You Say You Want A (Metropolitan) Revolution?

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[Book Review] The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy, by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley. 2013, Brookings Focus Book

It's now decades after deindustrialization, and several years since the Great Recession supposedly ended. Yet too many American cities are still struggling to recover from the losses of jobs, population, taxes, and identities. Detroit’s declaration of bankruptcy in July drew new attention to the problem, and it helped fuel the extensive marketing campaign for The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution, published just a few weeks earlier. The book quickly became a cause célèbre garnering high praise from various media outlets.

Katz and Bradley highlight the emergence of “trading metros” with "innovation districts," clusters of universities and local businesses, hospitals, museums, and advanced technology and manufacturing industries held together regionally with housing, retail and transit networks that seem to promise a better economic future. The book’s strength lies in its attention to metros, rather than cities, as the unit of urban settlement and economics. The authors encourage planners and government officials to develop new strategies based on “Emergent Metros” rather than “Legacy Cities.”

This attention to metropolitan areas is welcome, but the book's outline of the future is overly optimistic. Describing deindustrialization and disinvestment as part of an evolutionary process and a “revolution unleashed” is hyperbole reminiscent of Atlas Shrugged. More critically, The Metropolitan Revolution can be read as a neoliberal sales pitch. In fact, Katz and Bradley have “doubled down” on an approach that has not only dominated economic thought since the 1980s, but that has actually contributed to the urban crisis today.

Neoliberal theory hypothesizes that small government, deregulation, global production networks, free trade agreements, labor market flexibility, abandonment of full employment policy, cost shifting, and capital mobility improve corporate competitiveness and unleash the entrepreneurial spirit, and increase productivity. These ideas have been applied to corporate restructuring over the last 30 years, informing changes like downsizing, outsourcing, and rightsizing. In another example, neoliberals argued that the housing bubble and the subsequent Great Recession resulted from federal government intervention in the housing market, which encouraged home ownership for the unqualified, and from a national liberal monetary policy. Even when neoliberal economic policies have failed, proponents have continued their unwavering critique of “big government” and regulations.

Using the language of neoliberalism and corporate restructuring, Katz and Bradley write that the metropolitan revolution is “exploding the tired construct” about the role of the federal government. Now, they say, it is the cities and metro areas that “are becoming the leaders in the nation: experimenting, taking risks, making hard choices and asking for forgiveness not permission.” Their metropolitan revolution sees power relations being restructured, as metros and cities take greater responsibility for their economic growth, and as federal government power devolves: “The metropolitan revolution has only one logical conclusion: the inversion of the hierarchy of power in the US.” But, we should ask, inversion for whom? Their examples all seem to suggest shifts from elected government officials to unelected business and economic leaders and non-governmental organizations.

Katz and Bradley borrow heavily from neoliberal architects who claimed that, in the corporate world, restructuring would result in greater local and regional cooperation and in independence for the new businesses on which future growth would be based. But corporate restructuring promised more than it delivered, as corporations were downsized, outsourced, and resource starved. Instead of cooperation, restructuring often led to an increase in internal predatory activity and greater control by corporate headquarters, under the rubric of the 'survival of the fittest'.

Much like the early supporters of corporate restructuring, Katz and Bradley make an overly optimistic case, citing cherry-picked metros that seem to have accepted current conditions and neoliberal strategies as part of the natural economic order. But, constrained by state and federal neoliberal defunding policy, cities that lie within metros, especially in the Rust Belt, are hoarding or fighting for resources in a zero sum game of economic and regional development. Just as in the corporate sector, local and regional collaborations are largely ineffective. As Harvard economist Stephan Marlin has suggested, it may be that thinking like an economist can undermine a real sense of community.

Rather than Katz and Bradley’s view of metro areas as collaborative communities on which future growth could be based, we might better see them as urban archipelagos, autonomous islands of self-interest, and rational calculators in a neoliberal sea.

Northeast Ohio, for example, is an area optimistically viewed by Katz and Bradley. It's a place where community officials have historically ignored regional economic plans unless they were directly impacted by them. Instead, they pursued localized development efforts, often competing rather than cooperating within a metropolitan region. Greg LeRoy, director of the public policy group Good Jobs First, found that between 1996 and 2005 many small and medium sized firms received lucrative tax breaks to move to new locations… all within the Cleveland metro area. The average distance moved in this metro cannibalization was five miles. A new regional sustainability plan for Northeast Ohio has now been funded by a $4.25 million grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and a consortium of regional foundations. But the plan has garnered only limited support among the 375 cities, townships, and regional agencies in the metro area. Most observers see little chance of the plan being adopted on any meaningful scale.

Katz and Bradley’s book may end up being more of a distraction than a revolution for many metros. It dilutes the distinctly urban crisis. Racial and class polarization, and growing inequities in education, housing, health care, and infrastructure mark this urban crisis. The book essentially offers platitudes about economic growth for cities and first rings suburbs that have suffered from the neoliberal crisis, rather than offering suggestions for how to rebuild and reclaim urban neighborhoods and schools and prevent further decline. While praising sympathetic NGOs, Katz and Bradley fail to acknowledge the populist revolt in many metros, cities, and neighborhoods. In fact, they are contemptuous of grass-roots efforts such as the Occupy Movement. Their census-defined metropolitan revolution is “reasoned rather than emotional, leader driven rather than leaderless, born of pragmatism and optimism rather than despair or anger.” Despite claims to the contrary, the book is another indicator the economic divergence between Main Street and Wall Street.

John Russo is a visiting research fellow at the Metropolitan Institute of Virginia Tech, a former co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies, and professor (emeritus) in the Williamson College of Business Administration at Youngstown State University. He is a board member of the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative (Youngstown-Warren), and the co-author, with Sherry Linkon, of Steeltown U.S.A.: Work and Memory in Youngstown.

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Zero Sum

If they are indeed in a zero sum ghetto, they ought to declare bankruptcy dissolve and go away entirely. Ditto if they do not accept competitive globalism.