While every Mayor of a Big U.S city would love to receive an unconditional cash transfer from President Biden, this blog post will not explore this idea.
As Mac and I discuss in our 2021 Johns Hopkins University Press book, Unlocking the Potential of Post Industrial Cities,
cities such as Baltimore, Cleveland and Detroit face several common challenges related to the local economy, the local housing stock, local infrastructure, local quality of life, and local investment in health and human capital.
The Biden Administration through the proper use of incentives can nudge each of these cities to “raise their game” and this will improve local quality of life for the rich, middle class and poor in these cities.
Baltimore’s murder count each year has been higher than what would be predicted given the city’s population. A simple statistical approach would regress a city’s annual murder count on its population.
Murder count for city j in year t = constant_t + b_t*population of city j in year t + error term for city j,t
The slope “b at time t” would be positive. Given that Baltimore has 600,000 people, the statistical analyst would predict that Baltimore’s murder count should equal = constant + b_t*600000 but the analyst would see that Baltimore’s murder count is way higher than this prediction.
The Biden Administration should work with the City of Baltimore to adopt murder prevention strategies that comply with the law and protecting citizen’s basic rights.
The Biden Administration could convene a national group of experts to create a Murder Taskforce to bring various social scientists together to identify different crime reduction strategies that have been rigorously tested in terms of “causal effects” and ranked relative to their price tags. For example, if method A is a “stop and frisk” approach for finding illegal guns and method B is a “night basketball for teenagers” approach; what are murder reduction benefits from each of these and would be the total cost to scale these up to have an impact at the city level?
Once the Taskforce has ranked proposals and considered their intended and unintended consequences, the Biden Administration could offer a 80% subsidy to cities that adopt these programs. The Biden Administration could require that each participating city collect baseline data on people and places within the city that are high crime areas and devise a scientific data collection effort to analyze whether the same intervention (phased in in different high crime cities) actually achieves the expected crime reductions.
This is the scientific approach for how the Federal government uses its unique powers to improve city quality of life. In future blog posts, I will discuss other strategies to boost the post-industrial cities’ quality of life.
A subtle reader will note the “recipe” here.
The Federal Government solves the co-ordination problem of bring the best minds together to sketch out the possible strategies for mitigating wicked “urban problems”.
The Federal Government brings in the City Mayor’s team to be briefed on the right strategies to proceed.
The City Mayor receives a take it or leave it offer to implement the advice. A deep subsidy is offered but there are strings attached. The City must collect real data to track whether the intervention is effective. This creates accountability as cities are benchmarked relative to each other.
The national news can play a muckraker role here reporting on progress (or the lack of progress). Real estate investors and parents (perhaps considering whether to send their kids to school at Johns Hopkins) will pay close attention to whether urban challenges are improving.
The Federal Government has unique powers to standardize data collection, to incentivize policy change and to share information about “what works”. For too long, Mayors of cities have had too much discretion in setting policy. My proposal does not strip them of this power. Instead, I want to incentivize them to “raise their game” using a scientific approach to improve local quality of life. While every city has its own unique history, there are many commonalities across cities that create the possibility of cross-city learning. I do not believe that this “cross-city” learning is happening at a fast enough rate right now and young people living in high poverty areas in these cities are suffering because of this.
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