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A Self Evaluation of My Two Years Directing the Johns Hopkins 21st Century Cities Initiative

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 From 2017 to 2019, I served as the Chair of the USC Economics Department.  Josh Aizenman served before me and he taught me the ropes.  Under Josh’s leadership, great things were already taking place at USC Econ and I built on this momentum.  Romain Ranciere took over as Chair in Summer 2019 and he has done an outstanding job building up the department’s research, teaching and outreach activity.  As I look at this faculty roster , I see an emerging top 20 department.   Critics will point out that guys like me are old and that the PHD student training and placement must improve. Point taken.

In 2019, I was offered a great opportunity at Hopkins to serve as the faculty director of the 21st Century Cities Initiative.      This Initiative is housed in the Krieger Arts & Sciences School but is meant to be an umbrella organization bringing together all of the far flung scholars across the University.  I understood that Baltimore is a key piece of the 21CC portfolio but a global university studies urban issues around the world.  Hopkins was excited about my ongoing China research.

During my brief time at Hopkins, I tried to bring an old school University of Chicago Economics mindset to the campus. I noticed that at that great University, there aren’t that many “free markets” thinkers on campus.  I taught two undergraduate classes and I distinctly sensed that the majority of students who take environmental and urban economics classes are not excited about such ideas.  I believe in debate and respectful discussion even when it leads to awkward moments in the classroom.   The Bloomberg School of Public Health plays a dominant role on campus. The majority of its scholars focus on what the public sector can and should do to improve our quality of life.  I attended many meetings with these scholars.   Few of them were excited about working with me.

Given this preface, what did we get done over the last 23 months?  COVID struck just 5 months into my time in Baltimore but before then we held several great events.   21CC’s Senior Manager Mac McComas was a great partner and a good friend as we worked hard to build something great. 

Some of our great events included;   Here is Rucker Johnson’s book talk.  Here is Thomas Abt’s book talk about reducing urban crime.  We held fun events for undergraduates and funded many PHD students’ nascent research.  We hired dozens of undergraduate interns.  One has now enrolled in Stanford’s PHD program in economics and I’m very proud of her.  Jim Heckman was scheduled to speak to the whole University in late March 2020 but then COVID hit.

On the research side, I failed on a couple of fronts.  I am a huge fan of Raj Chetty and I sought to follow his lead by building up the Hopkins Research Capacity to access City of Baltimore Administrative Data and Maryland State Administrative data.  We tried and tried to hold meetings with relevant officials but I found it very challenging to navigate this process. Of course, I understand privacy issues but I sought to build a representative sample of micro longitudinal data to follow each Maryland child from birth until adulthood to learn about each person’s life arc.  

I also didn’t succeed in raising sufficient funds.   As a newcomer directing an unendowed center, I didn’t have a track record of past success to reduce donor uncertainty about my venture. 

Recognizing, this challenge.  In early 2020, Mac and I got to work on writing out our “manifesto”.  In February 2021, Johns Hopkins University Press published our book “Unlocking the Potential of Post-Industrial Cities“.    Plenty of free material about the book is available here.    I like our book!  It is different than rival Brookings books. It does a great job integrating major ideas from urban economics to the specific challenges that Baltimore and Detroit face.  It is a sober, realistic book that expresses empathy for those urban residents who are struggling in post-industrial cities while still arguing that they have control over their lives.  Incentives matter!

In addition to the book, we also did some other exciting research;

Here is a 21CC report on the gains from better regional transportation networks.

Here is a 21CC report on public sector pay in Baltimore, Boston and New York City.

In July 2021, I return to USC. I’m not directing a center and I’m not a department Chair.  Going forward, I want to think of myself as an Assistant Professor.


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