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Book Review February 19, 2004
Never Trust A Real-Estate Agent
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 4
So the most casual look would seem to make it obvious that abandoning Siberia would be insane. So insane that it's hard to avoid the suspicion that Hill and Gaddy are writing in bad faith. Their arguments are often the most naive sort of social-science bluff, as when they use something called "Zipf's Law" to demonstrate that Russia's cities are of the wrong sizes and in the wrong place. I'm not familiar with the work of the unluckily-named Zipf, but if anyone out there knows him, please tell him for me that if Hill and Gaddy's paraphrase is an accurate summary of his theory, he's an ass. Here's their version:

"One of the most interesting regularities in economic development is a phenomenon called "Zipf's law" for cities. Zipf's law says that across all countries and across time, cities generally seem to obey a curious mathematical law with respect to their relative sizes: a country's largest city is approximately twice as large as its second-largest city, three times as big as the third city, four times as large as the fourth, and so on....[Our graph] shows that U.S. cities do indeed closely follow Zipf's law."

And so they do, as the graph shows. Hill and Gaddy are not the sort of thorny, deep intellectuals to look a gift like Zipf in the mouth, so they don't seem troubled by the many obvious exceptions to, and theoretical problems undermining, this so-called law. They do mention "the Paris syndrome" -- "syndrome," yet! -- which means a country's biggest city is "too big" according to Zipf's graph. Poor old Paris, limping along with its "syndrome," going against the will of Zipf. But after mentioning, without comment, this interesting exception, Hill and Gaddy don't work very hard at thinking of other cases. One which came to mind from direct experience was this: in the past decade, I've lived in two countries which are going through huge economic booms, and both feature obvious, extreme cases of the "Paris syndrome." Dublin holds a full one-third of the population of Ireland. Auckland holds almost a third of the population of New Zealand. And yet both countries seem to be doing fairly well -- as does France, for that matter.

The ultimate muddy thinking in this Zipf-the-pinhead graph is that Russia fails to make the grade because its cities aren't big enough: "[I]n Russia...a group of cities, ranking from number three through about number fifteen, are all too small to make the [Zipf] line fit. And they are not off by just a small amount. According to Zipf's law, one would expect that Russia's third largest city would have a population of around 5 million. That city should be followed by cities of, roughly, 4 million, 3 million, 2.5 million, and 2 million. But those are all missing. What is the reason? An answer suggests itself when we look at exactly which cities follow St. Petersburg as number three and lower: Novosibirsk, Nizhniy Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Samara, Omsk. These are all defense industry cities, whose size was tightly regulated by Soviet planners...."

Just stand back from this fake math for a moment and squint at the point the authors are trying to make. Russia fails the Zipf test because its third through fifteenth cities are too small. These are the cold-zone cities which Hill and Gaddy argue should not have been built at all. And now they're to blame for not being big enough? If those same evil Soviet planners had inflated these cities until they made a nice Zipf graph, would that be better? This is classic "kettle logic": they never should have existed, and they're not big enough either.

There are other, even more obvious logical flaws in Zipf's folly. For starters, the concept "a country" is anything but a constant "across all countries," let alone "across time." The notion of "country" is a recent Western invention, and a wobbly one even in its European homeland, to say nothing of the Tropics. For example, when I said that Dublin holds a third of Ireland's population, I meant the population of the 26-county Republic. Should Belfast and Derry, aka Londonderry, count as Irish cities too? Several thousand people have died over that little question, and it's not clear what Zipf would have to say about it. Is Jerusalem an Israeli city? Is Danzig German? History has a way of messing with social scientists like Zipf, Hill and Gaddy, smudging their little graphs in a most uncooperative manner.

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