Town and Gown

Louis Uchitelle draws an almost entirely uninstructive contrast between anemic public infrastructure spending in and around New Haven and Yale’s lavish efforts to refurbish and expand its facilities.

The message in this outburst of activity, here and in other places across the country, is that private spending, supported handsomely by a growing number of very wealthy families, is gaining ground on traditional public investment. In the case of New Haven, once the recipient of more federal dollars per person for urban renewal than any other city, private investment now far surpasses public outlays.

Note that expensive efforts at “urban renewal” in New Haven, chronicled in Douglas Rae’s City: Urbanism and Its End and elsewhere, are widely acknowledged as near-total failures which struck a mighty blow against a city already reeling from powerful structural changes in the economy, let alone a broader anti-urban bias in public policy. Spending money foolishly and indeed destructively helps grow, believe it or not, the constituency for not spending money.

The trouble is, the United States really does badly need more infrastructure spending. Moreover, there are real concerns raised by the relentless expansion of what Gerard Alexander has called the nonprofit industrial complex.

But consider what would happen if “alumni” of the city of New Haven, people like my friend Ross Douthat, were asked to make charitable donations to New Haven’s municipal government to advance its admirable goal of turning the city into a mecca for middle-class and working-class families. Granted, there’s no leg-up for legacy admissions or other outright bribery involved, at least not for people who aren’t large-scale developers. I suspect most would-be donors would conclude that New Haven’s government isn’t transparent or accountable or reliable enough to guarantee that the funds wouldn’t be wasted. Donations to Yale, in contrast, are reliably turned into opulent, outsized facilities for students, sometimes for discrete slices, the poor and the near-rich and rich, of the local community.

Note that John Kenneth Galbraith warned against “private wealth and public squalor” in the 1950s, the heyday of public investment and a far more egalitarian era in the American economy. Could it be that this is less a function of public stinginess than failure on the part of government? Could a smarter New Haven leverage its limited resources into spending better designed to spark a revival? I can’t be sure, but the question is worth asking.

We should also keep in mind that any renaissance in infrastructure spending will not be neutral across American communities. Our economy has suburbanized, for better or for worse, and it is difficult to imagine a massive program of public works that has a strong bias toward New England’s declining mid-sized cities. Actually, there probably will be some bias in their direction thanks to the seniority of the region’s Democratic legislators, but it won’t be enough to reverse strong trends. As a native New Yorker, I’m not sure I want the feds to spend my tax dollars to strengthen southern Connecticut’s role as an emerging financial center. See what I mean?

Uchitelle’s contrast highlights an important issue, the need for increased infrastructure, by pointing fingers at a top-hat wearing villain, namely the rich swells at Yale who, incidentally, have helped prevent the bottom from falling out of a once-great American city. That’s too bad.