Lou Cannon has a nice remembrance in RealClearPolitics of Martin Anderson, the economist and adviser to Ronald Reagan who died last week at 78. He touches on all of Anderson’s accomplishments, from his successful advocacy in the Nixon White House to abolish the military draft to his unearthing, with his wife Annelise Anderson and Kiron Skinner, the handwritten drafts of Ronald Reagan’s radio speeches, which show the impressive breadth of Reagan’s reading and depth of his thinking.
Let me add one more item to the list: Anderson’s 1964 book “The Federal Bulldozer: A Critical Analysis of Urban Renewal 1942-1962.” When I first met Anderson at the Hoover Institution, his professional base after he left the Reagan administration, he was pleased when I mentioned the book and the influence it had on me. I had imagined that urban renewal was a good idea; Anderson demonstrated that it was a terrible one. The theory, promoted by New Dealers but endorsed by the conservative Republican Sen. Robert Taft, was that poor housing conditions blighted people’s lives and that the free market would never produce adequate housing. This had some plausibility since very little housing was built in the United States between 1930 and 1945, because of depression and war; and since many New York tenements built around 1900 were notoriously dismal places.
But as Anderson pointed out, urban renewal administrators were much better at tearing down often functional neighborhoods and very bad at building housing to replace it. Benefits went to politically connected insiders; costs were borne by ordinary people — often ordinary black people — with no clout. In my home city of Detroit, the old black neighborhood on Hastings Street (don’t look for it on the map; it has been replaced by the Chrysler Freeway) was torn down circa 1948, but the handsome Mies van der Rohe high-rises and townhouses in what was called Lafayette Park were not opened for occupation until 1961. I remember that because I lived in one of the high-rises from 1969 to 1972.
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As I read “The Federal Bulldozer,” I found myself arguing with Anderson — and losing one argument after another. In retrospect, the uncanny ability of Franklin Roosevelt to appoint administrators such as Harry Hopkins and to work with New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who were geniuses at getting things done, gave Americans confidence in the efficacy of big government. Martin Anderson, in his research for “The Federal Bulldozer,” showed that their successors lacked this unusual ability. It was a pioneering book which came under blistering attack by boosters of urban renewal but which remains relevant now a half-century after its publication — the first of Martin Anderson’s many contributions to good public policy.
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