Cities as cradles of progressivism?

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia once said that there is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up garbage, and he’s still largely right. Most mayors focus much more on service delivery than ideology. There is just too much to do on any given day for mayors to indulge in the hyper-partisanship that dominates Washington and the nation’s state capitals.

However, some believe that ideology is on the rise in American cities. Recent columns by the Washington Post’s EJ Dionne and Harold Meyerson and Tom Edsall from the New York Times have identified a trend among city officials to implement, at the local level, what they see are distinctly leftwing policies such as raising the minimum wage.

The first question that should be asked about this trend is why is it happening now?

Politics is a big part of the explanation. Republican members of Congress and legislatures in most states have stopped even considering raising the minimum wage. Also, with its heavy emphasis on opposing immigration and gay rights, and its obsession with imposing voter ID requirements that aim to reduce minority election turnout, the Republican brand has become toxic in most major American cities. This has cleared the field for “progressives” and “liberals” to dominate elections. New York had GOP mayors for 20 years in a row, but Michael Bloomberg no longer considers himself a Republican and his successor, Democrat Bill de Blasio, won in a landslide over his GOP opponent. The political conditions are indeed favorable for cities to become “cradles of progressivism.”

The second, and more important question to ask is what risks are cities running with this new urban progressivism?

American cities’ reputation suffered greatly in the post-World War II era. Twelve years of depression followed by 4 years of war left urban America tired and worn. The Federal government invested in suburbia with new highways and subsidy programs focused on new single family homes.

By the 1960s, cities were viewed as the source of problems like crime and poverty, which only a surge of more Federal spending could allegedly fix. A modest Fed rescue arrived with Revenue Sharing under Nixon and then disappeared under Reagan. Today, for most large cities, Federal aid is a small part of their budgets (about 3%); only Washington DC exceeds 10%.

In the 1990s, cities responded to these aid cuts by improving themselves. Instead of trying to leverage urban problems to secure more Federal funds, mayors focused on designing their own solutions and seeing their urbanism as an asset instead of a liability. Cities tightened budgets and improved municipal services and processes. Many mayors embraced the successful policing strategies of James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. Murder rates dropped. In New York City, homicides dropped from over 2000 to near 400. As crime declined, Americans (especially young people) gave urban life a fresh look and decided that they liked what they saw. San Francisco, New York, Boston and many other cities enjoyed increases in population, jobs and tax base. Other cities that continued to seek outside help and avoided local problem-solving experienced decline and, in Detroit’s case, fiscal collapse.

Now that order and relative prosperity have been restored in many cities, a reaction has set in. Sure crime is down, but are police strategies infringing on individual rights and is prosperity shared widely enough? These are valid questions to ask, along with how to avoid a return to decline and dependence?

With respect to crime, new New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s solution was to appoint William Bratton as police commissioner. Bratton, a disciple of Wilson and Kelling, has been tasked with driving crime down further while ending alleged profiling of racial minorities. When New York’s homicide was so high in the 1990s, young African Americans were the most likely victims. Is profiling necessary to protect them from being killed? Bratton says no and so far he’s on course to being correct.

Mayor de Blasio has also sought to rein in charter school growth. Is it “progressive” to diminish the options for urban school children? The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) may think so but many New York City parents do not. De Blasio just reached a contract settlement with the UFT, which supported him strongly in the election. The agreement, perhaps reprising the days of John Lindsay, relies on vaguely stated future reductions in health care costs to finance its pay package.

What effect can cities have on the distribution of income and wealth? In Seattle, the new mayor and his Council are implementing a $15/hour minimum wage to be applied within the City’s 84 square miles. This is $5+ more than Washington state’s minimum wage. Will Starbucks move their coffee shops to Puyallup? Probably not. In cities like New York, San Francisco and Seattle, a local minimum wage increase is not likely to undo the magnetism that exciting big cities have for millenials, hipsters and young professionals. However, muni minimum wage laws in less trendy, low cost places like St. Louis, Memphis or Omaha could eliminate jobs that may not pay well, but combined with the Earned Income Credit are nonetheless enough to get by on.

Should the urban liberal surge worry local taxpayers? In the past, city officials were led into fiscal irresponsibility because they caved to interest group pressure. New York’s fiscal crises in the 1970s derived from Mayors Wagner and Lindsay’s generous deals with municipal unions. Deferred costs, pension boosts and insider deals have clearly weakened Chicago, whose pension debt now surpasses all other large US cities on a per capita basis. Unions and other interest groups were fairly happy with former Mayor Richard M Daley; now Rahm Emmanuel is struggling to clean up the mess.

In the end, the greatest risks with the new urban progressivism are not the headline-grabbing ones such as a crime increase or stagnant job growth due to a higher minimum wage. What we should be more concerned about is that city officials will relax their fiscal diligence and, instead of negotiating responsibly, allow union leaders to confuse expensive contracts with progressivism.

Comment (1) Add yours ↓

Your Comment