Thu, Jul

Jesus Christ, “Superstar” Cities


WATCHING LA DENSIFY - According to Dean Martin, “You’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you.” 

Undoubtedly, the density fetishizing “urbanists” would respond, “What’s love got to do with it?”  For these urban supremacists, it seems, you’re nobody ‘til you live in a “Superstar” city. 

Just what is a “Superstar” city? “Superstar” cities are the urban messiahs that will redeem America by serving as machines of abundance, prosperity, and growth.  If we want to name names, the “Superstar” cities are New York; San Francisco (the Bay Area); Boston; Los Angeles (SoCal); Seattle; Washington, DC. 

All coastal cities.  Forget the heartland.  Forget “flyover” country. 

“Superstar” cities are places where the sun shines brighter (perhaps metaphorically in places like Seattle and New York), the food is better, folks walk around with a song in their hearts, and – most importantly to the economists – there are more job opportunities and people are more productive.  For these economist advocates of the virtues of “Superstar” cities, it’s all about the GDP, and GDP is all about growth. 

Economists like Enrico Moretti, Joseph Gyourko, and Christopher Mayer will all talk about “agglomeration” as the secret sauce for why “Superstar” cities are the fair-haired kids of the urban world, and why all other cities are also-rans or wannabes.  The best and the brightest all live in “Superstar” cities.  “Superstar” cities have the smartest, most talented, most beautiful, most glamourous, and all-around best people.  The best dancers live in “Superstar” cities.  “Superstar” cities are the places where the “superstars” of the economic, cultural, and terpsichorean worlds meet. 

It’s only natural we should be trying to promote and grow “Superstar” cities, isn’t it, because as Mae West once said: “Too much of a good thing is… wonderful.”  “Agglomeration” is the coming together of all of these talents in an orgy of synergy that serves as the economic motor for the entire United States and for the world.  (Thanks to vagaries of the Electoral College and Senate representation, the more populous coastal elite “Superstar” cities become, the more power is ceded to the peons in the rest of the country as a consolation prize). 

And there are absolutely no limits to growth for these “Superstar” cities. There is neither a critical mass, nor a saturation point.  “Superstar” cities metastasize with no end in sight, the fundaments of an ecological and economic Ponzi scheme, emblematic of what Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has decried as “fairy tales of eternal economic growth.” 

Grow or perish.  Join the coastal elite or die. Ignore the allure of the “Superstars” at your own peril. Assimilate or be destroyed.  Ok, maybe it’s not that Borgean, but assimilate or be left to wither on the vine. Rust-belt cities and “flyover” country, you have nobody to blame but yourselves. 

Just one problem with “Superstar” cities, according to their proponents: they’re not big enough.  They’re not dense enough (though it should be stated, for the record, that the four densest urban areas in the US with populations of over a million, in order, are: Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, and New York). 

“Nimby” homeowners and pesky zoning regulations are impeding the further growth of “Superstar” cities to ever new heights of greatness by standing in the way of building enough housing. As a result, the poor unfortunate souls of Dayton, Milwaukee, Toledo, Dubuque, etc. can’t find housing in the “Superstars” to be able to collectively move to the “Superstar” cities in order to take advantage of all the great economic opportunities, not to mention the dance schools. 

Not building enough housing for “flyover” country to be able to move to coastal “Superstar” cities is therefore also having a major impact on America’s collective dancing skills.  We are becoming a third-rate dancing nation. 

Harvard Professor Edward Glaeser 

Aside from Moretti, Gyourko, and Mayer, one of the biggest urban supremacist cheerleaders of “Superstar” cities has been economist and Harvard professor Edward Glaeser.  Glaeser recently co-authored a piece in the Los Angeles Times, which itself has a rich history and legacy of real estate boosterism going back more than a century (not to mention a current owner with significant real estate holdings). 

The op-ed argues that California should effectively deregulate the housing market, eliminate zoning, force further densification upon cities and neighborhoods, and allow big developers to run riot to their hearts’ content. In the words of the Google blurb for the article: “Only big developers can make California housing affordable.” 

It’s the kind of radical libertarian/neoliberal take you might expect from someone whose belief in the “unfettered Market” is unshakeable and who thinks that the Tea Party could be good for the country. 

The authors write: “Los Angeles and other California metropolises need abundant housing to become affordable, and they can get it only by empowering private developers to build significant projects.” 

Only through eliminating red tape and permitting hassles, by deregulating and ignoring the objections of “Nimby” homeowners and renters, and by effectively eliminating zoning (and urban planning) can big-scale developers create enough housing to create true housing affordability (and, presumably, superstar profits). 

The authors ask rhetorically: “What sort of movies would Hollywood have created if it had to get a separate permit for every new movie for every theater?”  Glaeser and his co-author aren’t Industry people so they are perhaps to be forgiven if they’ve never heard of the Hays code or the MPA.  They may not understand that film producers generally have a myriad of regulations they have to adhere to, from on-set safety rules to procuring ratings so the films can be shown in theaters.  Of course, each theater did presumably also have to be permitted at the time of its construction, and theaters that have, say, elevators, likely need to get the elevators inspected annually. 

Ok, the knowledge of Hollywood history may have been on the weak side and the comparison between large-scale film production of individual movies and the production of massive amounts of housing may itself not be Professor Glaeser’s most apt analogy, but it is certainly not the article’s biggest howler. 

In addition to dubious comparisons that tend to undermine his main point rather than support it, we can read the following admonition: “Whether politicians like it or not, housing production is indeed governed by the laws of supply and demand.” 

Interesting when one has to remind a Harvard professor of the variables when it comes to the “law” of supply and demand, specifically when it comes to housing.  If one, say, tried invoking the “law” of supply and demand when it came to food, one would be hard-pressed to argue that the overproduction of tomato soup would somehow make food affordable.  Similarly, if there were an unmet demand for Impossible ™ burgers, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to suggest that it would be advisable to promote policies that encourage the production of more red meat. 

If Professor Glaeser really wants to invoke informal, non-physical “laws,” he might seriously consider looking at the law of diminishing returns – which would ultimately disprove his suggestion that unfettering the market would lead to widespread housing affordability – not to mention Lawler’s Law, which since 1996, has been correct over 92% of the time. 

So let’s look at the “demand side,” which, notwithstanding the supply-siders’ obsession with production, is counterpoised with demand.  After all, even Professor Glaeser doesn’t refer to the “laws of supply and supply” or the “laws of supply or demand.” And when it comes to housing, the kind of housing that a vast majority of Americans – across the board, of all stripes – prefers is less dense forms of accommodation, led by single-family homes in single-family neighborhoods, notwithstanding the density fetishism of the urban supremacists. 

Maybe Glaeser is less concerned with the demand of actual Americans who need a place to live and would like to become homeowners (leaving out the whole anti-homeownership rhetoric of Glaeser and his crew of would-be deregulators) than with inducing demand among speculators, who are expanding their tentacles to the housing market. A libertarian like Glaeser may not be concerned about collusion or the impact it may have on real people, including housing affordability.  Clearly, a radical libertarian like Glaeser would deny the potential impact of anti-speculation housing policies that would largely restrict the housing market to people who need places to live.  The professor’s professions of wanting to create housing affordability for real people are belied by the impact of speculators on the market and of how they are well situated to create and take advantage of bubbles.  Far from decrying speculation, Glaeser wants to encourage it with his goal of building enough to meet the demand of the speculators, regardless of its impact on real people. 

The irony of Professor Glaeser’s prescription of forced urban density, the elimination of single-family neighborhoods, and the effective elimination of zoning in order to make “Superstar” cities great again is that the good professor himself lives… you guessed right… in a single-family home in suburban Boston. 

And it’s not just any old single-family home on a 5000 square foot lot.  Nope.  Here’s a telling, real estate-oriented description of Professor Glaeser’s own home: “This charming, elegant 4,500 square foot residence is located on six very private acres and is located just 4 minutes from Weston Center and is totally surrounded by farm and conservation land.” 

And here Professor Glaeser is much like other density fetishizing dogmatists who themselves live in homes with gardens.  Trying to mitigate the unmistakable hypocrisy of it all, they sometimes use such formulations to self-identify as “a YIMBY homeowner who believes there’s plenty of room on his block for more neighbors.” 

In other words: “I got my $3 million California Craftsman house with a garden. Now you can live in a small, shitty rental apartment down the street.”  Of course, in their devotion to the “laws” of supply and demand, these generous souls will also recognize that building apartments that reduce the number of single-family homes in their own neighborhood might enhance the value of their own properties. Creating scarcity for in-demand single-family homes by claiming to welcome “more neighbors” is a neat way to increase the value of their own home while feigning concern for new neighbors who themselves aren’t afforded the lifestyle choice or opportunity to live in a beautiful Craftsman home. 

We have an expression in Swedish, perhaps more appropriate in this instance than the English, more clerical version with its reference to “preaching.” “Man ska leva som man lär” (“one should live as one teaches”) which seems appropriate for a teacher. It’s an expression that Glaeser’s co-author, who grew up in Sweden, would understand.  A paraphrase of Gore Vidal might, however, seem more appropriate in this instance: they are giving hypocrisy a bad name. 

In the past, Glaeser has co-authored articles and papers with fellow urban supremacist academics such as Moretti and Gyourko.  Why would the author of a book whose diction seems inspired by Leni Riefenstahl, “The Triumph of the City,” choose a rando like Atta Tarki to jointly write the op-ed? 

Professor Glaeser’s co-author 

Just who is Atta Tarki? 

Tarki isn’t just any old rando; he’s the founder of a consulting firm, whose website makes clear they are in “The Business of Growth.”  He’s also the author of a personnel recruitment handbook: “Evidence-Based Recruiting: How to Build a Company of Star Performers Through Systematic and Repeatable Hiring Practices.” 

So, we have a personnel recruitment professional the basis of whose business is to hire “superstar” employees. “Superstar” employees for “Superstar” cities, you might say.  Makes sense somehow. 

From the journalistic perspective, Glaeser may have picked Tarki because of Tarki’s ownership of the Swedish publication “Bulletin,” which provides a right-wing (in Swedish terms) perspective on journalism in Sweden. It should be noted that those sharing Glaeser’s libertarian views in America are decidedly more right-wing than almost anyone in Sweden. 

Tarki’s efforts to hire a team of “superstars” don’t seem to have worked out so well.  In one notorious meeting, Tarki, the board chairman of Bulletin, switched off Swedish journalist Alice Teodorescu’s microphone as she was speaking, evidently saying something not to his liking.  Teodorescu’s response became an instant classic in Swedish journalism circles: “Don’t mute me like a fucking dictator.” 

For their handling of the Bulletin situation (where Tarki ended up firing all of the “superstar” journalists), Tarki and his college buddy board members were described in the Swedish press as “completely unprofessional narcissists.” 

Their strategy, according to Swedish journalist Johannes Klenell: “Tear down all the rules.  It’s all about winning the game.”  He goes on to note that it’s no wonder that Tarki and his college buddy board members “don’t seem to know at all what they’re doing.” 

Tarki may not consider his fellow Swede Greta Thunberg to be a “superstar” and he doesn’t seem to share her concern about “fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”  But then again, why would he?  He’s in “the business of growth.”  As is Glaeser. 

Unlike Glaeser, however, Tarki doesn’t live on six acres. He “only” lives in a 2500 square foot townhome in Santa Monica just blocks from the beach.  The value of this townhome is comparable to Professor Glaeser’s estate; this represents Tarki’s personal housing-lifestyle choice, and if he wanted a house on acreage in a lovely community outside of another “Superstar” city, he could very well afford it.  However, Tarki’s somewhat more urban setting means he probably doesn’t have to, like Glaeser, “dream of the city every night.” 

Dream a little dream of density 

But what Glaeser evidently forgets in his zeal to “push people into higher density living,” is that not all Americans share his dream of the city, especially because his version of the city is a “Superstar.”  By ignoring most of the country and looking to grow “Superstar” cities at the expense of the rest of the country, Glaeser and the other urban supremacists, look to impose their own dreams on everyone else.  In many ways, this advocacy has the character of religious fanatics who are intent upon imposing their own religion on everyone else.  There is a basic lack of tolerance in the kind of urban supremacism being prescribed by these density zealots. 

While Professor Glaeser is dreaming of the city in his 4500 square foot mansion on his secluded six acres (but still just four minutes from the town center), others are dreaming of having a bit more space of their own, of not hearing their neighbors through the walls, and maybe even of having a garden.  A lot of others, in fact. 

Whether Harvard economics professors like it or not, the reality is that a vast majority of Americans of all stripes don’t share Glaeser’s dream.  As Yimby professor Jessica Trounstine was shocked to discover and forced to admit in her research on the subject, “Recent work suggests that opposition to density may be widespread.”  She then goes on to note: “Across every demographic sub-group analyzed, respondents preferred single-family home developments by a wide margin.” 

This bears repeating: “Across every demographic sub-group analyzed, respondents [i.e. real people] preferred single-family home developments by a wide margin.” 

So, no, single-family neighborhoods, notwithstanding the urban supremacist dogma, are not examples of “exclusionary zoning” (to use the Orwellian doublespeak of the urban supremacists and density fetishists), but rather represent the strong lifestyle-housing preference of a vast majority of Americans of all stripes, colors, and ethnicities. 

Whether Harvard economics professors like it or not, the demand side of the “supply and demand” equation indeed matters.  If Professor Glaeser is serious about his embrace of supply and demand, then he should be advocating for policies that would lead to a greater supply of the kind of housing people are actually demanding.  

But that will never happen, and for good reason: there is both a dismissiveness and hubris about the urban supremacist embrace of “Superstar” cities that isn’t just ignoring the potential of the rest of the country, but is also dehumanizing in its basic Weltanschauung. 

Glaeser might argue that “Superstar” cities are inherently more productive, whether most people want to live in them or not, but this focus on production (and GDP) is to reduce human beings to widgets, whose sole function is to “produce,” like milk cows.  His willingness to cede control of neighborhoods and cities to massive corporate real estate interests, thereby fueling speculation, and his push to force densification is both anti-homeownership and anti-middle-class. 

One wonders if Professor Glaeser shouldn’t be an instructor at Hårvård U rather than Harvard.  As Atta Tarki would know, ”Hårvård” in Swedish means “Hair Care,” as in a hair salon.  Glaeser seems so interested in giving the American middle-class a haircut for the benefit of corporate developers that Hårvård would really be a better fit. 

“Do you think you’re what they say you are?” 

Though he likely doesn’t share the Swedish values behind it, Glaeser’s writing partner might also be familiar with the Swedish phrase: Hela landet ska leva. “The whole country should thrive.” 

Where opportunity is overconcentrated – though there may never be such a thing as an overconcentration of opportunity for urban supremacists like Glaeser – the natural remedy is to deconcentrate opportunity. Allowing the whole country to thrive means creating Swedish-style policies with the understanding that cities and urban areas come in all sizes and shapes, policies that would allow individuals choices about where and how they live.  With the proven effectiveness of remote work, we have many more options to share opportunities throughout the country that weren’t available in the past.  As is the case in Sweden, a strong broadband infrastructure throughout the entire country should be a priority. The whole country should thrive. 

It may be impossible for New Yorker urban supremacists like Glaeser to understand why and how someone from Dayton might actually love her own community and might never want to move to his “Superstar” cities. Glaeser probably would have a difficult time understanding why residents of Tulsa might not view their own hometown as a “superstar,” but that’s because they don’t have the arrogance of navel-gazing “superstars.” Tulsans might not say that Tulsa is better than any other place, but they’ll be damned if it ain’t just as good. 

It may not be easy for a hubristic New Yorker to understand that for many, bigger is not always better. 

California has been losing population. Glaeser and other urban supremacists will argue it’s mainly because of the high cost of housing. But even another recent LA Times article that attempted to explain the California exodus acknowledges, “People who are leaving are much more likely to be homeowners after they leave.” In other words, elsewhere they can afford the kind of housing that a vast majority of Americans prefer. In other words, they can afford to purchase a single-family home elsewhere.  Providing a supply of something people don’t want is hardly the solution, however much real estate interests may feel it would maximize profits. And yet, a radical libertarian deregulation of the California housing market based on shoehorning Americans into density would hardly provide those leaving the state with an incentive to stay.  Quite the opposite. 

That said, a stabilized population for California is actually a good thing.  Because increasing levels of urban density is the exact opposite of what most people dream of, forcing density by eliminating zoning, by destroying single-family neighborhoods, and by letting for-profit developers ride roughshod over communities could convince still more Californians who don’t buy into the whole fantasy of “Superstar” cities that the grass is greener elsewhere and that it’s okay for people to want to have their own little yards.  People still get to vote with their feet. 

Though it may be hard for Professor Glaeser to believe, not everyone thinks New York is the greatest place in the universe.  Glaeser and his density fetishizing colleagues ignore the dark sides of density and “agglomeration,” mainly the human side, which cannot be measured in GDP. There are people who may enjoy visiting the Big Apple and other densely populated “Superstar” cities but who suffer loneliness, social isolation, and other symptoms of anomie when living in big cities.  In fact, researchers have tied density levels with anomie. It’s an area that begs for more studies and research, but the results are hardly surprising. Cities can be great places for some, but for others they are places of quiet desperation and suffering. 

But you will never read that in the LA Times.  While the LA Times refuses to publish anything by anyone who may question the agenda of forced density, they happily publish an op-ed by a guy whose claim to fame is muting journalists “like a fucking dictator.” 

With their history of real estate boosterism, the LA Times would have to acknowledge clearly that growth, even if unsustainable, is nonetheless very profitable (especially for their land-rich owner). 

In their seminal rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice query: “I only ask what I’d ask any superstar. What is it that you have got that puts you where you are?” 

If we’re talking about “Superstar” cities, for many people, no matter what the urban supremacists decree, the answer is: Not much.  Not for us, at least. We love our own communities, thank you very much. No need for us to move to a “Superstar” city.  If you want to help us, then work to allow the entire country – including our own communities -- to thrive, thank you very much. 

Professor Glaeser may think that “You’re nobody ‘til you live in a “Superstar” city and that if “you can make it there (i.e. New York or another “Superstar” city), you can make it anywhere” (and, conversely, “if you can’t make it there, you’re not worth my time”).  But as the Beatles asked: “All the lonely people, (ah, look at all the lonely people), where do they all belong?” 

For many people, no matter what the urban supremacists decree, the answer is: any place but “Superstar” cities.


(John Mirisch was elected to the Beverly Hills City Council in 2009 and has served three terms as mayor. He is currently a garden-variety councilmember and a contributor to CityWatchLA.com.)