Given the quality of leadership in Washington, it’s not surprising that many pundits are shifting focus to locally based solutions to pressing problems. This increasingly includes many progressives, who historically have embraced an ever-more expansive federal government.
In many ways, this constitutes an extraordinarily positive development. Political decentralization is built into the very framework of American democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville, among others, recognized. If Paris dominated France and London dominated England, in America, he noted, “intelligence and power is dispersed abroad.”
Yet, there’s a problem with how the decentralist argument is taking shape. Increasingly, it is becoming a movement to create ever more powerful regional governments, which tend to be dominated by large cities, their mayors and their power blocs, whether unions, bureaucracies or politically connected developers. The notion of mayors running the world has been endorsed by writers such as Benjamin Barber, and has had the strong backing of Bruce Katz of Brookings, who appears to have lost sight of his long-held faith in the federal government.
Not surprisingly, Katz and other have found a new way to press their agenda: regional governments as essentially extended cities. Like many progressive decentralists, he likes handing more power to big-city mayors, themselves generally presiding over one-party (Democratic) systems.
This notion of mayors uber alles was recently celebrated at an event in Chicago where mayors such as Atlanta’s Karim Reed, Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, New York’s Bill de Blasio and Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel claimed that big cities were the future and, where, as Reed put it, “the action is.”
It’s hard to underestimate the hubris of this assessment. Despite the slowing down from the Great Recession, the vast majority of American demographic growth and job growth continues to go either into the suburban rings or to low-density sprawling regions, such as Houston, Phoenix and Dallas-Fort Worth, where urban areas and their peripheries are more similar than different.
U.S. suburbs now account for 2.7 times the population of core cities. High-density migration, much-heralded by the urban decentralizers, remains a distinctly minority phenomena, while the largest outmigration tends to be from big, dense cities and to suburbs, less-dense and smaller cities and towns.
Nor can we see in the mayors some sort of archetype for greater governance. Chicago, under Rahm Emanuel, is hardly an exemplar of efficiency or good fiscal management. The city’s credit rating is among the worst of any municipality, while the economy remains “sub-par,” as a recent bank analyst report shows. Chicago schools are almost bankrupt, and the city’s murder rate is higher than during the Prohibition years.
In fact, the city, whose debt load is now the heaviest of any large American city other than Detroit, has now experienced repeated downgrades, and estimated debt now exceeds, by some estimates, more than $60,000 per household.
Yet despite this, Emanuel is still hailed, most recently in a Financial Times profile, as “Mayor America” and even touted as a presidential candidate. Emanuel’s backers can note that many of these problems stem from the more than two-decade Daley regime. Yet, Emanuel was, and remains, part of the Daley machine, and even got his start as a Daley fundraiser. To consider him primarily a tough reformer – outside his often foul-mouthed manner – is patently ludicrous.
Much the same can be said about L.A.’s Eric Garcetti, who, although certainly an upgrade from Antonio Villaraigosa, was a member, even president, of the same City Council that has driven the city to the brink of financial ruin.
Much of the problem stems from union power: the city is spending 18 percent of its budget on pensions, three times the level a decade ago. Los Angeles has among the nation’s weakest urban economies – 28 percent of residents are considered poor – and its unemployment rate of roughly 10 percent is well above both the county and statewide averages and twice that of San Francisco.
In many ways, Atlanta’s Reed is barely qualified to speak for his region, as his city constitutes not even 10 percent of the area’s population. Nor is it a particularly successful locale, suffering among the highest crime rates of any big city in the country and, according to one recent study, the most severe inequality of any U.S. core city.
Generally speaking, big-city leaders chant a populist rap, but generally it’s the densest urbanized places – San Francisco, Washington D.C., Boston, New York, Miami and, sadly, Los Angeles – that are also the most unequal places.
Perhaps the only real potential reformer in the group is New York City’s de Blasio, who took office a few months ago. While de Blasio wants to shake things up, his tendency seems to be making things worse. Certainly his attempt to shut down charter schools, which offer an alternative to traditional public schools, particularly for poorer families, hardly represents a step forward. He may be the people’s choice, but it’s likely he will serve, first and foremost, public employee interests, who have been his main political backers.
This story originally appeared at The Orange County Register.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
City Hall photo by Flickr user OZinOH.