George McCarthy

Director--Metropolitan Opportunity, Ford Foundation
New York, NY, United States

About George

Bio

George ("Mac") McCarthy directs the Ford Foundation's Metropolitan Opportunity work. His team focuses on providing low-income people in metropolitan regions, in the U.S. and in developing countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, better access to jobs and other opportunities by supporting better planning, infrastructure investment and housing development reduces poverty and the social isolation of the poor.

Prior to joining the Ford Foundation in 2000, Mac was a senior research associate at the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has worked as professor of economics at Bard College; resident scholar at the Jerome Levy Economics Institute; visiting scholar and member of the High Table at King's College of Cambridge University; visiting scholar at the University of Naples, Italy; and research associate at the Centre for Independent Social Research in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Mac earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a master's degree in economics from Duke University and a bachelor's degree in economics and mathematics from the University of Montana.

Areas of Expertise

Economics, Mathematics, Urban and Regional Planning, Statistical Analysis, writing - creative nonfiction

An idea worth spreading

Economics is built on the myth of scarcity. Choices must be made to distribute finite resources among infinite wants and needs. But if more is always better, wants are always infinite. But what if wants and needs are not infinite? What if scarcity is an artificial construct that allows one to defend obviously unfair distribution of things? History is replete with examples of artificial scarcity run amok--famines in India, Bangladesh; homelessness in America. People starving when there is plenty of food; families without shelter in a country with too much housing. Perhaps we need a new science of choice predicated on different criteria. Perhaps that science might be based on minimizing pain before we maximize utility. Perhaps we distinguish between needs and wants and meet needs first.

I'm passionate about

Fairness--the policies, practices, and institutions that distribute power, wealth, goods, and agency.

Progress--permanent improvement, of self, society, planet.

Talk to me about

Urban policy, urban planning, economic history, economic forecasting, econometrics, greek mythology, astronomy, mortgage lending, housing policy

People don't know I'm good at

Crossword puzzles and all word games

Favorite talks

Comments & conversations

199643
George McCarthy
Posted almost 2 years ago
How can we build cities that are sustainable, inclusive and truly just?
Can we take this discussion in a different direction? There are infinite problem statements (or impossibility threorems) and an equal number of things we "must" do to make cities (and human habitation on Earth) successful. But in the spirit of promoting improvement rather than perfection, I'd like to focus on the myriad ways that cities are already delivering on their potential. I'm not trying to be pollyannish. I believe that powerful forces align to make our work harder and to increase chances that we will fail. But humans have confronted unassailable challenges before and found ways to overcome them. Epidemics of cholera were quite daunting for those trying to make it work in dense urban areas that used surface water for septic systems. One answer might have been to limit the denisty of human settlement to conform to the waste absorptive capacity of the local environment. Another was to detect, diagnose, and invest in ways to overcome cholera. A key component to winning against cholera was collective action--organizing multiple stakeholders to combine resources (through government as an intermediary) to build infrastructure to treat waste differently and to deliver clean water to residents. In the developed world, we pretty much solved the cholera problem by the end of the 19th century. We're still fighting it in many places in the developing world--most prominently, Haiti. But as proven in the Orangi Pilot in Karachi in the 1990s, it is still possible to organize collective action to tackle pressing problems. And, sometimes, the response can provide direct, tangible, benefits for those on the bottom. In the case of the Orangi project, the slum dwellers who suffered the most from open sewers benefitted from improved living conditions and through jobs that were created for them to enclose the sewers. In Buenos Aires, a similar public-private partnership brought natural gas infrastructure to poor residents in the outskirts of the city.
199643
George McCarthy
Posted almost 2 years ago
How can we build cities that are sustainable, inclusive and truly just?
Craig, I'm not sure what your question is, but I appreciate the ad hominem argument. I'm not trying to convince you of the existence of a utopian city where all of the disenfranchised are enfranchised and happily participating in the mainstream economy. Instead, I would like you to believe in the possibility of Just Cities--cities that are prosperous, inclusive, fair, and sustainable. It is my hypothesis that cities that provide equal access to opportunity and engage those on the bottom to participate in the life of the city are likely to outperform other cities in the global economy. I can give you plenty of examples of cities that failed to consider the fortunes of those on the bottom and have suffered for it (economically, politically, socially). This is the story of the Arab Spring, Occupy Everywhere, or recent uprisings in Istanbul or Sao Paulo. There are many cities that have done a better job at bottom-up planning and development and are succeeding because of it. Examples like Medellin, Curitiba, and Vancouver come to mind. Even Detroit made a big leap forward by engaging more than 100,000 people in its recent Detroit Future City long term plan. In addition, cities that have embraced immigrants and inclusion have prospered--like the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, or Toronto. This is not to imply that the latter cities are exemplars of bottom-up planning, but "better" has many dimensions. I have no illusions that I can convince you with these examples, but I hope you remain open to the possibility that we'd all be better off if we build Just Cities. It is true that well-healed people like me have the luxury of being idealistic, but many of us are working hard to make cities better by promoting bottom-up solutions.
199643
George McCarthy
Posted almost 2 years ago
How can we build cities that are sustainable, inclusive and truly just?
I don't look at cities as be-all-end-all, so much as I look at them as inevitable. Humans have been urbanizing steadily for the last three centuries. In 1800, the world's urban population was about 3% of total population (defining "urban" as agglomeration of 20,000 or more). Today, we're closing in on 55% of world population in cities. Each year we're adding 1.5% of world population to cities. I don't think we're going to stop the process, so it behooves us to influence the process to minimize damage to surrounding areas, damage to the planet, or damage to cities' own inhabitants. For us, Just Cities are cities that don't victimize anyone. The challenge is how we get there. New technologies and innovation can bring technical answers to issues like water, waste, etc. Innovation in social and political realms, however, is a little harder to generate. And there's no guarantee that poorly distributed power and wealth will not rear its ugly head and misdirect social and political evolution to the benefit of a few. But, just like the bullying practices you note above, the misuse of power puts us on an unsustainable path. That is why we are trying to build the commitment to social justice as a prerogative for urban success and prosperity in the long run--the path to urban success runs through fairness, inclusion, participation. And we need to prepare people to more actively shape their cities. One step in the right direction is a redefined 21st century citizenship. I recommend Eric Liu's talk at TED City2.0. (One take home from that talk was the danger of fatalism and Eric's observation that one commonality shared by most of the over-privileged and the under-privileged is they both somehow feel that they deserve what they've gotten.)
199643
George McCarthy
Posted almost 2 years ago
How can we build cities that are sustainable, inclusive and truly just?
Edward, you need to move beyond simple correlation if you want to solve the crime problem. There is extremely high variation between cities of similar size and, similarly, very high variation across rural areas. In fact, because of their small populations many rural areas have the very highest crime rates (usually measured as the number of crimes per 100,000 people). Let's look at the cities with dense populations and low crime rates to get a clue about how to solve this challenge. How about some help from others out there?
199643
George McCarthy
Posted almost 2 years ago
How can we build cities that are sustainable, inclusive and truly just?
That is the key, Fritzie. Let's hear from others about successful ways to provide people and families the opportunity to contribute through their own work. One idea that I like: micro-work through organizations like SamaSource that build pathways to formal employment for slum dwellers through low-skill tech-based jobs. Check out Leila Janah's Tedx talk.
199643
George McCarthy
Posted almost 2 years ago
How can we build cities that are sustainable, inclusive and truly just?
Aja, we've been supporting efforts to lock up a significant portion of the housing stock in structures that maintain "permanent affordability" through mechanisms like community land trusts. Check out the Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington Vermont which has succeeded in protecting around 20% of the housing stock as permanently affordable. Not to mention--management of the property is governed by local community.
199643
George McCarthy
Posted almost 2 years ago
How can we build cities that are sustainable, inclusive and truly just?
Mike, Mike, Mike...listen to yourself. You are condemning a species of which you are a member. Do you think that large gatherings bring out the worst in you? Let's consider an alternative. The vast majority of people in urban agglomerations, and other gatherings, sincerely want to make it work. Let's say 99% of them. But the mere fact of density is that we increase the concentration of those who don't. Urban density increases the probability that we will encounter people who respond to crowds with aggression, paranoia, and those that are just having a bad day. This probability might increase 100-fold relative to rural areas. And, because we tend to focus attention on negative encounters and ignore the positive or neutral ones, we miss the fact that almost all of our encounters are good. So even if 99% of people are trying to make it work, if we generalize from our negative experiences we might draw erroneous conclusions about humanity. I would like to believe that you are one of the 99% trying to make it work. Density also increases the concentration of ingenuity, brilliance, and innovation. Thus, cities are the crucible of modern government, not to mention the source of solutions to problems like cholera. The concentration of people and resources unleashes unprecedented creative forces--including evolutionary adaptation. There is no doubt that urbanization is driving human evolution--consider the fact that the mating and reproductive behavior of human urban and rural dwellers differs more than behaviors across race, religion, or ethnicity. So, I would submit that urbanization is changing the nature of man--to the benefit of both the species and the planet--for example, lower urban fertility rates are now defusing the "population bomb." So, I prefer to celebrate the better humanity that urbanization brings forth.
199643
George McCarthy
Posted almost 2 years ago
How can we build cities that are sustainable, inclusive and truly just?
Bob, I agree with your sentiments, but I have to interrogate the Sisyphus reference. Why do we always assume that Sisyphus is a tragic figure? Because we orient ourselves solely toward goal achievement. This is also the problem with the economic logic that promotes "grow or die." I would like to revisit Sisyphus and suggest another conclusion: Sisyphus was a guy with a goal. He drew meaning from the process of his struggle. He found meaning in the effort of rolling a boulder up a hill, and he was rewarded each day with the opportunity to do it. Most people in the world would love to have clarity of purpose and the opportunity to pursue purpose and meaning. So long as we remember that the meaning is in the journey and not the destination, we could tap into the unlimited potential of cities by offering everyone the opportunity to manifest their potential and find meaning in the hard work of making cities better. Just a thought...
199643
George McCarthy
Posted almost 2 years ago
How can we build cities that are sustainable, inclusive and truly just?
I'm always suspicious of fixed constraints. Why 100k and 30 miles? Why not 50k and 25 miles? 150k and 27 miles? It seems to me that these kinds of limits are set by a variety of contextual factors--not least of which culture and technology. I'm optimistic that large urban areas can overcome current failures through the natural confluence of human, financial and technical resources that cities provide. Innovation has invariably released constraints. Social fairness and shared prosperity are a result of decisions we make, systems we build, and the discipline we are willing to exert on ourselves to adopt better practices. I think I'll keep plugging at the challenge.