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Columbia University Renews Effort to Use Eminent Domain to Acquire Property in Manhattanville:

I am sorry to see that Columbia University is still trying to use eminent domain acquire property in the Manhattanville neighborhood in West Harlem. Last year, it seemed that Columbia had largely abandoned this misguided policy, though it reserved the right to potentially use eminent domain to forcibly acquire "a few" commercial properties. It is now seeking to use the condemnation process to acquire several properties in the area owned by small businesses. Nick Spraygens, owner of some of the lots in question has an interesting Wall Street Journal op ed describing his plight. As he notes, New York state has some of the laxest eminent domain laws in the entire country, enabling virtually any property to be declared "blighted" and condemned. Sadly, this is also true in many other states, even in the wake of new reforms enacted as a result of the backlash against the Supreme Court's decision in Kelo v. City of New London.

I have criticized Columbia's plans in several earlier posts. See this one for the most recent, which also contains links to earlier ones. In this 2006 post, I gave some reasons why eminent domain should not be used to transfer property to universities more generally. Universities are wonderful institutions (what else would you expect a professor to say?). But if they want to expand, they should be required to purchase the land they want from willing sellers.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Columbia University Renews Effort to Use Eminent Domain to Acquire Property in Manhattanville:
  2. Saving Property from Columbia University:
Perseus (mail):
Universities are wonderful institutions (what else would you expect a professor to say?

This professor isn't so sure about that. Some deserve condemnation for blighting the intellectual landscape.
9.6.2008 4:43am
Glenn W. Bowen (mail):
Also, in NY state, when the property is blighted, the state places a notice in a newspaper (you know, in the classified section with the "I will no longer be responsible for debts incurred by..." notices)- any newspaper in the state.

The owners rarely know their property has been blighted until it's too late, literally- there's a deadline involved to respond within, and it's usually expired by the time the owner becomes aware of circumstances.

Or something like that.

The NY Times got their new building in Manhattan through eminent domain.
9.6.2008 9:40am
DiverDan (mail):
Based on the Op-ed, it appears that Columbia University has, by its own actions and inactions, helped to create the very blight that gave rise to the conditions necessary for condemnation. This appears to me to be a clear case of public nuisance -- if and when a condemnation case is brought by the State Agency, the Property Owners ought to bring in Columbia University as a third part defendant on a claim of intentional public nuisance, and seek actual and exemplary damages for the blight which it created by its poor stewardship of the land it acquired. Columbia should not be permitted to profit from the very blight which it helped to create.
9.6.2008 10:46am
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Gee, you'd think New York was some sort of Communist country, wouldn't you?
9.6.2008 2:00pm
Calculate Risk:
I think what Somin says is silly in a previous post is beyond silly.


Another might be educating underprivileged students, though this is less clearly a public good than basic research is, since most of the benefits are captured by the students themselves.


Well, if you get mugged in an inner city by one of these underprivileged individuals, maybe you will see that you do have a stake in their education.

More generally, the idea that an educated individual who contributes to the economy primarily contributes to their own well-being is absurd.

If someone is educated to be a computer engineer and makes a comfortable salary, it is clear that consumers also benefit, because they get whatever innovative products are produced and which provide enormous consumer surplus. The fact is that educated individuals (especially engineers) can provide more desirable products at lower prices. To say that they are the only or even primary beneficiaries of their education is to fundamentally misunderstand economics and the gains from trade.

It is quite clear that an extraordinary institution like Columbia University is not only a public benefit to New York City and New York State, but a public benefit to the United States as well. We should be proud to have such an excellent university (among many others) in our country, and the people it educates contribute to our well-being enormously. There is no denying that. To say that individuals educated at Columbia who go on to successful careers capture all the surplus they produce is to fundamentally misunderstand basic economics. Its as if there is such a thing as consumer surplus.

It is absurd to reduce the benefits we get from an institution like Columbia to the research that goes on campus itself. This isn't a surprising bias for an academic like Somin to have, but it isn't true. If someone gets their computer science degree and works for a private company that then produces an innovate product, do consumers not benefit from having access to a product that they would not otherwise. If a student is educated at Columbia and is exposed to world-class research there and later joins a pharmaceutical company and uses their human capital to produce innovative new drugs, do consumers not benefit? Well, you tell me. How much is a drug that prevents heart disease or helps treat cancer worth to a consumer? How much surplus do you extract from such an innovation???

It is quite clear that under any normal definition of public benefit, that Columbia University provides such benefits in numerous ways, and at a very high level.

This is simply undeniable. You can't with a straight face, if you know even basic economics, deny consumer surplus and claim that students are the only or primary beneficiaries of their education. Gains from trade are enormous. This is why we engage in so much trade, even though it is taxed quite heavily (i.e. income taxes, sales taxes, etc.) In fact, I am pretty sure that someone like Somin would be pretty close to unable to survive without trade and the benefits he derives from it. (Oh, one should also mention that there are benefits to communities as well from educated individuals -- but, I have already hit a home run just mentioning consumer surplus, so there is no need to go there.)

Now, Somin would like to twist the plain meaning of language so that "public benefit" does not include consumer surplus. This is perverse, given that he and countless others probably would not even be able to survive on this planet but for consumer surplus, but it is not surprising.

It is fine with me that Somin considers property rights to be sacred cows, and that the property rights of particular individuals should trump the greater good of society. That is his ideology. But, I wish there was some basic honesty. Why not admit that Columbia and other institutions like it do in fact provide enormous public benefits? Is the production of educated individuals who then more efficiently produce the goods and services that you depend on to survive not a public benefit? Give me a break. If that is not a public benefit, then nothing is.
9.6.2008 10:19pm
Calculated Risk:
Oh, I should make another point. What is this really all about, really? In a previous post, Somin wrote (referring to both public and private universities):


But whatever its legal status, taking property for the benefit of universities is both unnecessary and unjust.


That is what this is really about. Somin is trying to thrust his conception of morality down our throats, even if we do not share that conception of morality. This is very illiberal.

Now, there isn't necessarily anything wrong with advocating for a particular conception of morality to be imposed on the unwilling. This is sometimes necessary, as when we outlaw murder, or theft, or slavery, or discrimination.

But, lets be clear. This is fundamentally a moral issue for Somin. His argument that universities do not provide a unique public benefit is beyond absurd, and he knows it. The only reason he wants to argue such a thing is to preserve the ability of libertarian activists to impose their sense of morality through the courts rather than the democratic process.

Is consumer surplus a public benefit? Of course! To argue otherwise would to be to say that government has no business adopting policies (including lowering taxes) for the purpose of stimulating the economy. Do we as a nation have an interest in having the best and the brightest working here, and having the best technology when it comes to national defense? Well, guess what. You can't have that without a good economy. There are countless other benefits that go to our basic sense of security and identity as a nation that are tied to the well-being of the economy.

I think what we have here is a moral commitment that Somin thinks should trump pragmatic considerations of cost-benefit analysis. His absurd arguments that universities do not provide massive public benefits and that the education of students is primarily captured by them (as if they don't engage in trade after they graduate!) can be explained in no other way.

Well, I suppose that there is an alternative explanation. Somin is ignorant of basic economics. That explanation strikes me as highly unlikely. The more likely truth is that Somin is arguing this point of view not because he fails to understand the power of consumer surplus and basic economics, but rather because acknowledging the truth makes it much more difficult to argue against the view that private universities provide a public benefit.

Here is what I suggest. You, Somin, are an academic more than a lawyer. So, instead of crafting your argument to advance a particular agenda, why not craft your argument to fully recognize the obvious truth. The benefits of education are not fully captured by students because of consumer surplus. Consumer surplus is a massive public benefit enjoyed by practically every member of society and a benefit without which many of us would not even be able to survive, much less thrive!

Okay, lets dissect these words.

Public = "accessible to or shared by all members of the community"

Benefit = "something that promotes well-being"

Consumer surplus is in fact accessible to all members of the community. And it is also something that promotes well-being. Thus, consumer surplus is a public benefit.

In fact, not only is consumer surplus a public benefit. Consumer surplus is also a public use.

End of story.

I have an idea. If you want to impose your morality on the unwilling, why not do it through the democratic process rather than trying to use the courts?? Hasn't the so-called "Kelo-backlash" convinced you that it is in fact possible to achieve some of your goals through the political process? All things considered equal, isn't it better for your conception of morality to be established by a majority of the people rather than a minority of the judges?
9.6.2008 10:53pm