Monday, January 14, 2008

What About the Cities?
One of my perennial policy fixations is that cities tend to get too little representation on the national agenda. I think it's true that the biggest municipalities in the country are net payers into, rather than recipients from, the federal treasury (and, at least in New York, the state's coffers too); cities are the engines of America's economic dynamism and drivers of our cultural pre-eminence, and at least since the early 20th century they really represented the staging ground of the American Dream. Yet for all this undeniable importance, cities remain at the fringe of what passes for the national conversation.

Syndicated columnist Neal Pearce tries to address this state of affairs today in an "open letter to the presidential candidates":

[T]ake immigrants. Overwhelmingly, they're landing in metro America. Beyond sending in federal agents for spot arrests of undocumented immigrants, what's Washington doing to help localities cope with a tidal wave of skill-short, English-deficient new arrivals? Or finding more affordable housing opportunities for long-term Americans, too — or dealing with today's mortgage foreclosure crisis? Do you have any new ideas?
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Traffic congestion is becoming completely intolerable in many metro regions. There's scarcely any space for new roads, and everyone recoils from new gas taxes. Federal transportation policy is in a shambles, even while foreign oil dependence imperils our national security.
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And what about infrastructure? Falling-down bridges, deteriorating highways, aging dams, failing water systems in the face of rising pockets of severe drought — and you would-be chief executives hardly mention the topic? Let's get real! How do we rebuild a greener, safer, more economically competitive America, focused on the metros where most of us live? Where's the new federal-state-local partnership to make it happen?
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Focus on jobs, crime, housing, infrastructure, education and the environment, Mayor Manny Diaz of Miami counsels on that site — and don't succumb, he insists, to media and pollster interest in the emotional issues of the war, abortion and gay rights.

I give Pearce credit for the old college try here, but I wish he'd delved a bit more into how these issues interconnect (when crime is perceived to be a problem, schools are deemed unsatisfactory and there's no affordable housing to be found, families leave cities; when families leave, the tax base shrinks and neighborhoods decline, and the vicious cycle picks up speed), and why it's specifically important that those who wish to lead the entirety of the American community take both symbolic and substantive notice of the fact that most Americans live in urban communities.

Another reason I support Obama over Clinton on the Democratic side is that the community organizer from Chicago reached his political maturity while grappling with some of the most pernicious issues that face city residents--the availability and quality of jobs, for one. The Clintons went to law school at Yale, but that experience doesn't seem to have left much of a mark (hardly atypical, according to my in-laws, who live near New Haven), and their adulthood was spent in governmental "company towns"--Little Rock, DC. And needless to say, none of the Republican candidates have any urban agenda to speak of--"urban issues" are perceived, albeit incorrectly, as poor people's issues, and with the rhetorical exception of Huckabee and Romney while trying to win Michigan, these candidates don't see the poor. While they talk about immigration, the focus is on punishment, not assimilation--much less turning the energies, ambitions and creativity of immigrants into desperately needed revenue for city treasuries.

(Il Douche himself might be expected to have views on urban policy given his two terms as Mayor here. But the takeaway he wants for Republican voters is that his mayoralty was about Fighting The Liberals, Cutting Taxes, and Punishing Criminals and Welfare Cheats--in other words, that he brought the values and priorities of the suburbs to the Big Apple. Given the reality of his mayoral record--economic gains limited to Manhattan, further chaos in the school system, that sort of thing--this is understandable.)

Pearce is right that the problems of the cities are the problems of the nation as a whole, and that we need more from the candidates about how they'll address those challenges. Of course, these problems are among the most intractable on the specifics and the hardest to get action on at the federal level, given how the Senate is structurally stacked against working on behalf of the cities. The Republicans additionally face their constant paradox--that a proactive, effective government that really can solve tough problems creates demand for "more" government, and undercuts their ideological raison d'etre that since Government Sucks, one shouldn't fund it.

The unfortunate conclusion is that, as usual since Al Smith lost in 1928, nobody will talk about city issues--at least not as such--unless public sentiment forces them to do so. If Obama wins the nomination, I think there's a shot this comes up; otherwise, expect nine more months of largely substance-free politics.

8 comments:

The Navigator said...

I'd like to think it's true that cities are net payors, but I have a nagging suspicion that that's not true for relatively struggling cities like Philly (6th biggest by population/4th or 5th by metro area). I'm sure it's true for NYC with all its financial sector wealth, though.

And when you say most Americans live in urban communities - they do, of course, but a plurality, if not an absolute majority, are in the suburbs, not cities, and they don't immediately see the connection between their well-being and the well-being of the noisy, crowded city that they or their parents moved away from.

I know this is one of those areas where it would help if we had thoughtful candidates explaining the realities and complexities of our economy to the electorate - but as a general rule it's wise to be humble and skeptical about the possibility of ever doing much to raise voters' awareness on detailed policy issues. And if people do get educated, it probably won't be in the course of an election campaign - it'll take a longer-term effort.

The Navigator said...

Not to be all Debbie Downer or anything.

Feral said...

Don't you think that this issue is connected to the fact that most of the coveted "undecideds" are in more rural areas, as supposed to the cities, where people more or less know early on whom they'll support? The more politically involved you are, the more you know about what each candidate offers, which means the less each candidate bothers to say about you, since you're already either with him/her or not.

The Navigator said...

Not to channel Mark Penn, but I do suspect the undecideds are predominantly in the suburbs, not the rural areas. Rural areas tend to be heavily and predictably Republican. With the decline of the big urban party machines, I generally think that levels of political involvement are more or less even at all levels of geographic concentration, and the factor most closely correlated with indecision is having centrist views and being one of the fabled swing voters. Plenty of those rural voters are dedicated attendees at your megachurches and your gun clubs and what have you, and that social involvement easily segues into rightwing political participation.

Feral said...

So it comes down to what you mentioned earlier; do suburbanites consider themselves urbanites, at least from an economic standpoint? Or do they not care what goes on in cities which they have a symbiotic relationship with (I was gonna say parasitic, but decided to be nicer. Well, I guess not).

David said...

That's kind of the point though--I think suburbanites don't understand, at least not to the extent that they should, that they are "urbanites" from an economic standpoint.

As The Nav suggests, it's probably naive for me to suggest that part of the function of democracy is to educate the public, and thus it would be nice to have leaders who explain that non-city residents have a huge stake in the success of cities, but so be it.

Plus it's scary when the only reason you have to venture into town is "Costington's--the thing downtown that's open!"

Chris said...

was my comment not accepted or something? wtf

David said...

Dunno... try again? I'm interested, you know this stuff.