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Seven Questions for Ryan Avent

If you're a fan of the urban-related topics on this blog and you aren't reading Ryan Avent, you should start. Immediately. Avent is one of my favorite thinkers and writers on urban topics. His personal blog, The Bellows, features a nice dose of such discussions, with the occasional look at other important progressive issues.

Additionally, Avent blogs at Streetsblog and has contributed to Free Exchange, Grist, and Portfolio's now defunct Market Movers. A collection of the many of his print articles can be found on his delicious feed.

It is my pleasure to present a brief interview with one of the web's most talented writers. I hope other readers find the responses as interested as I did...

Rob Pitingolo: You are an economist who has made a career as a blogger and journalist. What would you say to an undergraduate economics student like myself who might consider a similar path?

Ryan Avent: First, that you should feel lucky. The opportunities to develop an audience and meaningfully influence ongoing policy discussions have never been so great. As for how to get there, I'd suggest first that you read and write a lot. That process is key to learning what does and doesn't work in the medium and what you'd like your own voice to be. It's also how bloggers spend most of their day, so it's best to learn early whether you can tolerate the hours spent reading blog posts.

Beyond that, I'd say be patient and don't get discouraged. There will be long periods of time when you're not getting links or responses, and you'll feel like quitting. But those periods pass. And once you do have an audience, you'll occasionally find yourself subject to harsh criticism, which can be tough to stomach. But don't let that stop you.

And finally, don't feel bad about reaching out to other writers when you've written something you like. Bloggers are always looking for interesting topics to cover, and that's the easiest way to begin building an audience.

Rob Pitingolo: You grew up in a North Carolina suburb. To what extent have those experiences contributed to your writing about urban issues? Do you think your background gives you more insight or credibility on these issues than someone born and raised in a northeast city?

Ryan Avent: I think my background has played a significant role in developing my interest in these subjects. My mom's family lived in Baltimore, and even at an early age I remember being fascinated by the look and feel of gritty, urban Baltimore. But even more important, I think, was the experience of growing up in the Raleigh area during a time of dramatic change there. Between the time I was born there to the time I graduated, Raleigh went from a sleepy capital city to part of one of the nation's top research centers. It was an unbelievable growth story. And so that got me very interested in how cities work and why some develop rapidly while others stagnate or shrink. And from that original interest came a desire to understand other things as well, including why cities sprawl and what that means for the local economy and the quality of life of people who live there.

The suburban background gives me some credibility, I think. I can certainly understand that life -- being 16 and dying to get your license so you can finally have some freedom, then getting it and basically spending your time with your friends in various parking lots, because where else are you going to go? The punishment of all punishments as a high schooler isn't an earlier curfew or getting grounded, it's losing the car keys.

But having that background hasn't stopped people who don't know much about me from assuming that I'm a typical eastern elite, which is silly anyway. I really dislike the fact that I feel the need to cite where I'm from as a defense against bad arguments. Matt Yglesias has very good ideas, to which people ought to pay attention, and never mind that he's from Manhattan. Both Ed Glaeser and Joel Kotkin are from big cities and they love sprawl. The only thing that should matter is the quality of the argument. And when people fling the eastern elite thing at you, that generally means that they're unable to engage with what you're saying.

Rob Pitingolo: Having myself lived at Catholic University a few years ago, I'm not sure that I would consider Brookland to be one of the best examples of walkable urbanism in Washington, DC. Why did you choose to live in the Brookland neighborhood over any of the others in Washington?

Ryan Avent: The main reasons were convenience -- it's on the Red Line -- and affordability. It's not as walkable as I'd prefer, but it has steadily improved since I moved in; there's now an organic grocer, a couple of coffee shops, and some new bars within easy walking distance of my place, in addition to the restaurants, drug store, hardware store, and post office that were already there.

But Brookland has a great deal of potential. Catholic University is well on its way through the PUD process on land it owns adjacent to the Metro station, which will eventually be a very nice mixed-use, walkable development. As the market improves, there will be renewed interest in doing more with the lots to the east of the station, as well, which are set to be fairly dense and walkable in the wake of the adoption of a new small area plan. In five years, the combination of pleasant university setting, tree-covered bungalow neighborhoods, and walkable core around the Metro station will make Brookland one of the city's best neighborhoods.

Rob Pitingolo: If you could accept a scholar or fellow position at any policy think tank, which would you pick? And how would you focus your research?

Ryan Avent: I'm not really sure. I know some of the folks at Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program, and it would be interesting to work with Bruce Katz, but I'd probably prefer to go somewhere where I would be able to set the agenda a little more. As for how I'd focus my research, one key area of interest for me is the way that urban growth patterns are influencing macro variables -- basically, how do changes at the metropolitan level affect things like output, income growth, productivity, and so on at a national level. I'd also like to do some work on the economics of transit, from a more comprehensive view than the typical, "hey, if we build transit will it pay for itself?" angle.

Rob Pitingolo: Along similar lines, if you could teach any class at any university, what would it be? And why?

Ryan Avent: That's a really tough one. I suppose what I'd most like to teach is a survey class on the economic history of the city. Urban histories are fascinating to me; one of the things I love most about cities is that they're living historical records, containing bits and pieces of all the eras in their pasts. The where is less critical. I can imagine a lot of universities where I'd be happy to work. But let's say, oh, NYU. I've always wanted to live in New York for a while.

Rob Pitingolo: You've been critical of Greg Mankiw. What do you think of his textbooks? Why do you think he has difficulty applying the concepts that he writes about in his textbooks to real-world policy? And do you think that we risk "overteaching" economic theory to the point where it becomes difficult to apply to actual policy?

Ryan Avent: To be perfectly honest, I've never cracked his principles text. I believe the first edition came out around the time I was in my intro econ class. To a certain extent, I think Mankiw does what a lot of us tend to do--including myself at times--and places loyalty to his "team" over intellectual consistency, sometimes, perhaps, without realizing it. But speaking more broadly, I think a lot of economists--again, myself included at times--have become too enamored with the power of the analytical tools economics offers. We can tell some very compelling stories about a lot of different kinds of human behavior, and we got very used to approaching people studying all kinds of things, telling them what our tools say about their fields, and assuming that we'd then settled the matter.

But as we're increasingly learning, economic analysis must be used with caution and humility. I do think that abstract theorizing came to be a bit too important in economics in recent decades, but I also think that the bigger problem was a failure to ask hard questions about how much we actually knew and to listen to others who were offering what in retrospect we know are quite valid criticisms.

The other thing to point out is that Mankiw, like a lot of top economists, is very smart. And smart people often have a difficult time accepting that they may be wrong about something.

Rob Pitingolo: In what year do you predict the U.S. will have a high speed rail network comparatively respectable to what exists in Europe today?

Ryan Avent: I'd say never, but never is a long time, so I'll say that I don't think we'll get there by mid-century. Which isn't to say that rail won't get a lot better in America over the next few decades. It will, and we'll see some real improvements in speeds and connectivity that will prove extremely popular.

But Europe has been at this for a while, and they're not going to stop working on their systems. And two trends have become very pronounced in recent decades: the national government has become increasingly sclerotic, and the process of building infrastructure has become longer, and more burdensome, and more expensive. We couldn't build the interstate highway system now.

I'd love to be wrong, but I think that in 40 years, most of the country's major regions will not have trains traveling over 200 mph.

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