Edward Glaeser speaks to the NDSU community

NDSU Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth | Photo Courtesy
Edward Glaeser is a renowned Economist.

The Menard Family Distinguished Speaker Series continued with Edward Glaeser

Edward Glaeser participated in a discussion over Zoom on Dec. 3 to talk to the NDSU community about geographical effects with the pandemic. The topic of discussion was how COVID-19 changes the countries’ spatial economy.

The event was hosted by The Sheila and Robert Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth as part of the Menard Family Distinguished Speaker Series. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is the second speaker for the series. John Bitzan, the Director of the Challey Institute, conducted a Q&A session with Glaeser.

Pre-COVID social problem

Glaeser began the event with talking about the decline of male employment before the current pandemic.

He explained there has been an increase in “prime age” male unemployment from 1967 to present day. “Prime age” classifies between 25 to 54 years of age according to Glaeser.  

“There are parts in America both in the southwest and eastern heartland where more than one in four prime age males are jobless,” Glaeser said. Unemployment is less significant in the costal and western heartland regions.

For females, Glaeser pointed out, it is more of a north and south divide for unemployment rates and the south has lower labor force participation.

There are strong differences between labor force participation and unemployment. Glaeser said unemployment is a better scenario because you are still looking for a job. Contrarily, “if you have left the labor force entirely…it means you have given up,” he said.

“A sense of wellbeing in life is not driven just or primarily by income,” Glaeser said. “A job is not just about income; a job is a sense of purpose and social connection.”

Three heartlands of America

Glaeser talked about three regions of the United States and referred to them frequently. The heartlands are who entered the union before or after the 1840’s and “shows the different growth of the working population,” Glaeser defined.

The three heartlands, western, eastern, and costal measure growth in different ways.

Glaeser explained growth in the costal states are measured by the GDP rate per capita and the western is measured by number of people.

The west region has the greatest growth, followed by costal states then the eastern heartland. “The western heartlands have by far the lowest level of joblessness, as it has the past 30 year period,” Glaeser said.

Previous pandemics

Before diving into the COVID-19 pandemic, Glaeser acknowledged previous diseases and how it plays into the current crisis.

The Plague of Athens occurred in 430 BC and the city did everything in their control, Glaeser said. “They enabled collaborative chains of creativity and gave us the birth of philosophy, history, democracy, triumph in art and remarkable things.”

The evolvement of smart strategies is a thought Glaeser referred to often. “Smart people learn from one another and copy from one another…it set the tone for urban innovations that follow after as well as plagues that would come in.”

Glaeser said money spending can play into problems from past and current pandemics. “American cities and towns are spending as much on water at the start of the 20th century as our federal government is spending on everything else except for the post office and army,” he stated. “I suspect going forward, the COVID pandemic never happens again, we will also have to reinforce our financial commitment to fighting contagious diseases in the 21st century.”

COVID-19 in low and high density

Glaeser, who also has focused work on city growth and the idea of transmission, talked about how the virus works in low and high density populations in the country.

COVID does not need high density to spread but rather personal contact. “We react by deurbanizing our world in a second…cities in a sense are the absence of physical space between people,” Glaeser said.

He gave an example by analyzing New York. Manhattan has high population density and lower virus rates. When Manhattan was new to the risk, they reacted accordingly, Glaeser pointed out. Staten Island is low population density yet has high virus rates because of their behavioral response.

Simply put, “a disease always is shaped by how people react to them,” Glaeser said. “The opposite of urbanity is social distancing, being physically apart from one another and we did that in a dime.”

Shift to telecommuting

The pandemic has forced many people to transition working at home.

By May 2020, 50 million Americans lost their job, and 50 million moved to teleworking, Glaeser said. “It has led a number of people to predict this change to remote work will be permanent.”

Remote jobs have stayed relatively consistent in rates if they have formed relationships before the pandemic, Glaeser pointed out. “You can’t necessarily bring someone in or teach them the culture of the job if all they have ever done is see you over Zoom.”

Glaeser acknowledged the challenge with teaching online. Education thrives with face to face contact and he detailed his struggle with keeping his students engaged with online teaching. “This is much less fun and much less exciting than being face to face,” he said in regard to the Zoom presentation.  

It was thought new technologies would make the remote transition better, however it may be the opposite.

“The more complicated the world became, the more valuable it became to be smart,” Glaeser said. “Cyberspace will never compare with sharing a meal, kiss or smile.”

Coming back stronger

Glaeser mentioned the challenge the economy will face with getting back to normal after the pandemic. There are two options for how the next couple years play out.

The first point Glaeser said was if the crisis doesn’t end soon or the vaccine is not successful, there will be more significant changes. “I believe the harm and pain of that would be we are smart enough to make the medical investments to make sure this never happens again,” he said.

The second point is if the pandemic does end quickly and vaccines are successful, urban life will return but will still face shortages. “Commercial space may be more vulnerable than residential with the switch to remote,” Glaeser mentioned.

He gave insight on what economic statuses will be after COVID. Local transportation, local budgets, and international travel will be depressed for some time after the pandemic to overcome the economic challenges and lost costs.

Audience questions

The conversation allowed questions from the audience after Glaeser’s presentation. Bitzan asked him about the pressure on education for children and concern for the lack of in-person education.

“I think it is always a good time to make a case for school reform. It has been a claustrophobic year for children’s learning,” Glaeser responded. “Individual teachers are heroes.”

Glaeser is also director of the Taubman Center for state and local government, and director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. He has written several books including New York Times national best-seller “Triumph of the City.”

The event was a bit over an hour long with over 300 attendees.

The next guest speaker in the Menard Family Distinguished Speaker Series is J.D. Vance on Jan. 19. For more information, check out https://www.ndsu.edu/challeyinstitute/events/distinguished_speakers/.

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