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Jerome Lyle Rappaport

Jerome Lyle Rappaport
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Edward Glaeser

Edward Glaeser
Professor of Economics at Harvard University
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Stephen P. Johnson

Stephen P. Johnson
Executive Director of Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Foundation
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Greg Massing

Greg Massing
Executive Director for the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service
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Alasdair Roberts

Alasdair Roberts
Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School
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Joseph Curtatone
Mayor, City of Somerville
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Tim H. Davis

Tim H. Davis
Independent Research Consultant
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Scott Harshbarger
Senior Counsel, Proskauer Rose LLP
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Vivien Li
Executive Director of The Boston Harbor Association
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Guest contributors

Monika Bandyopadhyay
Suffolk University Law Student

David Barron
Harvard Law School and former Deputy Counsel for the Office of Legal Counsel in the US Department of Justice

Linda Bilmes
Senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Assistant Secretary of Commerce during the Clinton Administration.

Brandy H.M. Brooks
Director, Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, Bruner Foundation

Felicia Cote
Rappaport Fellow, Harvard Law School/Harvard Kennedy School.

Amanda Eden
Suffolk University Law School student

Sara Farnum
Student, Suffolk Univ. Law School

Kristin Faucette
Student at Suffolk University Law School

Benjamin Forman
Research Director, MassINC

Arthur Hardy-Doubleday
JD/MBA student at Suffolk University Law School and the Sawyer School of Business

Theodore Kalivas
Boston Green Blog, Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy

David Linhart
Student, Boston University School of Law

Antoniya Owens
Research Analyst, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

Susan Prosnitz
Senior Advisor, TSA, Washington, DC

Ben Thomas
Boston Green Blog, Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy

Matthew Todaro
Student at Boston College Law School

Alexander von Hoffman
Senior Researcher, Joint Center for Housing Studies

Brett Walker
Student, Boston College Law School

Margarita Warren
Student at Suffolk University Law School

France and US: Vive la Difference

Thursday, July 14th, 2011
By Edward Glaeser

Originally published in The Boston Globe, July 14, 2011

In France, unlike in the United States, prevailing in the capital city has been enough to remake the whole country, and not just in terms of political power.

Two hundred twenty-two years ago today, Parisians stormed the Bastille - the citadel and prison in the heart of their city. While the American Revolution required years of fighting from the fields of Concord to the woods of the Carolinas, an upheaval in Paris alone ensured major shifts in power in France in 1789 - and again in 1830, 1848, and 1871.

The stark contrast between the French and American revolutions back then sheds light on differences in how the two nations have governed themselves ever since. It also holds a lesson for President Obama and others who have called for improvements in America’s human and physical infrastructure: The smart investments we need will require not just winning in Washington, but also a long, arduous ground war across America’s far-flung state legislatures.

Before Louis XVI’s dismissal of his finance minister conjured a mob in Paris in 1789, France had been centralizing for hundreds of years. Political institutions reflect the trade-off between dictatorship and disorder; the greater the disorder in a country, the greater the appeal of a strong man on horseback. In all of the last 10 centuries, major wars have bloodied French soil, and the French have sought protection from powerful centralizers from Philip Augustus to Henry IV to Napoleon. As late as 1958, France produced a new constitution, with an empowered chief executive, Charles de Gaulle, to safeguard against a dangerous military coup.

America’s geographic isolation has meant that we never needed a Napoleon to organize us against the angry armies of a hostile continent. Down to the Tea Partying present, many Americans understandably see far more harm than good in a strong central government. Yet while America’s relative safety allowed us the luxury of a national political system well-designed to protect our freedoms, that system is poorly structured to greatly improve public services.

Washington has been less able than Paris to push through more beneficial nationwide reforms. In the late 19th century, France, humiliated by the Prussian Army in the 1870s, sought a stronger, better educated nation. Concurrently, a vast public works program, led by the technocratic public-works minister Charles de Freycinet, invested in the ports, roads, and railroads that connected France.

For Americans who crave radically better schools and public infrastructure, it’s tempting to wish for our own Freycinet - a forceful, superbly trained engineer who could be trusted to invest federal dollars wisely in America’s needs. But those Gallic-inspired dreams ignore the nature and strengths of our country.

Americans can take pride in the fact that our political system has survived, more or less, benign and intact, since 1789, while France experienced Robespierre’s terror, two Napoleonic Empires, and a Bourbon return. During the post-war world, our decentralized, constrained government has avoided major policy mistakes like large-scale industrial nationalization and over-regulating labor markets.

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, we had widespread public schooling far earlier than France, not because of any Washington bureaucrat, but because of the independent actions of towns and states. The greatest piece of 19th century American infrastructure - the Erie Canal - was the handiwork of New York Governor DeWitt Clinton.

Our federalist structure remains; our states oversee education and infrastructure. National attempts to invest in roads and rail must follow congressional formulas designed to spread spending rather than enhance efficiency. When presidents want to improve schooling, they must work around the edges by creating incentives for better measurement and reform.

Bastille Day inevitably reminds us of democratic ideals that resonate across national borders, but it should also remind us of how different we are from France. The French - today as in 1789 - can turn to Paris to remake their nation. But Washington lacks the tools to make America stronger with targeted, wise investments in schooling and infrastructure. For better or worse, we must look locally and ask more from our states.


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