Was Jane Jacobs Responsible for Donald Trump’s Victory? Another “Cleopatra’s Nose” Counterfactual

I’ve always been a big fan of Jane Jacobs’ crusading work as a historic preservationist.  So I was surprised to see various observers indirectly blaming her for Donald Trump’s victory in the Electoral College.

As the economist Matthew Kahn argued in a recent post:

“I have a new explanation for Trump's win that does not involve Weiner or talking about Deplorables or emails.   California's zoning codes caused the win. If California had Texas style housing regulations, then 80 million people would live in California and the state would have 100 electoral votes.  The state would still vote Democrat (because of the composition of these new voters) and Clinton would have won….

“Ironically, as I show in this 2011 paper,  California's progressive cities have blocked housing supply and thus rationed out the middle class from moving here.   Such individuals have to live somewhere and the net result was more electoral votes in the Midwest.”

“Note that the same point can be made for Oregon and Washington state. These progressive states could pack in millions of more people and thus have more  electoral votes but they have chosen to be "inelastic.”

So what is the relevance of Jane Jacobs?

In a subsequent post, Noel Maurer spun Kahn's article by adding the headline: "Did Jane Jacobs Swing the Election for Trump?"

Maurer's point is as follows: while Jacobs’s pioneering efforts to oppose modernist urban renewal schemes ended up preserving countless 19th century buildings (many of then apartments) from the wrecking ball in the 1960s and 1970s, she simultaneously prevented cities from becoming more densely settled. Low slung 19th century buildings, after all, can accommodate far fewer people per block than fifty story high-rises.  Had Jacobs not succeeded in preserving America’s historic housing stock, therefore, states like California (and beyond) would be more densely settled and have more electoral votes that would benefit Democrats.

To be sure, Maurer challenges Kahn's claim that California could possibly boast 80 million people.  He acknowledges, however, that “47 million Californians” would be imaginable.

As he writes:

“Zoning restrictions certainly prevented the population of the Westside from doubling or tripling, [but] it is less certain that it kept the population of the entire Southland from growing. Fewer people in Santa Monica, more in Riverside County."

He then turns to the figure of 47 million figure and observes:

“Growth restrictions became significant around 1970 and began to bite by 1980. Well, if California had grown at the same rate as Texas since 1970, it would have 48 million people today, not too far off the Delong counterfactual. (If it had grown at the same rate since 1980, California would have 45 million people)."

“Now, to really figure out if this swung the electoral college you would have to guess at where the extra nine million people came from. Some might be from states that received Californian outmigration; others might be immigrants who would go to California rather than elsewhere. But we will ignore that for now.”

“Well, 37 million people got California 55 electoral votes in 2010; 45 million (remember, the 2010 population would be below 2016) would have gotten it 65-66 electoral votes.”

“No, not really enough to swing the election.”

“But if you assume that New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts would also be much bigger, then you start getting somewhere….”

So how to evaluate this argument?  Should we be cursing Jane Jacobs’s name?

To be sure, blaming Jane Jacobs for Donald Trump’s election rhetorically makes a great headline and ensures that the claim gets attention.  Like Blaise Pascal’s famous remark about Cleopatra’s Nose changing the course of ancient Roman history, it appeals to our fascination with how minor causes can have major effects.     

But it obviously errs in positing a monocausal explanation for an overdetermined event.  There were plenty of other reasons why Trump won, the subtraction of which might just as easily have changed the outcome.   California’s population (or lack thereof) cannot be seen as a variable that, in and of itself, was sufficient determine to the election’s outcome.

At the same time, the fact that this past election hinged on a mere 80,000 votes in three states explains the desire to isolate the key factor (or factors) that might have made things different.

The focus on California’s population, moreover, does cast attention on the very real problem of how the clustering of democratic voters in urban areas (especially on the coasts) has weakened the Democratic Party’s strength in the interior of the country and hurt its fortunes in the Electoral College.
In the final analysis, however, the main reason for rejecting the Jacobs-Trump linkage is the absolute incompatibility of the two New Yorkers’ architectural views.  The construction of Trump Tower from 1980-83 caused controversy because it required the demolition of the iconic art deco Bonwit Teller department store located on the site.  (In a gesture of impatient philistinism, Trump infamously refused to save some of the building’s famed deco sculptures despite being enjoined to).  The fact that the real estate developer triumphed over the historic preservationist makes it all the more galling to attribute the success of the former in any way to the latter.


Anonymous said…
I'm surprised I never came across this before now! I have to say this is a succinct and fair reading of my post.

Not the most interesting comment, I know. Fascinating blog, by the way.