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The NY Times Reviews Biographies of Jane Jacobs and Richard Posner

Sunday, October 9, 2016 9:38
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Here is the Jane Jacobs biography review.  Here is the Judge Posner book review.   The Jacobs biography traces a “David vs. Goliath” story of Jacobs making the case during the urban renewal era of the 1960s that the incumbent real estate and neighborhoods had a charm and a vitality that would vanish if the “Central” urban planners built their towering mega-buildings and built out their highway plans.   The book review does a great job highlighting the merits of her points but also arguing that Jacobs didn’t really appreciate the “general equilibrium” effects that her NIMBYism would translate into unaffordable center cities where only the rich can afford to live.  So, you could argue that Jane Jacobs’ ideas hurt the middle class who seek to live in great cities because they can’t afford to live there.

To repeat this point, if developers have the ability to purchase parcels of urban land and build them up at higher density then this shifts out the aggregate supply curve and helps to lower urban apartment prices.   Jacobs’ historic neighborhood preservation essentially creates an inelastic supply curve and thus any demand increases translate into higher home prices.  This mainly benefits incumbent owners, so Jacobs’ arguments are conveniently used by such incumbents.

Turning to Posner, there are several interesting features here.  The review is written by a Yale Professor who appears to be a pinch envious of Posner’s life success.  The reviewer never discusses the U Chicago School of Economics.  The reviewer implicitly mocks the Coase Theorem in discussing Posner’s thinking.  Here is  a direct quote:

“The idea of wealth maximization, however, is famously obtuse. Posner observed that his theory treated unproductive people as morally irrelevant (or worse) and viewed social resources expended on the poor as wasted. Questions about the distribution of a society’s wealth, he argued, were properly excluded from legal analysis altogether. Posner adopted his wealth-maximization theory at the same moment in which, as we now know, market-oriented public policies began to exacerbate socioeconomic inequality. Notoriously, Posner entertained the idea (though he thought it implausible) that it might be best not to punish the crime of rape if the rapist enjoys the act enough to outweigh the harm to the victim; the reason to criminalize rape, he argued, was to channel sex into forms like marriage, in which women are compensated like other sex workers. He suggested openness to the notion of selling babies.”

Given that at the end of the day, an academic is his/her set of output (as measured by research and students generated), why is a biography of such an academic needed?  Would the world want to read a biography of Ken Arrow? Paul Samuelson or Gary Becker?   Academic economists would learn from the background stories but outsiders would learn little.

That said, why does the world need a Posner Biography?   I would guess the answer is that since he has been so prolific that there are many intellectual lawyers (who read and buy books) will be wondering “how did he do it”?    While there may be a demand for such information, at the end of the day does this matter?  He produced a mountain of scholarship. Time will tell which parts matter and are influential.   The reviewer didn’t do a good job explaining how Posner’s work has influenced thinking of lawyers today or how Posner’s work influences the academic field of law and economics today.  For example, law and economics is now a highly empirical field — which of Posner’s studies influence this line of research?


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