Edward Glaeser - Cities, Terrorism, Housing, & Remote Work
why Cities are resilient to terrorism, remote work, & pandemics, Silicon Valley may collapse, Opioids show UBI is not a solution to AI, & much more!
Edward Glaeser is the chair of the Harvard department of economics, and the author of the best books and papers about cities (including Survival of the City and Triumph of the City).
He explains why:
Cities are resilient to terrorism, remote work, & pandemics,
Silicon Valley may collapse but the Sunbelt will prosper,
Opioids show UBI is not a solution to AI
& much more!
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A huge thanks to Graham Bessellieu for editing this podcast and Mia Aiyana for producing its transcript.
(0:00:00) - Mars, Terrorism, & Capitals
(0:06:32) - Decline, Population Collapse, & Young Men
(0:14:44) - Urban Education
(0:18:35) - Georgism, Robert Moses, & Too Much Democracy?
(0:25:29) - Opioids, Automation, & UBI
(0:29:57) - Remote Work, Taxation, & Metaverse
(0:42:29) - Past & Future of Silicon Valley
(0:48:56) - Housing Reform
(0:52:32) - Europe’s Stagnation, Mumbai’s Safety, & Climate Change
Mars, Terrorism, & Capitals
Dwarkesh Patel 0:00:00
Okay, today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Professor Edward Glaeser, who is the chair of the Harvard Department of Economics, and author of some of the best books and papers about cities. Professor Glazer, thanks for coming on The Lunar Society.
Edward Glaeser 0:00:25
Oh, thank you so much for having me on! Especially given that The Lunar Society pays homage to one of my favorite moments in urban innovation in Birmingham during the 18th century.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:00:26
Oh wow, I didn’t even catch that theme, but that’s a great title. My first question is, What advice would you give to Elon Musk about building the first cities on Mars?
Edward Glaeser 0:00:35
[laughs] That’s a great question. I think that demand for urbanism in Mars is going to be relatively limited. Cities are always shaped by the transportation costs that are dominant in the era in which they’re created. That both determines the micro-shape of the city and determines its macro future. So cities on Mars are, of course, going to be limited by the likely prohibitive cost of traveling back and forth to the mother planet. But we also have to understand what cars people are going to be using on Mars. I assume these are all going to be Teslas, and everyone is going to be driving around in some appropriate Tesla on Mars. So it’s going to be a very car-oriented living experience. I think the best strategy would be to create a fairly flexible plan, much like the 1811 grid plan in New York, that allows entrepreneurs to change land use over time and put a few bets on what’s necessary for infrastructure and then just let the city evolve organically. Usually, the best way is to put more trust in individual initiative than central planning–– at least in terms of micromanaging what goes where.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:01:58
Gotcha. Now, since 9/11, many terrorist groups have obviously intended to cause harm to cities. But by and large, at least in Western countries, they haven’t managed to kill off thousands of people like they were able to do during 9/11. What explains this? Do you think cities are just more resilient to these kinds of attacks than we would have otherwise thought? Or are the terrorists just not being creative enough?
Edward Glaeser 0:02:20
I don’t know. There’s also the question of what the objectives are. Even for the 9/11 terrorists, their end game was not to kill urbanites in America. It was to effect change in Saudi Arabia or in the Middle East more generally. We’ve also protected our cities better. If you think about it, two things go on simultaneously when you collect economic activity in one place in terms of defense: one of which is they become targets–– and of course, that’s what we saw on 9/11; it’s hard to think of a symbol that’s clearer than those twin towers. But at the same time, they’re also a defensible space. The origin of the urban agglomeration and use for cities and towns was the fact that they could be walled settlements. Those walls that brought together people collectively for defense are the ultimate reason why these towns came about. The walls provided protection.
I think the same thing has been playing out with cities over the past 20 years. Just as New York was a target, it was also a place where post-2001, the city ramped up its anti-terrorism efforts. They put together a massive group as London had previously done. The cameras that implemented congestion pricing in London were the same cameras that used against the Irish terrorists. So both effects went on. I think we’ve been fortunate and that we’ve shown the strength of cities in terms of protecting themselves.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:03:52
If you look throughout ancient world history, there are so many examples of empires that are basically synonymous with their capital cities (ex. Rome or Athens, or Sparta). But today, you would never think of America as the ‘Washingtonian Empire.’ What is the explanation for why the capital city has become much less salient in terms of the overall nation? Is there a Coasian answer here?
Edward Glaeser 0:04:20
There are specific things that went on with English offshoot colonies where in many cases, because they recognized the tendency of the capital city to attract lots of excess goodies that had been taken from elsewhere in the country, they located the capital city in a remote place. It’s actually part of the story of the Hamilton musical in The Room Where it Happens. Part of the deal was about moving the capital of the US to a relatively remote Virginia location rather than having it be in Philadelphia, New York. That was partially to reflect the fact that the South needed to be protected against all of the extra assets going to New York and Philadelphia.
So, whether or not this is Canberra or Ottawa, you see all of these English offshoot places without their capitals in the big metropoles. Whereas traditionally, what’s happened in these places that have been around for centuries, is that even if the capital didn’t start off as the largest city, it became the largest city because centuries of French leaders thought their business was to take wealth from elsewhere in France and make Paris great. I think the French Empire was as synonymous with Paris as most of those ancient empires were with their capital city. I guess the question I could throw back to you is, what are places where this is not true? Moscow, St. Peter’s, and Beijing are examples. Do we think that Beijing is less synonymous with China than the Roman Empire is with Rome? Maybe a little–– possibly just because China is so big and Beijing is a relatively small share of the overall population of China. But it’s more so certainly than Washington, D.C. is with the U.S.
Decline, Population Collapse, & Young Men
Dwarkesh Patel 0:06:32
That’s a really interesting answer. Once a city goes through a period of decline (maybe an important industry moved out, or maybe it’s had a sequence of bad governance), are you inclined to bet that there will be some sort of renewal, or do you think that things will continue to get worse? In other words, are you a momentum trader, or are you a reversion to the mean trader when it comes to cities?
Edward Glaeser 0:06:54
I can tell you different answers for different outcomes. For housing prices, I can tell you exactly what we know statistically about this, which is at higher frequencies, let’s say one year, housing prices show wickedly large levels of momentum. For five years or more, they show very significant levels of mean reversion. It’s a short-term cycle in housing prices followed by decline. Population just shows enormous persistence on the downside. So what happens is you typically will have an economic shock. Detroit used to be the most productive place on the planet in 1950, but a bunch of shocks occurred in transportation technology which made it no longer such a great place to make cars for the world. It takes a century for the city to respond in terms of its population because the housing is sticky.
The housing remains there. So between the 50s and 60s, the population declines a little bit, and prices drop. They drop sufficiently far that you’re not going to build a lot of new housing, but people are going to still stay in the houses. They’re not going to become vacant. So, the people are still there because the houses are still there. During the 60s to 70s, the population drops a little bit further and prices kind of stay constant, but still it’s not enough to build new housing. So the declines are incredibly persistent, and growth is less so. So on the boom side, you have a boom over a 10-year period that’s likely to mean revert and it’s not nearly as persistent because it doesn’t have this sticky housing element to it. In terms of GDP per capita, it’s much more of a random walk there in terms of the straight income stuff. It’s the population that’s really persistent, which is, in fact, the reality of a persistent economy.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:08:44
Interesting. Why don’t Americans move as much as they used to a century ago? So you have a paper from 2018 titled Jobs in the Heartland, where you talk about how there’s increasing divergence between the unemployment rates between different parts of America. Why don’t Americans just move to places where there are better economic circumstances?
Edward Glaeser 0:09:04
I want to highlight one point here, which is that you said “unemployment rate”, and I want to replace that with non-employment rate. That’s partially what we’re seeing now. It looks like America’s labor force couldn’t be better in terms of the low levels of unemployment, but what’s happened over the last 50 years is there has been a very large rise in the share of prime-age men who are not in the labor force. So they’ve stopped looking for work, and those guys are miserable. It’s not that those guys are somehow rather productive and happy,–– this is a very bad outcome for prime-age men. I’m separating men from women, not to say that the female labor markets aren’t just as important, just as fascinating, just as critical. But labor force participation means something different for many women than it does for men. There are many women who are not in the labor force who are doing things that are enormously productive socially, like caring for their children and caring for their families.
I wish it were symmetric across the genders. It just isn’t true. I mean, there just are very few men not in the labor force who are doing anything much other than watching television. It’s just a very different thing. So yes, there are big differences in the non-employment rate. There are some parts of America where, for much of the past decade, one in four prime-age men have been jobless. It’s an enormous gap. The question is, why don’t they get out?
I think the answer is really twofold: one of which is the nature of how housing markets have frozen up. Historically, the differences in housing costs in the US weren’t that huge across places. Most parts of America had some kind of affordable housing, and it was relatively easy to put up. At the dawn of the 20th century, these were kit helms sold by Sears and Roebuck that sprung up by the thousand. You bought the kit from Sears and Roebuck, and you just built it yourself. After World War II, it was mass-produced homes in places like Levittown.
For most of the last 50 years, in places like coastal California or the East Coast, building has just become far more difficult. With the decline of mass-produced housing, it’s become far more expensive, and it becomes harder and harder for relatively low-income people to find opportunities in places that have high levels of income, and high levels of opportunity. That’s partially why there’s not just a general decline in mobility, there’s a decline in directed mobility for the poor. Historically, poor people moved from poor areas to rich areas. That’s pretty much stopped. In part, that’s because rich areas just have very, very expensive housing. The other thing is the rising importance of the informal safety net.
So if you think about most particularly prime-aged men, they’re not receiving significant handouts from the government except if they’re on disability. But they will typically have some form of income, some form of housing that’s being provided for them by someone other than themselves. A third of them are living in their parent's homes. That informal safety net is usually very place dependent. Let’s say you’re living in Eastern Kentucky; it’s not like your parents were going to buy you a condo in San Francisco. You can still have your own bedroom, but you can’t go anywhere else and still get that level of support. And so that’s, I think, another reason why we’re increasingly stuck in place.
The third you mentioned, is that a third of the non-employed population of young men or is that a third of all young men? Non-employed is a third of non-employed prime aged men. So that’s 25 to 54. There are a lot of 45 year olds who are living on their parents’ couches or in their old bedroom. It’s a fairly remarkable thing.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:12:49
Now, we’ll get to housing in just a second, but first, I want to ask you: If the fertility trends in East Asia and many other places continue, what will the impact on cities be if the average age gets much older and the possible eventuality of depopulation?
Edward Glaeser 0:12:53
That’s a really interesting question.The basic age fact on cities is that within the bracket of the sort of high-income or middle-income, for prime-aged parents, cities tend to be relatively bad for them. Once you’re in the sort of high end of the upper middle class, the distrust of our public school systems, merited or not, means that that group tends to leave. You have plenty of parents with kids who are lower income, and then you have groups who are part of a demographic barbell that like cities. So this is partially about people who don’t feel like they need the extra space and partially because if they’re young, they’re looking to find prospective mates of various forms.
Cities are good for that. Urban proximity works well in the dating market. And they’ve got time on their hands to enjoy the tremendous amenities and consumption advantages that cities have. For older people, it’s less about finding a mate typically, but the urban consumption amenity still has value. The ability to go to museums, the ability to go to concerts, and those sorts of activities continue to draw people in.
Going forward, I would have continued to expect the barbell dimension to persist until we actually get around to solving our urban schools and declining population levels. If anything, I would have thought that COVID skews you a bit younger because older people are more anxious and remember that cities can also bring pandemics. They remember that it can be a nice thing to have a suburban home if you have to shelter in place. So that might lead some people who would have otherwise relocated to a dense urban core to move out, to stay out.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:14:44
You just mentioned urban schools, and I’m curious because you’ve written about how urban schools are one of the reasons people who have children might not want to stay in cities. I’m curious why it’s the case that American cities have some of the best colleges in the world, but for some reason, their K-to-12 is significantly worse, or it can be worse than the K-to-12 in other parts of the country. Why is it that the colleges are much better in cities, but K to 12 is worse?
Edward Glaeser 0:15:19
So it’s interesting. It’s not as if, I don’t think there’s ever been an Englishman who felt like they had to leave London to get better schools for the kids, or a Frenchman who thought they needed to leave Paris. It’s not like there’s something that’s intrinsic to cities, but I’ve always thought it’s a reflection of the fact that instead of allowing all of the competition and entrepreneurship that thrives in cities and that makes cities great, in the case of K to 12 public education, that’s vanished.
And your example of colleges is exactly right. I’m in this industry; I’m a participant in this industry and let me tell you, this industry is pretty competitive. Whether or not we’re competing for the best students, at our level we go through an annual exercise of trying to make sure we get Ph.D. students to come to our program instead of our competitors, whether it’s by hiring faculty members or attracting undergraduates, we occupy a highly competitive industry where we are constantly aware of what we need to do to make ourselves better. It doesn’t mean that we’re great along every dimension, but at least we’re trying. K through 12 education has a local monopoly.
So it’s like you take the great urban food, leisure and hospitality, and food industries, and instead of having in New York City by a hyper-competitive world where you constantly have entry, you say, “You know what? We’re going to have one publicly managed canteen and it’s going to provide all the food in New York City and we’re not going to allow any competitors or the competitors are going to have to pay a totally different thing.” That canteen is probably going to serve pretty crappy food. That’s in some sense what happens when you have a large-scale public monopoly that replaces private competition.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:16:50
But isn’t that also true of rural schools? Why are urban schools often worse?
Edward Glaeser 0:17:46
There’s much more competition in suburban schools. So in terms of the suburban schools, typically there are lots of suburbs, and people are competing amongst them. The other thing that’s actually important is (I don’t want to over exaggerate this, but I think it is something that we need to think a little bit about) the role of public sector unions and particularly teachers unions in these cases. In the case of a suburban school district, the teachers union is no more empowered on the management side than they would be in the private sector.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:17:30
So in a normal private sector, you’ve got a large company, you’ve got a union, and they’re arguing with each other. It’s a level playing field. It’s all kind of reasonable. I’m not saying management has done awful things, and that unions have done foolish things. I’m not saying that either are perfect, but it’s kind of well-matched. It’s matched that way in the suburbs as well. You’ve got highly empowered parents who are highly focused on their kids and they’re not dominated.
It’s not like the teachers union dominates elections in Westchester County. Whereas if you go into a big city school district, you have two things going on. One of which is the teachers tend to be highly involved politically and quite capable of influencing management essentially, because they are an electoral force to be reckoned with, not just by the direct votes, but also with their campaign spending. On top of this, you’re talking about a larger group of disparate parents, many of whom have lots of challenges to face and it becomes much harder for them to organize effectively on the other side. So for those reasons, big urban schools can do great things and many individual teachers can be fantastic, but it’s an ongoing challenge.
Georgism, Robert Moses, & Too Much Democracy?
Dwarkesh Patel 0:18:35
What is your opinion on Georgism? Do cities need a land value tax? Would it be better if all the other taxes are replaced by one?
Edward Glaeser 0:18:41
Okay. So Henry George, I don’t know any economist who doesn’t think that a land value tax is an attractive idea. The basic idea is we’re going to tax land rather than taxing real estate values. And you would probably implement this in practice by evaluating the real estate and then subtracting the cost of construction, (at least for anything that was built up, meaning you’d form some value of the structures and you just subtract it).
The attractive thing from most of our perspectives is it doesn’t create the same disincentive to build that a real estate tax does. Real estate tax says, “Oh, you know what? I might want to keep this thing as a parking lot for a couple of years so I don’t have to pay taxes on it.”
If it were a land value tax, you’re going to pay the same tax, whether or not it’s a parking lot or whether or not you’re going to put a high rise on it, so you might as well put the high rise on it and we could use the space. So I think by and large, that’s a perfectly sensible idea. I’d like to see more places using land value taxes or using land value taxes in exchange for property taxes.
Where George got it wrong is the idea that a land value tax is going to solve all the problems of society or all the problems of cities. That is ludicrously not true.
One could make an argument that in those places that just have a property tax, you could replace it with a land value tax with little loss, but at the national level, it’s not a particularly progressive tax in lots of ways. It would be hard to figure out how to fund all the things you want to fund, especially since there are lots of things that we do that are not very land intensive. I think George was imagining a world in which pretty much all value-creating enterprises had a lot of land engaged. So it’s a good idea, yes. A panacea, no.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:20:20
No, that’s a good point. I mean, Google’s offices in San Francisco are probably generating more value than you would surmise just from the quantity of land they have there. Do American cities need more great builders like Robert Moses?
Edward Glaeser 0:20:36
Robert Caro’s The Power Broker is one of the great biographies of the past 100 years, unquestionably. The only biography that I think is clearly better is Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, right? I mean, it’s Caro is truly amazing. That being said, I would not exactly call it a fair and balanced view of Robert. I mean, it is true that Robert Moses was high handed, and it is true that there are things that he did that were terrible, that you never want to do again. But on the other hand, the man got stuff built. I mean, I think of myself as a child growing up in New York City, and whether or not it was the public pool that I swam in or the parks that I played in, or the roads that I traveled on, they were all delivered by Robert Moses. There’s got to be a middle ground, which is, no, we’re not going to run roughshod over the neighborhood as Robert Moses did, but we’re still going to build stuff. We’re still going to deliver new infrastructure and we’re not going to do it for 10 times more than every other country in the world does it.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:21:37
We’re actually going to have sensible procurement policies that bring in things at a reasonable cost, and I think we need to balance a little bit back towards Robert Moses in order to have slightly more empowered builders who actually are able to deliver American cities the infrastructure they need at an affordable cost.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:21:57
Do we have too much democracy at the local level? You wrote a paper in 2017 titled The Political Economy of Transportation Investments and one of the points you make there is that the local costs are much more salient to people for new construction than the public benefits, and the benefits to newcomers would be. Does that mean we have too much federalism? Should we just have far less power at the city level and not universally? There are lots of good things that local control does.
Edward Glaeser 0:22:25
I do think we have too much local ability to say no to new housing projects. So that’s a particular case that I’m focused on. I think it’s exactly right that the near neighbors to a project internalize all of the extra noise and perhaps extra traffic that they’re going to have due to this project. They probably overestimate it because they are engaging in a bit of status quo bias and they think the present is great and can’t imagine any change.
By contrast, none of the people who would benefit from the new project are able to vote. All of the families that would love to move into this neighborhood are being zoned out by the insiders who get a say. I think the goal is to make sure that we have more ability to speak for outsiders. Cities at their best, are places where outsiders can find opportunities. That’s part of what’s so great about them. It’s a tragic thing that we make that so hard. Now I’m not sure exactly that I’m claiming that I want less democracy, but I do want more limitations on how much regulations localities can do. So I think there are certain limitations on local power that I think are fine.
I would prefer to call this not a limitation on local democracy, but an increase in the protection of individual rights or the individual rights of landowners to do what they want with their land. Which in effect, is a limit on democracy. But the Bill of Rights is a limit on democracy! The Bill of Rights says that they don’t care if 51% of your voters want to take away your right to free assembly. They’re not allowed to do that. So in some sense, what I’m just arguing for is more property owners’ rights so that they can actually allow more housing in their building.
In terms of transportation projects, it’s a little bit dicier because here the builder is the government itself. I think the question is you want everyone to have a voice. You don’t want every neighborhood to have a veto over every potential housing project or potential transportation project. So you need something that is done more at the state level with representation from the locality, but without the localities getting the ultimate say
Dwarkesh Patel 0:24:33
I wonder if that paper implies that I should be shorting highly educated areas, at least in terms of real estate. One of the things you mentioned in the paper was that highly educated areas that had much higher opposition were able to foment much more opposition.
Edward Glaeser 0:24:49
Okay. So here’s the real estate strategy, which I have heard that actually there are buyers who do this. You take an area that has historically been very pro-housing. So it’s got lots of housing, and it’s affordable right now because supply is good. But lots of educated people have moved in. Which means that going forward, they’re going to build much less, which means that going forward, they’re likely to become much more expensive. So you should, in fact, buy options on that stuff rather than shorting it. You should short if you have a security that is related to the population level in that community. You should short that because the population growth is going to go down, but the prices are likely to go up.
Opioids, Automation, & UBI
Dwarkesh Patel 0:25:29
So you wrote a paper last year on the opioid epidemic. One of the points that you made there was that the opioid epidemic could be explained just by the demand side stuff about social isolation and joblessness. I wonder how this analysis makes you think about mass-scale automation in the future. What impact do you think that would have? Assume it’s paired with universal basic income or something like that. Do you think it would cause a tremendous increase in opioid abuse?
Edward Glaeser 0:26:03
I would have phrased it slightly differently–– which is as opposed to the work of two amazing economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who really emphasized the role of deaths of despair; we are much more focused on the supply side. WIth the demand side, meaning just the way that we handled the distribution of large-scale pain relieving medicines, we tell a story where every 30 to 50 years, someone comes up with the same sort of idea, which is we know that human beings love opioids in different forms. We also know they’re highly addicted and lead to a terrible cycle. So all of a sudden comes along this innovator says, you know what? I’ve got a new opioid and it’s safe. You don’t have to worry about getting addicted to this one. It’s magical.
It won’t work. 100 years ago, that thing was called heroin. 200 years ago, that thing was called morphine. 300 years ago, that thing was called Meldonium. We have these new drugs which have come in, and they’ve never been safe. But in our case, it was OxyContin and the magic of the time relief was supposed to make it safe, and it wasn’t safe.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:27:30
There’s a lot of great work that just shows that the patterns of opioid use was related to the places that just had a lot of pain 30 years ago. Those places came with a lot of tendency to prescribe various things for pain. So when opioids came in, when OxyContin came in, those were the places that got addicted most. Now it’s also true that there are links between these economic issues. There are links with joblessness, and I basically do believe that things that create joblessness are pretty terrible and are actually much worse than income inequality. I push back against the universal basic income advocates who I think are basically engaging in a materialist fallacy of thinking that a human being’s life is shaped by their take home pay or their unearned pay.
I think for most people, a job is much more than that. A job is a sense of purpose. A job is a sense of social connection. When you look at human misery and opioid use, you look at the difference between high-income earners, mid-income earners. There are differences, but they’re small. You then look at the difference between low-income earners and the jobless, then unhappiness spikes enormously, misery spikes enormously, family breakups spike enormously. So things like universal basic income, which the negative income tax experimented on in the 1970s, are the closest thing we have for its large-scale experiments in this area, which had very large effects on joblessness by just giving people money.
They feel quite dangerous to me because they feel like they’re going to play into rising joblessness in America, which feels like a path for its misery. I want to just quickly deviate and some of the UBI advocates have brought together UBI in the US and UBI in the developing world. So UBI in the developing world, basically means that you give poor farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa fairly modest amounts of money. This is a totally sensible strategy.
These people are not about to live life permanently not working. They’re darn poor. It’s very efficient relative to other ways of giving. I am in no sense pushing back on UBI with modest amounts of money in the poorest parts of the world. By all means, it’s been deemed to be effective. It’s just a very different thing if you’re saying I’m going to give $100 to a poor Congolese farmer, or I’m going to give $10,000 to a long-term jobless person in Eastern Kentucky. You’re not buying a PS5 for $100 in Congo.
Remote Work, Taxation, & Metaverse
Dwarkesh Patel 0:29:57
I want to ask you about remote work. You write in The Survival of the City, that improvements in information technology can lead to more demand for face-to-face contact because FaceTime complements time spent communicating electronically. I’m curious, what distinguishes situations where FaceTime substitutes for in-person contact from situations where it complements FaceTime complements virtual contact?
Edward Glaeser 0:30:25
So there’s not a universal rule on this. I wrote a paper based on this in the 1990s about face-to-face contact complements or substitutes for electronic contacts. It was really based on a lot of anxiety in the 1970s that the information technology of their day, the fax machine, the personal computer was going to make face-to-face contact in the cities that enable that contact obsolete. That discussion has reappeared amazingly in the past two and a half years because of Zoom, and all of those questions still resonate. I think in the short run, typically these things are substitutes.Typically you don’t necessarily need to meet some person who’s your long-term contact. You can actually just telephone them, or you can connect with them electronically. In the long run, they seem to be much more likely to be complements, in part because these technologies change our world.
The story that I tell over the last 40 years is that, yes, there were some face-to-face contacts that were made unnecessary because of electronic interactions. But it’s not just that cities did well over the past 40 years–– business travel went through the roof over the past 40 years. You’d think that that would have been made unnecessary by all these electronic interactions, but I think what just happened was that these new technologies and globalization created a more interconnected world, a world in which knowledge was more important, and we become smart by interacting with people face-to-face. This world became more knowledge and information intensive and more complicated, and as things get more complicated, it’s easier for ideas to get lost in translation. So we have these wonderful cues for communicating comprehension or confusion that are lost when we’re not in the same room with one another. So I think over the longer time, they tend to complements, and over the shorter term, they tend to be substitutes.
One of the things I think was helpful in my earlier work on this was looking at the history of information technology innovations. I think probably the first one is the book. It’s hard to imagine an innovation that did more to flatten distance. Now you can read stuff that people are saying hundreds of miles away. Yet there’s not a shred of evidence that the book led to less urbanization in Europe or to less connection. It helped create a totally different world in which people were passionate about ideas and wanted to talk to each other. They wanted to talk to each other about their books.
Flash forward 350 years when we have the telephone. Telephones started being used more in cities, and they were used mostly by people who were going to meet face-to-face. There’s no evidence that this has created a decline in the demand for face-to-face contact or a decline in the demand for cities. So I think if we look at Zoom, which unquestionably has allowed a certain amount of long-distance contact, that’s very, very useful. In the short run, it certainly poses a threat to urban office markets. My guess is in the long run; it’s probably going to be likely to be neutral at worst for face-to-face contact in the cities that enable that contact.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:33:37
I think that my podcast has been a great example for me about this. I mean, right now we’re talking virtually. So maybe, in a way it’s substituted, and perhaps I would have interviewed in person without the podcast. However, in another way, I’ve also met so many people that I’ve interviewed on the podcast or who have just connected with me because of the podcast in person. The amount of in-person interactions I’ve had because of a virtual podcast is a great anecdote to what you’re talking about, so that makes total sense.
Edward Glaeser 0:34:05
Dwarkesh Patel 0:34:06
Why do even the best software engineers in India or in Europe make so much less when they’re working remotely from those locations than remote engineers working in America make? I mean, why don’t employers just pay them more until the price discrepancy goes away?
Edward Glaeser 0:34:23
That’s interesting. I don’t fully know the answer to that question. I would suspect some of it just has to do with the nature of supply and demand. There are some things that are just very hard to be done remotely. Either because you have very precise informational needs that you have that are easier to communicate to people who are nearby or the person who’s nearby has evolved in ways in terms of their mind that they actually know exactly what you want and they have exactly the product that you need. So even though the remote call center worker and the local one may be totally equivalent on raw programming talent, you may still end up in equilibrium and be willing to pay a lot more to the local one just because, right?
So there’s a slightly differentiated skill the local one has, and look, there’s just a lot of competition for the remote ones, so the price is going to be pretty low. There’s not that much supply of the one guy who’s down the hall and knows exactly what you’re looking for. So that guy gets much higher wages, just because he can offer you something that no one else can exactly reproduce.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:35:27
Let me clarify my question. Even remote engineers in America will make more than remote engineers in Europe or in India. If somebody is working remotely but he just happens to live in the US, is that just because they can communicate in English in the same way?
Edward Glaeser 0:35:54
I would take the same stance. I would say that they’re likely to have just skills that are somewhat idiosyncratic and are valued in the US context.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:35:56
Are you optimistic about the ability of the metaverse and VR to be able to better puncture whatever makes in-person contact so valuable?
Edward Glaeser 0:36:19
No, I do not think the metaverse is going to change very much. I do think that there will be a lot of hours spent on various forms of gaming over the next 20 years, but I don’t think it ultimately poses much of a threat to real-world interactions. In some sense, we saw this with the teenage world over the last three years. We saw a lot of America spend an awful lot of time, 15, 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds, gaming and connecting entirely virtually during the whole time of the pandemic lockdowns.
Every single person that I’ve seen in that cohort, when you allowed them to interact with real members of their group live, leaped at the opportunity. They leaped at the opportunity of meeting and actually hanging out with real people until three o’clock in the morning and arguing over whatever it is–– whether or not it’s football or Kant. I think particularly for the young, living life live just beats the alternative.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:37:05
That sounds like a very Harvard scenario, having to argue over football or Kant, those two topics. [laughs] Are you predicting lower taxes over the coming decades in places like California and New York, specifically because of how remote work sets a sort of maximum bar of how much you can tax highly productive people before they will just leave?
Edward Glaeser 0:37:29
This is a great question. It’s a central issue of our day. Here’s how I think about it. In part, it’s why I wrote my recent book, Survival of the City. It’s because I was worried about this. Two things happened simultaneously. One, as you correctly say, Zoom has made it easier to connect anywhere. I don’t think that Zoom is going to cause our tech startup currently in Silicon Valley to say, oh, you know what? We’re just going to go home to our Orange County suburban homes and never meet live again. I think that’s a low-probability event.
But what seems to be a perfectly high probability event is saying, “Oh, we can Zoom with our VCs, we can Zoom with our lawyers. Why don’t we just relocate to Austin, Texas, not pay taxes, or relocate to Boulder, Colorado, so we can have beautiful scenery, or relocate to Honolulu so we can surf?” That seems like we’ve made the ability for smart people to relocate much easier, even if they’re going to keep on seeing each other in the office three or four days a week. That collides with this very fervent desire to deal with festering social inequities at the local level. Be this limited upward mobility for poorer people, be this high housing costs, be this the rise of mass incarceration and police brutality towards particularly minority groups. There’s this progressive urge which runs up against the fact that the rich guys can run away.
If your model, which says, “Oh, the local governments are going to realize the rich guys can run away, so they will seamlessly lower tax rates in order to make sure that they attract those people,” that’s running up against the fact that there’s a whole lot of energy on the progressive side, which says, “No! Massachusetts just passed a millionaire’s tax. For the first time ever, we have the possibility to have a progressive tax, which feels extraordinarily dangerous given this time period.”
I think we may need to see a bunch of errors in this area before we start getting things right. We went through a lot of pain in the 1970s as cities first tried to deal with their progressive goals and rich people and companies ran away, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that people started realizing this was the path to local bankruptcy and that we had real city limits on what the locality could do.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:39:44
You cited research on the survival of the city, which said that firms like Microsoft were much less willing to hire new people once they went online because of the pandemic. What do you make of the theory that this is similar to when industrialization first hit and we hadn’t figured out exactly how to make the most use of it to be most productive, but over the long run, somebody will do to remote work what Henry Ford did to the factory floor and in fact, just make it much more effective and efficient than in-person contact just because we’ll have better ways of interacting with people through remote work, since we’ll have better systems?
Dwarkesh Patel 0:40:17
It’s entirely possible. I never like betting against the ingenuity of humanity. On the other hand, you need a lot of technology to override 5 million years of evolution. We have evolved to be an in-person species, not just because we’re productive and learn a lot face-to-face, but also because we just like it. A world of hyper-efficient remote work where you basically are puttering around your apartment doing things very quickly and getting things done, doesn’t sound particularly joyful to me.
Workplaces are not just places of productivity; they’re also places of pleasure, particularly at the high end. Remember in 2019 and earlier, Google, and Yahoo, the companies that should have had the biggest capacity to do remote stuff, weren’t sending their workers home; they were building these paradises for high-skilled workers, stuffed with foosball tables and free snacks and whatever else they had in these giant campuses in the Google lex. So they were certainly betting on the power of face-to-face and creativity rather than on the ability of remote work to make everything work. I think the most reasonable view, let’s say that of Nick Bloom of Stanford, is that for those types of workers, 20% of your week being hybrid, maybe 40%, seems quite possible.
That seems like a thing, particularly for workers who have families who really value that degree of flexibility. But fully remote, I guess that’s a pretty niche thing. There’s some jobs like call center workers where you could imagine it being the norm, but in part, that’s just because it’s just hard to learn the same amount remotely that you do face-to-face. This came out both in the earlier Bloom study on remote call center workers in China and on more recent work by Natalia Emmanuel and Emma Harrington. Both studies found the same thing, which is in these call centers, are plenty productive when they’re remote, but the probability of being promoted drops by 50%.
The entrepreneur may make it very efficient to do things in the short run remotely, but they’re going to turn off this tendency that we have to be able to learn things from people around us, which is just much harder to duplicate remotely.
Past & Future of Silicon Valley
Dwarkesh Patel 0:42:29
Now, I’m curious why Silicon Valley became the hub of technology. You wrote a paper in 2018 about where pioneer and non-pioneer firms locate. So, I was hoping you had insight on this. Does it stand for it? Is it where Fairchild Semiconductor is located? What is the explanation?
Edward Glaeser 0:42:48
So, we take it as being earlier. It is Stanford. I traced through this, I think in Triumph. Yeah, it was a company called Federal Telegraph Company that was founded by a guy called Cyril Frank Elwell, who was a radio pioneer, and he was tapped by his teacher to head this radio company. The story was, as I remember it, there’d been this local genius in San Francisco who had attracted all these investors and was going to do this wireless telegraphy company. Then he died in a freak carriage accident.
These investors wanted to find someone else, and they went to Stanford’s nearby factory and asked, who should we hire? It was this guy Elwell who founded Federal Telegraph. Federal Telegraph then licensed, I think Danish technology which was originally the Poulsen Telegraph Company. They then hired some fairly bright people like Lee DeForest and they did incredibly well in World War I off of federal Navy contracts, off of Navy contracts. They then did things like providing jobs for people like the young Fred Terman, whose father was a Stanford scientist. Now, Fred Terman then plays an outsized role in this story because he goes to MIT, studies engineering there, and then comes back to become Dean of Stanford’s engineering program.
He really played an outsized role in setting up the Stanford Industrial Park which attracting Fairchild Semiconductor. Then there’s this sort of random thing about how the Fairchild Semiconductor attracts these people and then repels them because you have this brilliant guy Shockley, right? He’s both brilliant and sort of personally abhorrent and manages to attract brilliant people and then repel all of them. So they all end up dispersing themselves into different companies, and they create this incredibly creative ecosystem that is the heart of Silicon Valley.
In its day, it had this combination of really smart people and really entrepreneurial ethos, which just made it very, very healthy. I think the thing that many of us worry about is that Silicon Valley more recently, feels much more like it’s a one-industry town, which is dangerous. It feels more like it’s a bunch of industrial behemoths rather than a bunch of smart and scrappy startups. That’s a recipe that feels much more like Detroit in the 1950s than it does like Silicon Valley in the 1960s.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:45:52
Speaking of startups, what does your study of cities imply about where tech startups should locate and what kind of organization in person or otherwise they should have? I think there’s a lot to like about in person, certainly. Relying too much on remote feels quite dangerous if you’re a scrappy startup. But I like a lot the Sunbelt smart cities.
I sort of have a two-factor model of economic growth, which is it’s about education, and it’s about having governments that are pro-business. If you think about sort of the US, there’s a lot of heterogeneity in this. If you think about the US versus other countries, it’s heterogeneity. So the US has historically been better at being pro-business than, let’s say, the Northern European social democracies, but the Northern European social democracies are great on the education front.
So places like Sweden and the Netherlands, and Germany are also very successful places because they have enough education to counter the fact that they may not necessarily be as pro-business as the US is. Within the US, you also have this balance, whereas places like Massachusetts, and California are certainly much less pro-business, but they’re pretty well-educated. Other parts of the country may be more pro-business, but they’re less so. The real secret sauce is finding those places that are both highly educated and pro-business.
So those are places like Charlotte and Austin and even Atlanta, places in the Sun Belt that have attracted lots of skilled people. They’ve done very, very well during COVID. I mean, Austin, by most dimensions, is the superstar of the COVID era in terms of just attracting people. So I think you had to wait for the real estate prices to come down a bit in Austin, but those are the places that I would be looking at.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:47:46
I don’t know if you know, but I live in Austin, actually.
Edward Glaeser 0:47:50
I did not know that. [laughs]
Dwarkesh Patel 0:47:54
Well, actually, I’m surprised about what you said about education because you write in the paper, “general knowledge measured as average years of schooling is not a strong determinant of the survival of a pioneer firm, but relatedness of knowledge between past and present activities is.” So I’m surprised that you think education is a strong determinant for pioneer firms.
Edward Glaeser 0:48:15
No, I’m a big human capital determinist. So I tend to believe that individuals, cities, and nations rise and fall based on their skill levels. Certainly, if you look over the last 40 or 50 years, skills are very predictive of which cities (particularly colder cities) manage to do well versus poorly. If you ask yourself why Detroit and Seattle look different, more than 50% of Seattle’s adults have college degrees, and maybe 14, 15% of Detroit’s adults do.
That’s just a huge, huge gap. Certainly, when we think about your punitive startup, you’re going to be looking for talent, right? You’re going to be looking to hire talent, and having lots of educated people around you is going to be helpful for that.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:48:56
Let’s talk about housing. Houston has basically very little to no zoning. Why is it not more of interesting today? Nobody goes to Houston for tourism.
Edward Glaeser 0:49:07
I have. [laughs] I have, in fact, gone to Houston for tourism. Although part of it, I admit, was to look at the housing and to go to the woodlands and look at that. Interesting has a lot to do with age in this country. So the more that a city has… Boston is good for tourism just because it’s been around for a long time, and it hasn’t changed all that much. So it has this sort of historical thing. Houston’s a new place, not just in the sense that the chronological age is lower but also in the sense that it’s just grown so much, and it’s dominated by new stuff, right?
That new stuff tends to be more homogenous. It tends to have less history on it. I think those are things that make new cities typically less interesting than older cities. As witnessed by the fact that Rome, Jerusalem, London, are great tourist capitals of the world because they’ve just accreted all this interesting stuff over the millennium. So I think that’s part of it. I’m not sure that if we look at more highly zoned new cities, we’re so confident that they’re all that more interesting.
I don’t want to be particularly disparaging any one city. So I’m not going to choose that, but there’s actually a bunch that’s pretty interesting in Houston, and I’m not sure that I would say that it’s any less interesting than any comparably aged city in the country.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:50:35
Yeah. I’m visiting Houston later this month. I asked my friend there, should I stay here longer? I mean, is there anything interesting to do here? And then he responds, “Well, it’s the fourth biggest city in the country, so no.”
Dwarkesh Patel 0:50:47
Many people, including many economists, have said that we should drastically increase US population through immigration to a figure like 1 billion. Do you think that our cities could accommodate that? We have the infrastructure, and I mean, let’s say we reformed housing over a decade or so. Could we accommodate such a large influx of people?
Edward Glaeser 0:51:24
A billion people in a decade? I love the vision. Basically, in my heart, I’m an open borders person, right? I mean, it’s a moral thing. I don’t really like the idea that I get to enjoy the privileges of being an American and think that I’m going to deny that opportunity to anyone else. So I love this vision. A billion people over 10 years is an unimaginably large amount of people over a relatively short period of time. I’d love to give it a shot. I mean, it’s certainly not as if there’s any long-term reason why you couldn’t do it.
I mean, goodness knows we’ve got more than enough space in this country. It would be exciting to do that. But it would require a lot of reform in the housing space and require a fair amount of reform in the infrastructure space as well to be able to do this at some kind of large scale affordability.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:52:05
What does the evidence show about public libraries? Do they matter?
Dwarkesh Patel 0:52:09
My friend Eric Kleinberg has written a great book about… I think it’s called Palaces for the People about all the different functions that libraries have played. I’ve never seen anything statistically or systematically about this, but you’re not going to get a scholar to speak against books. It’s not a possible thing.
Europe’s Stagnation, Mumbai’s Safety, & Climate Change
Dwarkesh Patel 0:52:32
Why do European cities seem so much more similar to what they look like decades or even centuries ago than American cities, even American cities that are old, obviously not as old as European cities, but they seem to change much more over time.
Edward Glaeser 0:52:46
Lower population growth, much tougher zoning, much tougher historic preservation. All three of these things are going on. So it’s very difficult to build in European cities. There’s a lot of attention to caring about history. It’s often part of the nationalist narrative. You often have huge amounts of national dollars going to preserve local stuff and relatively lower levels of population growth.
An extreme example of this is Warsaw, where central Warsaw is completely destroyed during World War II, and they built it up to look exactly like it looked before the bombing. So this is a national choice, which is unlikely that we would necessarily make here in the US.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:53:27
Yeah. I was in Mumbai earlier this year, and I visited Dharavi, which is the biggest slum in Asia. And it’s a pretty safe place for a slum. Why are slums in different countries? Why do they often have different levels of how safe they are? What is the reason?
Edward Glaeser 0:53:45
I, too, have been in Dharavi and felt perfectly safe. It’s like walking around Belgravia and London in terms of it. I think my model of Dharavi is the same model as Jane Jacobs's model of Greenwich Village in 1960, which is this is just a well-functioning community.
People have eyes on the street. If you’re a stranger in these areas, they’re going to be looking at you, and it’s a community that just functions. There are lots of low-income communities throughout the world that have this. It requires a certain amount of permanence. So if the community is too much in flux, it becomes hard to enforce these norms and hard to enforce these sort of community rules. It’s really helpful if there aren’t either a massive number of guns floating around or an unbelievably lucrative narcotics trade, which is in the area. Those are both things that make things incredibly hard. Furthermore, US drug policy has partially been responsible for creating violence in some of the poor parts of Latin American cities.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:54:43
Maybe you don’t play video games enough to know the answer to this question. But I’m curious, is there any video game, any strategic video game like Civilization or Europa that you feel does a good job representing the economics of cities?
Edward Glaeser 0:55:07
No, I will say that when I was in graduate school, I spent a few hours playing something called Sim City. I did think that was very fun. But I’m not going to claim that I think that it got it right. That was probably my largest engagement with city-building video games.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:55:12
What would you say we understand least about how cities work?
Edward Glaeser 0:55:18
I’m going to say the largest unsolved problem in cities is what the heck we’re going to do about climate change and the cities of the developing world. This is the thing I do not feel like I have any answer for in terms of how it is that we’re going to stop Manila or Mumbai from being leveled by some water-related climate event that we haven’t yet foreseen.
We think that we’re going to spend tens of billions of dollars to protect New York and Miami, and that’s going to happen; but the thing I don’t understand and something we really need to need to invest in terms of knowledge creation is what are we going to do with the low-lying cities of the developing world to make them safe.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:55:54
Okay. Your most recent book is Survival of the City. And before that Triumph of the City, both of which I highly recommend to readers. Professor Glaeser, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. This was very interesting.
Edward Glaeser 0:56:05
I enjoyed this a lot. Thank you so much for having me on. I had a great deal of fun.