A Better Way to Revive America’s Rust Belt

Give Motown some love.

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Harvard economists Benjamin Austin, Ed Glaeser and Larry Summers think the U.S. government should do more to help the country’s struggling regions. It’s a great idea, but their specific policies could use some work.

Many economists believe in focusing policies on people, rather than places — essentially, having the government help the poor and disadvantaged, but letting the market sort out where people live and where economic activity is concentrated. There are several arguments for this approach. First, even if aid is aimed at a struggling area, it might benefit some richer individuals — few people want to see their taxes being spent on millionaires, even if those millionaires live in Detroit.

Second, many worry that it’s foolish to fight the vast, unstoppable forces of economic geography. Monkeying with the highly complex web of trade, clustering and specialization could prop up cities that have no business existing, causing continued struggle for the people living there, and costing taxpayers a bundle as well. According to this conventional wisdom, if a place is in decline, the best thing the government can do is help people move away. I myself have advocated pro-mobility policies. But those policies can also come with a big downside.