It always surprises me that the name of Anthony Downs is not mentioned more often in conjunction with the Nobel Prize in economics. His An Economic Theory of Democracy is one of the best and most important books on public choice economics, and it is the major source for the median voter theorem. Yet now a new paperback copy of the book is not to be had for less than $100. Downs also had major contributions to transportation economics (traffic expands to fill capacity) and housing and urban economics and the theory of bureaucracy.
Yesterday I learned that Downs was a major White House consultant on race and urban affairs in 1967, working with James Tobin and Kermit Gordon and other luminaries on the National Commission on Urban Problems. What they produced fed into what was described as “The Most Courageous Government Report in the Last Decade,” namely the Kerner Commission report. Here are some details:
1. Downs did much of the work of the commission and much of the actual writing, including of the Kerner Report, including the section on housing policy and the ghetto.
2. He was very concerned with “white flight” and thought a more radical approach to urban poverty was needed. He thought Great Society programs had not been tried on a large enough scale.
3. In the view of Downs, major progress already had been made, but he worried that aspirations were rising faster than living standards.
4. He spelt out a “status quo approach,” a “ghetto-improvement strategy,” and a “dispersal strategy” based on integration. He considered the latter the most ambitious and perhaps the most unikely. He focused on outlining these alternatives, and their benefits and costs, rather than recommending any one of them.
5. Among the specific proposals considered were a Neighborhood Youth Corps, increasing the minimum wage, job training, public service programs, and a federally enforced fair employment-practices bill. The draft also encouraged policymakers to think about educational vouchers, decentralizing urban school systems, and educational innovation. There were arguments as to whether teachers’ unions should be held at fault and weakened.
It is striking how little these debates have progressed since more than fifty years ago.
p.s. Many on the right were critical of the report.
This is all from Steven M. Gillon, Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism.