Me And Paul (Krugman)

When I quote Paul Krugman, which I often do, it’s almost always for an observation about economics. After all, Krugman won his Nobel Prize for economics, and his columns in the New York Times and the subjects he addresses in his newsletter routinely focus on economic issues.

In a recent column, however, Krugman “sang my song”– explaining why many Americans have deserted rural and suburban residencies in order to live in densely populated urban neighborhoods.

He also addressed the impact of America’s rural/urban split on the country’s political culture wars.

 I have an apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. It’s a very densely populated area — according to census data the area within a one-mile radius of my place has around 100 residents per acre, or more than 60,000 per square mile. This dense (and, to be honest, affluent) population supports a huge variety of businesses: restaurants, groceries, hardware stores, specialty shops of all kinds. Most of what you might want to do or buy is within easy walking distance.

In effect, then, I live in what some Europeans — most famously Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris — call “a 15-minute city.” It’s a catchy if slightly misleading name for a concept that urbanists have long advocated: walkable cities that take advantage of the possibilities of density.

Modern politics being what it is, alas, it’s also a concept that has been caught up in the culture wars and become the subject of wild conspiracy theories. And as usual the people who yell loudest about “freedom” are actually the ones who want to practice coercion, preventing other Americans from living in ways they disapprove of.

I often come across articles glorifying rural life, and promoting movement “back to the earth.” Like Krugman, however, my husband and I are urban people. We lived many years in historic, near-downtown neighborhoods, and when we got too old to comfortably navigate our last (three-story) house, we moved to an apartment in the very center of our city’s downtown.

Krugman’s column described what has been so liberating about that move: urban life is easy. As he points out, “Running errands is a snap; because you walk most places, you don’t worry about traffic jams or parking spaces.”

And those perceptions of crime and grime? They are simply wrong.

Krugman’s New York is one of the safest places in America, and as the Indianapolis Business Journal recently confirmed, Indianapolis’ downtown is the safest area in our city. (It’s pretty clean, too!)

There’s an unwritten rule in American politics that it’s OK for politicians to disparage big cities and their residents in a way that would be considered unforgivable if anyone did the same for rural areas…. There seems to be a widespread sense that only people living a car-centered lifestyle, or a pickup truck-centered lifestyle, are real Americans….

Now, I don’t know how many Americans would choose the walkable-city lifestyle if it were widely available, but surely many more than are living it now. Unfortunately, urban planning — for cities are always planned, one way or another — is yet another casualty of the politics of grievance and paranoia.

That last observation really hits home.

In conversations with people who are clearly flummoxed by our choice to live downtown, we often hear concerns centered on the very elements of urban life that we celebrate. In Indiana, the “buckle of the Bible Belt”), the center of a city is where you find the most diverse population mix–and for far too many Hoosiers and other Americans, diversity equals danger.

It must be dangerous downtown, because there are so many people who don’t look like me…

There’s a reason apartments and condominiums are being built at a rapid pace in the city core. It’s an attractive, vibrant, quintessentially urban place to live. Even with  constant residential construction, occupancy levels are 93- 95%.

When weather permits, my husband and I like to sit in the outdoor/sidewalk section of the restaurant next door to our building, and watch the young, multi-ethnic crowds walk and bike (and scooter) by. We look up Massachusetts Avenue at the multitude of restaurants, bars and shops we regularly patronize.

In an era where media is filled with reports of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and homophobia, our little patch of urban life remains welcoming and enthusiastically “woke.”  And I’m gratified to report that the young people who dominate residency in our apartment building are unfailingly polite and helpful to us “old folks.”

We aren’t the only Americans drawn to what urban life has to offer: According to the Department of Agriculture, in 2020, only 14 percent of the U.S. population still lived in the rural counties that continue to dominate American politics and dictate public policy.

I hope I live long enough to see fair representation for the remaining 86% of us.


Some Facebook Wisdom

I’ve been mulling over a Facebook comment to my post a week or so ago about the insanity of Indiana’s single-minded focus on low taxes as the magic medicine for everything and anything that ails us.

A reader named Brian wrote

“I left low tax indianapolis for high-tax Madison, WI. My property taxes for my little suburban ranch are more than double what my parents back in Indy pay for their 2 story in an awesome neighborhood. But, those high taxes pay for good police, good schools and good services. My residential street gets plowed every time it snows. I can send my kid to a public school and not have to worry about the quality of her education- there are some private schools here, but not many, because mostly, they aren’t needed. My family back in Indy all have security systems on their homes. Meanwhile, I’ve gone 3 days forgetting to lock the front door. I have a city that cares about my quality of life. My taxes pay for lake access, bike paths and more parks than I’ve ever seen. I could save money on taxes moving back to Indy. But I’d lose every bit of my savings paying for private versions of the services I get here. And I get the extra satisfaction in knowing that everyone has access to these services, not just suburbanites like me.”

I think this comment highlights a reality that all too often gets buried in the zealotry of the Left/Right debate: the fundamental question we face, especially in cities, isn’t whether we will pay for services. It’s how.

Most of us are unwilling to forgo police and fire protection, garbage collection, paved streets, and schools for our children. Most of us, if survey data is to be believed, also want convenient and reliable public transportation, parks and bike paths.  Many of us are undoubtedly willing to forgo sports arenas and cricket fields, but we all want and need  museums and libraries, as well as the more basic necessities and amenities that make life in urban areas attractive.

Those necessities and amenities cost money, but they cost less when we provide them collectively.

Some day, when time permits, I want to do an experiment. I want to calculate what it would cost to procure these services in the private marketplace. How much would I have to spend to hire private security, contract for fire protection, find a scavenger service to pick up my trash, etc.? (I don’t know how I would even arrange street paving and snow removal–perhaps through a cooperative with my neighbors? And what about sewers? Would private providers charge to hook in, or would we all further damage the environment with private septic systems?) I could pay to use private parks–or join a country club if I could afford that–and of course I’d have no option but to have the considerable expense of a car.

That sort of transactional existence doesn’t sound very attractive, and it would significantly disadvantage poor folks, but let’s assume those considerations aren’t relevant. (They sure aren’t to many of our lawmakers.) One thing seems clear: the costs involved would be far in excess of what I pay in property taxes.

The point is, our interminable debate about “taxes” and “tax rates” is profoundly misleading. We have no choice but to provide local governments with the funds needed to provide a reasonable quality of communal life.

We can legitimately argue about cronyism, whether a given administration is operating efficiently, and about whether obvious “extras” like sports arenas are justified, but when we make a virtue of starving the public sector of basic operating income, we shouldn’t be shocked when local politicians rob Peter to pay Paul by selling off public goods and trading our long-term interests for short-term cash.

Think about that the next time you flush.