Photo: Thomas HawkWhen I talked with economist Edward Glaeser last month about his new book Triumph of the City, he touched briefly on the idea that Tea Party activists, rather than being natural adversaries of city-dwellers, are actually natural allies — if only unwittingly. Here’s what he said then:
To those Republicans, to those Tea Party activists who believe in the home mortgage interest deduction: Shouldn’t the U.S. government stop engaging in social engineering? Shouldn’t the U.S. government stop engaging in those policies that artificially push people out of the homes that they would have? Haven’t we had enough of activist government trying to shoehorn us into low-density living?
Today, in his most recent post on The New York Times Economix blog, Glaeser elaborates on the idea:
Big cities are not typically Tea Party territory, but if the new Republican members of Congress apply their libertarian principles assiduously to a few key federal policies, they could do much for urban America….
The federal home mortgage interest deduction is public paternalism at its worst. The mortgage deduction made the federal government the silent, subsidizing partner of the millions who lost billions in the recent housing crash. The subsidy encourages Americans to borrow as much as possible to bet on housing.
The failure of these housing policies is practically a perfect parable on the folly of public paternalism. I hope that the Tea Party learns this lesson and fights to get government out of the interest-subsidy business.
If libertarians stand against the mortgage deduction, they will also — purely by chance — stand with cities. More than 85 percent of dwellings with three or more units are rented, while more than 85 percent of single-family detached dwellings are owner-occupied.
Subsidizing homeownership implicitly encourages people to leave urban areas with tall buildings. Eliminating that support — creating more public neutrality — would create a more level playing field for cities.
Glaeser also writes that Tea Party skepticism about the federal transportation budget could benefit opponents of sprawl:
If there must be more highways, let them be private and paid for by users, not with federal largess.
If the Tea Party takes on bridges to nowhere, they will also be helping cities where density already allows easy connection. The federal fondness for infrastructure is often an extra subsidy for sprawl.
And he makes the argument that right-wing support for charter schools and lower taxes could also have extra benefits for cities.
He concludes with this:
The original Tea Party was a child of the city. Urban interactions in 1770s Boston helped create a revolution and a great nation.
The current Tea Party could return to its urban roots if it stands up against subsidies for home borrowing and highways and if it encourages competition in urban schools.
I don’t know that I think it would all play out the way he envisions. But it would be kind of delicious if a movement so little identified with urban America — and at times so hostile to it — actually ended up benefiting the country’s big cities.