Thursday, April 17, 2008

Rust Belt Showdown

Edward Glaeser will speak in Buffalo tomorrow (Friday) and he doesn't expect a cordial welcome:

Judging by the response to Glaeser’s article, he should have a large turnout.

“A lot of bloggers were pretty angry with me. I was surprised at the extent to which an attempt to understand the past history of a city can be construed as a personal insult, but that’s my own naivete,” he said.

Glaeser’s article traces the history of Buffalo’s economic rise and fall and chronicles what he calls the “scores of close to worthless urban projects [that] have received government funding” during its attempt at renaissance.

Such blunt criticism has gotten Glaeser — who is also director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at Harvard and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute — into hot water in the past. Responses to the columns he writes for the New York Sun and the Boston Globe can be swift and brutal.

Shrinking city boosters have notoriously thin skins and there is too much hand wringing over the national or global image of the Rust Belt. I'm not trying to single out Buffalo. Defending one's hometown is common. Of course, disparaging where one grew up is also par for the course. But a problem arises when local jingoism results in bad policy.

Glaeser's contention that Buffalo should invest in human capital strikes at the heart of Rust Belt urban anxiety. Why spend a fortune on education if the graduates will likely leave the region? What the locals see is their tax dollars heading to Charlotte, NC. Whereas, they can keep tabs on the new houses and industrial parks.

I've noted similar responses to my suggestion that the daily stream of stories about Rust Belt brain drain are more myth than reality. Yet the policy responses to this perceived crisis are very real: Keep them from leaving or at least bring them back. I recommend helping them to go.

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