New working paper

Bobos in Paradise: Urban Politics and the New Economy

The term “bobo” stands for “Bourgeois Bohème” and was coined by David Brooks (2000) in a famous book about the rise of a new knowledge elite. This new kind of bourgeoisie is generally considered as prevalent in globalized capital cities, and its lifestyle and political attitude stand in contrast to that of the traditional bourgeoisie. Furthermore, the bobos are generally viewed as a politically powerful group. They have been instrumental in bringing about left-wing governments in municipalities such as Berlin, Paris or San Francisco, despite the relatively high economic status of this social class.

Politically, the bobos are viewed as generally supportive of environmentalists and/or socialist parties. Their takeover of major cities has taken place in the context of sharply increasing house prices from the mid-1990s to the onset of the financial crisis, and led to policies that recognizably differ from the ones implemented both by the right and by the traditional left. These policies can be summarized as follows

∙  Greater investment in collective urban amenities and socialized recreational events.

∙  Reduced urban space for the automobile, generally coupled with a reduction in parking space, higher taxes and more stringent regulations and constraints for personal vehicles. More investment in public transportation and in dedicated areas for bicycles, skate-boards, roller skates, and so forth. Deregulation of the use of bicyles (authorization to use wrong ways and bus corridors). Public provision of cheap bike and electrical car rental, and dedication of public space to those devices.

∙  Promotion of “social mixity” and “diversity”, by means of transfer policies and/or subsidized housing that maintain a critical mass of lower class dwellers in the city center, while intermediate classes are eliminated and relocate themselves in the outer periphery

This paper provides some elements for understanding these developments from a “pure economic perspective”. By this I mean that I will attempt to explain them as a consequence of technological developments, instead of just assuming that bobos are a new kind of individuals with their own preferences. The paper focuses on the relative roles of, and conflict of interest between two kinds of bourgeoisie:  The skilled workers of the old economy versus the skilled workers of the new economy (bobos). The former work in activities that are more land intensive, while still preferring to live in a city centre. As a result they derive more utility from commuting and are less willing to raise commuting costs in order to improve urban amenities than the bobos. The paper shows that as the new economy grows faster than the old economy, the bobos overtake the cadres as the politically decisive group in the city. As a result, the level of urban amenities goes up and so do transportation costs.  I also show that it may be profitable for the decisive bobo class to subsidize location of lower class unskilled workers in the city, in absence of any altruism toward them or intrinsic taste for a socially diverse makeup of the city. This is because such subsidies allow to force the economy to settle in a “bunkerized” equilibrium in which the service providers to city dwellers are located in the city, so that the price of services no longer goes up with the amenity level. As a result, ex-post there is no cost to raising the amenity level in the city, and the resulting political equilibrium involves the highest possible level of amenities, while commuting has disappeared.

Finally, I provide evidence using French cities that those urban areas that have most invested in amenities are such that (i) had a greater employment share in the new economy initially, (ii) experienced the fastest growth in house prices, and (iii) tended to have a greater increase in service employment as well as the proportion of inhabitants in public rent-controlled housing.

Read it here


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