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Perspective

The Untapped Wealth of American Cities

Compared to counterparts overseas, cities in the U.S. are terrible at managing their public assets, a new book argues.
In Copenhagen, the government knows how to leverage public assets like harbors.
In Copenhagen, the government knows how to leverage public assets like harbors. Reuters

Americans who travel abroad sometimes wonder why many of our airports are lacking in comparison to the best international airports. Or they want to know why other nations seem to do a better job with public transportation and the management of other public assets, from ports to parks. The answers we are tempted to give are that we do not invest as heavily in public infrastructure as many other nations and that a market-oriented American ethos with an entrepreneurial culture prefers private solutions (cars versus trains) to public ones. These answers are certainly part of the story.

But there’s another answer: Compared to many other nations, in the United States government has more direct control of public assets such as airports, convention centers, and transport, water and sewer systems (just to name a few). And the government does not, for the most part, manage them well, failing to leverage the market potential and value of the assets they own. Far from being broke, many cities and counties have enormous untapped wealth, which could be used to finance not only infrastructure but investments in children and other critical needs.