The Elusive Quest For Solutions

A blog about business and economics.
March 8 2012 8:43 AM

The Elusive Quest For Solutions

Having read The Rent Is Too Damn High, Alex Block wants more solutions and I want to endorse his gestures in the direction of David Schleicher who "in an interview with Mark Bergen at Forbes (Part 1Part 2) discusses some potential legislative solutions."

I do want to stand by the view, however, that solutions to purely political problems tend to be oversold. Sometimes you have a substantive problem and it requires a technical solution. For example you might think that the price of on-street parking should be driven by spot demand, which is easy to say but harder to implement. Sitting around and having a discussion about how to actually do it is a very important part of the process. But a lot of the time there's genuinely no substitute for changing people's minds. Things change because people change their minds. Gay and lesbian equality hasn't advanced because someone came up with a clever way to make it pareto optimal and undercut the objections of the objectors, it's advanced because a smaller share of the population objects. I don't think that I or anyone else is going to go one-by-one around America and persuade people that less regulation of urban land will be good for the enviornment, good for growth, and good for equality. But I do think the conventional wisdom around this can be turned around. The era of sharp divergences between the cost of housing and construction costs is pretty new and came upon us quite suddenly. Cities that go for growth and density will find that the per capita cost of maintaining physical infrastructure and public safety falls, and that its citizens have an easier time starting successful businesses and earning decent real wages. A proposition like that could become contagious even without solving the problem of stepwise decision-making that Schleicher emphasizes. But to get the process started, a critical mass of city officials and engaged elites needs to think it's worth trying.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.