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Cities and Pandemics: A Long History

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Cities and Pandemics: A Long History

10 Blocks podcast April 22, 2020
Covid-19
Cities
Economy, finance, and budgets

Edward L. Glaeser joins Brian Anderson to discuss the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic on city life in America, the connection between urban density and contagious disease, how to prepare for the threat of future outbreaks, and the economic-policy response of leaders in Washington.

As New York enters its second month under effective lockdown, Glaeser reminds us that “density and connection to the outside world—the defining characteristics of great cities—can also turn deadly.” Contagious disease has always been the enemy of urban life; overcoming it in the past has required massive investments in sanitary infrastructure. The current pandemic could prove a long-run disaster for urban residents and workers unless public fear is alleviated.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to 10 Blocks. This is your host, Brian Anderson. Joining us on today's show is Edward Glaeser. Ed is the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard. He's a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a long time City Journal contributing editor. He's the author of a number of books, perhaps most notably the bestselling Triumph of the City, which came out in 2011. Ed can best be described as the godfather of modern urban economics. We're proud to have him write for City Journal and to have them on the podcast today. His most recent piece for us was just released online over the weekend and appears in our new Spring 2020 issue. It's entitled “Cities and Pandemics Have a Long History.” And speaking of that issue we have just announced the Spring 2020 number. It is the first issue we have ever produced remotely and has a cover package, an extensive package, exploring the current crisis. It's called “World War Virus.” And now for our interview with Ed Glaeser.

Ed, thanks for joining us.

Edward Glaeser: Thank you so much for having me on. Brian.

Brian Anderson: We're speaking today obviously at a perilous time for cities. It's been over a month now since the staff at City Journal and the Manhattan Institute have commuted to our offices. We've been putting out the website and putting together our latest issue remotely. The business sector in the city, much of the city, is really now like something out of a ghost story or a post-apocalyptic scenario. It seems empty of life at times with the roads, empty cafes shuttered. You've made your career really extolling the virtues of cities. The subtitle of your book that I mentioned, Triumph of the City is how our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier. In this piece, you warn though that pandemics could make the downside of density quite severe for the future of cities. So perhaps we can start there. What does it mean in your view for American cities, you know, hit by this virus? What, what do you, what do you think the short term is looking like and then we can move to some of the longterm? 

Edward Glaeser: Well, in the short term, urban life has been effectively shut down. I mean at its heart, cities are the absence of physical space between people. They are density, proximity, closeness, and they are the opposite of social distancing. What we are doing right now and keeping significant amounts of space between us, us and other members of our own species is we're functionally de urbanizing. Because we've come to the conclusion that the downsides of density in this particular moment outweigh the upsides. And we should never have been confused about this risk. Right? Cities have been dealing with pandemics for thousands of years of all the demons that come with density. And there, there are many crime congestion, high housing costs, but of all of them, contagious disease is the more, most terrible. And it has been for thousands of years since it laid low. The Athens of [inaudible] and killed [inaudible] himself. And we have in some sense lived through a blessed century since the influenza pandemic of 1920 where our cities have been remarkably healthier when life expectancy has been several years longer in New York city than it has been outside of the U S but there was always the risk of, of plague returning. And so at least in the short one, we're experiencing the sort of full brunt of it where we've returned to a sort of medieval quarantined state where we're all as far away from each other as we possibly can be.

Brian Anderson: You note in that piece that in the 19th century American cities spent as much on clean water as the federal government spent on everything else, but for the post office and the military, what kind of efforts did it take to make cities healthier places, especially over the last 100 years.

Edward Glaeser: So I think at the fight for clean water as being essentially 120, 130 year battle, starting with the public water system in Philadelphia moving them through the Croton aqueduct in New York in the 1840s, and then covering all of the midsize cities as well. And these were incredibly valuable investments in terms of life expectancy in terms of banishing the plagues like Colorado that had stalked our, our cities. But they certainly were not cheap and they required not just engineering, but incentives and institutions. It's not as if the death rates immediately dropped once the Crow knackered up was open for 25 years after the Croton accurate duck began. The flow of water in New York continued to suffer from cholera. And it wasn't until you had the metropolitan board of health under Dr. Steven Smith who started requiring tenement owners to connect to the water that you started seeing really meaningful differences in the health of the city. So it really was a social, you know, battle to try and make our cities healthier. And I think in the same way that, that this became a sort of consuming passion for 19th century urbanites. If the pandemic doesn't go away on its own, if this becomes a regular feature of urban life, I suspect that this will become something of a consuming passion for 21st century urbanites as well.

Brian Anderson: You note in the piece as well that this is going to have significant implications for certain sectors of the economy. Perhaps we could expand a little bit on that. You know, New York is a city that really benefits from tourism, from café-life. What, what the post pandemic city look like? At least before we get some kind of vaccine

Edward Glaeser: One fifth of American workers are in leisure and hospitality and retail trade. These are the sectors that are on the front line of this. In some sense like you want to think about a broad pattern where American workers moved first from farms into factories and then as factories de urbanized and replaced workers with machines, they moved increasingly to services because that was the one thing that it wasn't easier for a machine or a robot to replace a human being. Right? I mean, you could have a machine that can make you a perfectly good latte, but they can't make you feel good about yourself by smiling at you when they sell it to you. And so the one place where less well educated Americans have moved and have found some form of an employment security is in these service sectors and they are exactly the most vulnerable ones.

And if we're not going to have a world in which we're comfortable with face to face contact, then I really fear for a third of the American labor force that, that it's going to be very hard to do things that are not replaced by machines. And I think again, that just reiterated the need for us to figure out something that actually gets us back to a world in which we are comfortable being around other human beings. Again. Do you think that this crisis is going to finally result in the death of distance or you know, a significant increase in remote work in which people can really situate themselves anywhere and what would be the broader economic implications of that? So there are two versions of this hypothesis, one of which is, well, we always should have been doing remote work and what we're learning from the pandemic is that real remote work isn't that bad.

I don't personally believe that very much, but it is possible. I mean, personally I'm finding remote work fairly annoying and I really do miss seeing my friends and colleagues and students in person. But that is one view and if that view is, is true, then we will move towards more room or working regardless. The other view which I subscribe to more strongly is that remote working is a substitute. It's a far from perfect substitute. But if the risk of pandemic continues, then we will sure as heck do more remote working because in fact it, it's better than it's better than nothing. If that is the new normal, if there's a new normal that pandemics continue then indeed this will be a deeply problematic thing for our highly dense cities. That in fact if face to face contact and face-to-face working becomes less prevalent than the cities that enable that work and that enable that contact become far less far less relevant.

I mean in that sense the plague is a sort of direct body bow blow at the, the embrace of a highly future. Now I would guess personally because I don't subscribe to the first few that I'm optimistic that we will invest what we need to make this pandemic a one=off thing rather than a recurring part of life. Certainly I am not ready at this point in time to accept that this will be the, the new status quo. And if we do bring the pandemics under control, my guess is we get back to something like what we had in December, 2019. But again, that requires us to actually make the investments we need to, that we once made in the 19th century to make our cities healthy again.

Brian Anderson: It's pretty clear that New York City was not particularly well prepared to handle the crisis at the outset. There was a significant shortage of masks and gloves for city healthcare workers. You know, there, there were obvious problems with the capacity of, of hospitals to accept patients, although they, they have weathered that and dealt with the crisis very effectively over time. I wonder if you could suggest what, what your views are on bolstering city defenses going forward. What do we need to do to make the next pandemic or a further wave of this one, less destructive?

Edward Glaeser: It's, it's a great and an important question and in some sense, at the same time we can feel nothing but enormous gratitude and enormous admiration at the front line medical personnel who are risking their lives. On a daily basis to try and care for the, for the pandemic suffers. And at the same time, we can be a little outraged at the failure. It's not just the city, it's national preparation that we have had. We had warnings in H1N1, we had warnings in the SARS epidemic. We've had warnings that in particular a, in a water droplet born pandemic was a possibility for many, many years. Right? And that's the one, if you think about the ways that pandemics spread, that's the one that was always going to be the hardest to eradicate the ones that are carried by animals. You know, like mosquitoes or rats you get rid of by draining the swamps, by getting the animals out of the urban areas, the waterborne pandemics you get rid of by making the water supply safe and functional.

The sexually transmitted epidemics or pandemics people addressed with, mostly by changing their, their sexual behavior, but the droplets, the droplets are, are much harder. And so this risk was always there. And ideally we would have been taking this sort of tail risk into account for years, if not for decades. We would have had a national stock of ventilators that can be moved to places that are at most risk. We would have had national and certainly city stocks of masks that, that are in in place. We would have had regularly monitoring at a global level of whenever the stuff breaks out anywhere. And we would engage in sensible precautions around banning air travel to affected places at a very quick pace. So I hope that this is what moves goes forward with this. And I think if you think about the trillions of dollars that are being destroyed through this, both through the loss of life and the, the incredible economic dislocation, it is not at all crazy to think about spending tens of billions of dollars to avoid the future loss of, of trillions and hundreds of thousands of lives.

So I think we really do need to take this future risk seriously to invest seriously and sensibly and to make sure that we both stockpiled equipment and to, you know, do whatever we need to do to have the most rapid fire vaccine production that you can possibly have. 

Brian Anderson: Final question, concerns that economic disruption. What is your view of the federal response economically to the pandemic so far? I'm not sure if you've looked at it that closely, but love to get your thoughts. 

Edward Glaeser: Sure. So we just did a paper where we surveyed this in joint with Mike Luka and Marianne Bertrand and some other coauthors where we surveyed small business owners. And their response to the pandemic in New York, about 50% of them said that they were temporarily closed. In terms of restaurants about more than two thirds thought they would survive if the pandemic lasts only a month, but that number drops to less than a third if the pandemic lasts for four months and to less than a fifth that the pandemic last for six months.

So there's a real sense in which America's small business owners who are incredibly vulnerable. The median small business owner who has monthly expenses over $10,000 in our sample has less than two weeks of cash on hand. So it's a very bleak situation. Now, the federal government responded in an enormously open-handed way with the paycheck protection program. And that was originally $349 billion of lending. Some degree of the loans turn into a gift if you meet certain terms around keeping your workers hired, those terms were not exactly clear. And they got an awful lot of money out the door quickly. So much so that they appear to have tapped out the first 349 billion and they're going for more on one level this seems appropriate. On the other level, if the part of me that's been an economist for the last 30 years who's been anxious about governmental waste is a little worried about the scale of this and about the difficulties of directing the money quickly, right?

So, the banks prioritized, of course, borrowers who had long standing relationships with them, who they were easy to process. Those were often not the ones that were most vulnerable. And so this sort of bank managed a recovery program is one that's never going to be great at getting the mom and pop enterprises, which are often the most vulnerable, but it's hard to know how you could get the money out quickly without doing that. So I think it's been, it's been clumsy. It's certainly been wasteful, but it has been large and it does seem to have, you know, created a shot of hope and a bit of a cushion into the system. And I think when you're looking at dislocation on this scale, you're going to have to accept a little bit of waste in the public response.

So I'm not entirely happy with it all, but it's just moving so quickly that I think it's going to be many years before the economics profession has parsed this one apart and decided what they think, what they thought was good or bad on it. I will say just personally, the part of this that I was most enthusiastic about from the beginning was direct aid to Americans earning less than a hundred thousand dollars a year was just direct checks just to make sure that you had, normally I'm quite questioning about things like universal basic income because I think really the long-term goal is to make sure that more Americans are working not less than if you just give people checks. It has a adverse effect on people's employment probabilities. We thought that saw this from the negative income experiments in the 1970s. We see it every time we look at basic labor supply equations, but right now during the pandemic, we're not worried about the fact that people may work a little bit less. And so just giving people checks is the right way to alleviate suffering. But it's also true that this has the capacity to tear apart the fabric of our economy. And so the, the massive lending program may have been appropriate, but I think it's going to take us a while to figure out if it was.

Brian Anderson: Thanks, Ed. Don't forget to check out Glaser's work at City Journal, his latest essay is entitled “Cities and Pandemics Have a Long History.” You can find it on our website and we'll link to it in the description. It's included in our special feature in our brand new issue. You can follow City Journal on Twitter, @CityJournal, and on Instagram at @cityjournal_mi. And always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a rating on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thanks, Ed Glaeser, for joining us.

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