More thoughts on “The Economy of Cities”

Jacobs’ main thesis is that cities experience growth through import replacement: the economies of the cities begin producing the products that they are currently importing from other economies. One of her examples was that Tokyo started manufacturing bicycles once they became technologically able (the costs became sufficiently low) to produce them in the city rather than importing the bicycles from abroad. What this entails is the internalizing of economic activity– a city may seek to be self-sustaining, and this seeking causes economic growth. But this comes at a significant cost: the city, and its contents, must always be in constant adaptation and change. In fact, Jacobs remarks, “The primary economic conflict, I think, is between people whose interests are with already well-established economic activities, and those whose interests are with the emergence of new economic activities.”

I do not think that this is merely an anti-rent seeking argument. Surely, there is some of that implicit in the statement; people who want to maintain the status quo may want to stifle further innovation and may do so by seeking legal and political tools to prevent others from infringing upon their profit opportunities. These interests may attempt to exert control over who may enter the markets via certain qualifying measures, certifications, and fee structures; some may go as far as attempting to set up a government-licensed monopoly. Jacobs’ argument speaks to something far more devastating to economic evolution: not in my backyard.

It’s not only the resistance of change from those who own the methods of production but the resistance from those who would benefit from future economic evolution.  She states, “Conformity and monotony, even when they are embellished with a froth of novelty, are not attributes of developing and economically vigorous cities. They are attributes of stagnant settlements.” Economic evolution must advance the interests and benefit the lives of the average person– an argument I heard earlier this week said the same thing of climate change regulation. Import replacement, as Jacobs describes it, is a process of entrepreneurial discovery and division of labor within a city. These processes are part of a larger Schumpeterian system of creative destruction: new economic activities evolve to replace older activities. These stand to increase the wealth of both the city and its inhabitants.

Who carries the costs of these import replacements? There are immediate costs of undergoing change; this is where the NIMBYs can strike with the most damage. By refusing to change or limit the amount of growth, those with interest in older economic activities can prevent the evolution of new ones before they even get started. There is a cost in saying yes to development, but remember, there is no cause of poverty — that is the base condition — there is a cause to prosperity, which a key to which is the change of economic activity. There may be short-run costs to those exporters of goods from the which the city previously consumed, but these will be made back in the long-run by more and better technologies being produced in the city. These technologies then get imported to other cities and rural areas. The long walk of progress determines that growth is not simply for some, but all can prosper in the long-run. Recent trends in poverty reduction are proof to this. The reason that so much food can be grow with so little labor involved originates in work and innovation done in urban areas, not with the farms themselves. As I noted in an earlier post, urban and rural economies must work in a cycle for both to survive. (This will probably be true until someone figures out to grow enough food in urban  areas; vertical farms aren’t enough to feed an entire city. A lot of this is due to the limited selection of foods that can be grown in a vertical farm.)

Jacobs has a wonderful bit on discrimination in cities and how it is inefficient for unequal governance to be operation. Prior to gender/race equality, an economy is losing out on a large portion of labor, creativity, and human capital. Engaging in such discriminatory behavior only allows for more stagnation, sooner.

Side note for future thought: If contracts are unable to be performed, then there will be inefficiencies. Think apple trees and bees– Where is the Coasean bargain?

Author: Deric Tilson

I am a classically-trained economist and doctoral student at George Mason. I'm an ecopragmatist and interested in the cross-section where economics, ecology, and ethology meet. I hope to work for non-for-profits specializing in economic development and eventually moving to either the public sector or a think tank. My research interests include the political economy of war, resource economics, the applications of complexity theory, the mitigation of risk by impoverished individuals, and global water scarcity.

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