offer urban policy and it would be a shame to abandon it to the left.

 


Comment on the official reddit thread.

Metacontrarian contributed to this post.

Links 2016-10-12

I’ve added Andrew Gelman’s blog to the blogroll. Really great blog on statistical analysis. I also moved the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project to the Libertarian Web Directory under Issue Organizations instead of in the blogroll.

Comment on Slate Star Codex about evolutionary complexity and politics. There’s a limit to how much useful information we can get from elections, and building more complex institutions on such little information may be dangerous.

John Cochrane on Basic Income and its benefits, along with its large political problems.

So the DEA has taken the massive failure of the War on Drugs and decided the lesson to draw was to add another drug to Schedule 1, the most prohibited category (and more tightly controlled than cocaine). Kratom, a drug used for opioid withdrawal treatment has been added to the list. The 15 deaths cited by the DEA over the last 2 years are sure to bump up as users’ legal alternative to illegal opioids is removed.

Classic example of regulation making it more difficult for simple economic transactions. This manifests in higher prices for compliance which ends up hurting the poor disproportionately. Seattle used to be the leading place for “micro-housing”, but it’s being regulated out of existence to the tune of hundreds of affordable dwellings a year.

The ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International are launching a campaign to pardon Edward Snowden. I’ve gone on the record predicting that the Obama administration will not pardon Snowden, but I hope I’m wrong. Also, watch this excellent Reason TV interview with the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Gary Johnson: WIRED should have endorsed me for president.

Related: Donald Trump has received no major newspaper endorsements, and many newspapers who have endorsed Republicans for decades, even centuries, are either endorsing Clinton, Johnson, or simply endorsing anyone but Trump. Some newspapers who don’t usually endorse anyone are doing so, such as the Atlantic, USA Today, and actually WIRED had never issued an endorsement. A redditor collected all the information into a nice post.

I’m not a Ross Douthat fan, but I do like this column. There’s a real sense of being surrounded that non-progressives feel. And when surrounded with no hope of making it out alive, soldiers fight to the death because they have nothing to lose. Not a great situation.

Heard through Alex Tabbarok at Marginal Revolution: apparently an author at the Telegraph isn’t happy about Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to eradicate all disease. She’s apparently afraid of the impacts of overpopulation. And she published it. In a real newspaper. So if you’re not optimizing for the “most good” in the world or most “human happiness”, what exactly are you optimizing for? If the author is so concerned about human population, does that mean she’s generally pro-war? Is she pro-Ebola? Anti-CDC? What are her feelings on ISIS? Does she have suicidal thoughts? I just have so many questions.

Seen through Slate Star Codex, the Brookings Institution has a report on charter schools in Massachusetts: “There is a deep well of rigorous, relevant research on the performance of charter schools in Massachusetts…This research shows that charter schools in the urban areas of Massachusetts have large, positive effects on educational outcomes. The effects are particularly large for disadvantaged students, English learners, special education students, and children who enter charters with low test scores. In marked contrast, we find that the effects of charters in the suburbs and rural areas of Massachusetts are not positive.” I’d guess this is because in the suburbs, the schools are already pretty good and must compete with expensive private schools anyway.

Forget moving to New Hampshire, the new mayor of Johannesburg is a self-proclaimed libertarian.

Why are American airports so crappy compared to international ones? Well it’s partially because most American airports cater to domestic flights and are not international travel hubs. Airports that focus on similar levels of domestic travel resemble LAX more than Dubai, LaGuardia more than Singapore.

Scott Sumner asks some interesting questions about a possible decline in materialism and how it relates to GDP growth and measurement. If everything you want to do can be done online, can you measure that economic improvement?

Jacob Levy at Bleeding Heart Libertarians writes that if you look at the polling numbers, Johnson doesn’t draw more from Clinton, and having him on the ticket actually helps her.

Obviously this election cycle has been particularly divisive and nasty. But did you know there are people working on fixing this? Check out the National Institute for Civil Discourse’s Standards of Conducts for Debates. Can you imagine if the political debates were actually like this? I might even want to watch them.

Megan McArdle on How to End the Death Penalty for Good. There’s an interesting point about how abortion laws were on the decline and probably would have quietly died except for the Supreme Court stepping in and making the decision themselves. This galvanized social conservatives into organizing themselves and mobilizing to protect their interests against perceived undemocratic justices. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but it’s certainly true that “judicial activism” has been reviled by the American Right for a while now.

A good rundown by Reason of their staffers and many prominent libertarians on who they will be voting for. Dave Barry’s response is by far my favorite.

There is a storm brewing in the Libertarian Party. Gary Johnson will likely meet the 5% threshold set by the FEC on who qualifies as a minor party. That means the LP will be eligible to get taxpayer provided funding for its candidate in 2020. There are two problem. One is that Libertarians are fundamentally opposed to this practice, and taking the money would make them look like hypocrites. The other is that neither party seems to take matching funds anymore as it also puts a cap on how much you can raise. That cap scales, so the cap itself may limit the LP in the 2020 election. 

Postlibertaian throwback: World Wars Per Century. Only since 2014 have we been living in an age where only a single world war was started in the preceding 100 years.


Comment on Reddit.

Links 2016-4-17

Counting past infinity is easy! It was the infinity raised to infinity and infinite number of times that I really got lost.

I’ve settled on the right way to show the date in these links posts: the international standard ISO-8601.  It’s about time since that has been the standard since 1988.

Niskanen center names social justice aware libertarianism as “neoclassical libertarianism“. I like this idea, as it’s strictly superior to progressivism, and I’ve been trying to come up with a good name for it. Scott Alexander called it left-libertarianism-ist, which just isn’t as catchy. Of course, maybe pure libertarianism is better, but neoclassical liberalism is far more politically palatable. It is also more “conservative”, meaning that it is closer to the status quo.

Merrick Garland would not be a good SCOTUS justice. Randy Barnett discusses with Reason why he opposes Garland’s nomination: he’s completely deferential to executive and legislative authority and does not protect individual rights from the state. Does it make sense for the Senate to not give him a hearing? Maybe, maybe not. Did it make sense to declare prior to his announcement that any candidate wouldn’t get a hearing? Hard to say; if that hard line approach made Obama nominate an old white guy who endorses state power in the name of national security, that’s certainly a win for neoconservatives. I don’t think anyone should take an outrage stance on the Supreme Court opening because this really is a complicated game theory situation with nested layers of strategy. Even though I’m sure he is one of the most un-libertarian nominees ever, it’s impossible to say if he would be worse than a Hillary appointee or even a Trump appointee.

How to fight the War on Drugs: hit their wallets. Legal marijuana causes Mexican drug cartel revenues to plummet. 

Heard through Slate Star Codex, anti-censorship blog Status 451 (linked in the sidebar) held a fund-raiser for LambdaConf, a functional programming conference I had no idea existed until a week ago. Apparently, after an anonymous analysis of submitted papers, the Lambdaconf organizers selected a paper to be presented at the conference by Curtis Yarvin, a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug, perhaps the most well known neo-reactionary.  Certainly I think neo-reactionaries are a bit nuts, but Mr. Yarvin has also invented the intriguing functional programming language Urbit. We don’t agree with him politically, we can learn and grow our knowledge by understanding what he has to say, especially in technological areas he is an expert in! Alas, as Eric S. Raymond recounts, the social justice movement did not see it that way and pressured LambdaConf to remove Yarvin from the event. Lambdaconf refused and the activists moved to forcing sponsors to drop out. Incredibly, Status 451 started an indiegogo campaign to save LambdaConf, which was funded within the day. This is a big victory for anyone who wants to live in a tolerant, knowledgeable, and free society, but if you want to know their motivations firsthand, please read what they have to say.  Status 451 are also true believers, calling out some on the right for their similarly censoring response.

Related in Not the Onion news: Emory vows to hunt down students who politically disagree with the Left.

Bryan Caplan on liberalizing expertise and the link with defending free speech from the attacks of economic licensing.

A great write up on derivatives, what they are, how they work, and why it’s misleading to suggest that the derivatives market has a quadrillion dollars in risk.

Another excellent reddit post, this one asking soldiers what things they don’t tell you about war. In short: the smell.

Apparently the music industry thinks the DMCA doesn’t do enough to stop copyright infringers (more on the RIAA at TorrentFreak). It seems they’d like to target the safe harbor provisions of the DMCA, the only parts of it that are useful. Techdirt has a great series of posts from the other side, detailing the many abuses of DMCA takedown notices. Right now, there is no legal check on whether a takedown request comes from someone who actually owns the copyright, or even if that copyrighted work is utilized fairly for criticism or commentary. This isn’t an easy problem to solve by any means, but we should remember that the point of copyright is to encourage production of new works, and if there’s anything that YouTube does right is making it easier to create new content. Moreover, it’s helpful to remember that YouTube is run at a loss of more than $150 million a year. Trying to force YouTube to pay for content policing is one of the dumber ideas they’ve ever had, which is saying something. So what should be done instead? A good start would be to make false copyright claims a criminal offense, and require you to prove you own the copyright in the claim.  It would also be good if it turned out your copyright claim was wrong, the ad-money would not go to the claiming part, but would be held in escrow until the dispute is resolved. This would allow YouTube to better focus on actual infringers and stop the torrent of false claims. Of course, another big looming problem for the RIAA is Facebook video, which doesn’t even have the semi-transparent (though flawed) takedown-notice system of YouTube.  Ultimately, given how little money YouTube makes after 10 years on the internet, if YouTube was allowed to be held liable for infringing uploads, YouTube would either go out of business, or cease becoming a free platform anyone could use. This would be a monumental failure of the copyright regime; yes, it might end up getting RIAA members more money, but that is not the purpose of copyright. Copyright exists to help make new content, not destroy content platforms.

California is raising its minimum wage, eventually to $15 an hour. FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman is excited at least to get some data on large minimum wage hikes, although judging from the headlines, it seems like he thinks this is a good idea. I’m fairly confident it is not, and Matt Zwolinski makes one good point to support me: the minimum wage doesn’t fight poverty.  There’s a lot of data surrounding the minimum wage. And it’s apparent that unemployment does not automatically rise when minimum wage increases occur.  Nonetheless, longer term unemployment effects are essentially impossible to study, and it’s likely there are some effects on businesses. If businesses could absorb 20-40% increases in labor costs easily, then why aren’t businesses getting more out of their employees, or more firms entering the business due to excess profits? There is evidence of long term job growth being harmed, as well as higher prices (see last link).  Ultimately, I predict there will be negative consequences for California, but it’s hard to find something that is worth predicting. I could predict that California’s employment and workforce participation rate will be lower than the country average by more than they are now (check this in the future). It’s also likely that low cost goods will see price increases, but I don’t have an easy way to check that over the next five years.

Robin Hanson has a good thought experiment to show that most people don’t vote to change the outcomes of elections. This would explain why anyone votes at all, given the uselessness of voting generally.
GiveWell tries a new tactic to persuade more people to fund their top researched causes: ” First of all. Just so you understand, this guy is a total loser. He begged me to be his peer reviewer, I said ‘NO THANKS.’ Pathetic!”

Related: We can’t stop here, this is Cruz country!

Daniel J. Bernstein taking over crypto is good.