Opinion

Republicans don't hate cities, they only talk like they do

If the GOP is still the party of growth, shouldn't they care about the places where growth is happening?

American urbanites dislike Republicans, or at least voting for them. Donald Trump lost them badly to Hillary Clinton back in the 2016 presidential race. And rhetorically, at least, the hostility might seem mutual. There are, of course, President Trump's harsh tweets about Baltimore and San Francisco.

But urban antipathy from Republicans goes beyond Trump, ironically the nation's most urban president. At a recent conference of "nationalist conservatives," Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, decried the anti-middle class, "cosmopolitan agenda" of urban elites that he believes has infected both parties. And recall Ted Cruz sneering at "New York values" back during the 2016 GOP primaries.

Abandoning the places where so many people live, including lots of middle-class voters, may not be a critical near-term political problem for Republicans. They certainly don't seem too worried. Yet here's the weird thing: Plenty of GOPers still think of themselves broadly as belonging to the Party of Growth — a rising tide lifts all boats and so forth — while the Democrats are the Party of Redistribution. As such, shouldn't Republican policy, if not electoral politics, focus a lot on cities?

America's cities are the nation's warp engines of innovation and GDP growth. The 10 largest metro areas combine for a massive 34 percent of the country's total GDP, notes Business Insider. Some 80 percent of the nation's 5,000 fastest-growing businesses are located in large urban areas. Between 2000 and 2015, 59 percent of U.S. patents were awarded to applicants living in 20 metro areas with only 36 percent of the population. And American tech hubs, like the Bay Area and Boston, dominate any list of top global cities for tech talent. It's tough for Washington to truly practice pro-growth policy without considering cities.

Thank goodness, then, that rude even racist rhetoric doesn't always reflect what's happening on a policy level. Of course, neither the Trump administration nor any other GOP administration is going to launch some massive new spending program on cities. Indeed, the administration has repeatedly proposed cuts to public housing aid. But there's more government can do than cut checks. One of Trump's biggest initiatives has been the Opportunity Zones program, which gives tax breaks for private investment and redevelopment in economically distressed communities. So far the program hasn't been a big success — a recent MIT study found the tax benefit isn't boosting the local economy, as evidenced by the lack of price increases in existing properties — but it's still early and perhaps tweaks can be made.

More promising is President Trump's recent executive order on establishing a new White House council to study exclusionary local zoning laws and other regulatory barriers that prevent the construction of multifamily housing units. (It might want to check out this excellent Obama White House analysis on that very topic.) These are local issues, perhaps, but they have significant national implications. Research by economists Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh suggests regulations of the housing supply in high-productivity cities reduced U.S. economic growth by more than a third from 1964 to 2009.

As Moretti explained recently in an interview with the Richmond Fed, these limits "severely constrain the number of outside workers who can have access to high-paying jobs in the region. These cities have essentially built a wall around their borders that makes it very hard for outside workers to access the region's high productivity."

There is also the beneficial impact on innovation of having lots of entrepreneurial techies clustered together. One way to view the American economy is as a sort of "collective computer" formed of myriad human networks. The greater that mega-network's computational capacity, the more value it can generate. Cities are key nodes in this network, and more connections should mean more growth.

This is a huge reason why the bipartisan failure to make progress on updating American infrastructure matters. The ability to create denser networks is aided by communication and transportation technology. Urban economist Matthew Kahn has suggested building high-speed rail specifically to connect workers in exurbs or further afield, where housing is cheap, to productive but pricey urban areas. Another option is to sit tight until driverless cars make the super exurbs more commutable, a technology that the Trump administration enthusiastically supports.

Maybe the president should spend more time tweeting about how he's trying to help cities rather than picking fights with them.

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