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May 23, 2005

A Shoutout from The Commanding Heights

By Jim Dallas

This summer I have started my first downtown (OK, not downtown, but right-next-to-downtown) job and so I tend to get almost misty about the amazing potential of Houston and, more abstractly, the "modern American city" etc. etc. Cue Petula Clark.

In The New Republic (registration required), Joel Kotkin says its time to ditch romanticism and bring back realism:

Cities are not doomed, far from it; this is one point on which Richard Florida and I agree. But two major things need to happen in order for cities to be saved. First, they must undertake a CAT scan of sorts, which would reveal, underneath the glossy exterior of arts centers and arenas and hip downtowns, the reality of lost jobs, dysfunctional schools, and crumbling infrastructure. Second, they need to acquire the political will to attack these issues head-on despite the inevitable roadblocks.

What is needed is for cities to craft their own New Deal. Given their shrinking political power, they will not be able to extract resources from Washington or most state capitals. They will have to get smart about how they are run and focus their resources on basic issues, like schools, infrastructure, boosting small business, and creating jobs--rather than promoting bread, circuses, and tattoo parlors.

This will mean making choices. New York needs to decide that fixing its subways represents a more important use of its bonding authority than a stadium for the Jets. Los Angeles needs to decide its biggest priority lies in preventing the region's port complex, its largest generator of private sector jobs, from becoming hopelessly congested and obsolescent. Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, and the other hard luck cases need to focus on trying to fix their schools, transportation systems, and economies. Phoenix needs to concern itself with generating jobs and opportunities for its soaring immigrant population. Let the glitzy restaurants and rock clubs take care of themselves.

Steps like these will require a new political consensus. Much of the current progressive agenda--with its anti-growth economic bias--does little to boost the competitive status of urban centers. Cities must return to a progressive focus on fixing their real problems--that is, the problems of the majority of the people who live there--not serving the interests of artists, hipsters, and their wealthy patrons. Right now school reform is often hostage to the power of teachers' unions. City budgets, which could be applied to improving economic infrastructure, are frequently bloated by, among other things, excessive public sector employment and overgenerous pensions. In the contest for the remaining public funds, the knitted interests of downtown property holders, arts foundations, sports promoters, and nightclub owners often overwhelm those of more conventional small businesses and family-oriented neighborhoods that could serve as havens for the middle class.

Personally, I think Kotkin needs to put less blame on unions, public employees, and hipsters, and more blame on the race-to-the-bottom dynamic in municipal politics. Cities are often very hesitant to raise taxes (or raise future taxes, by issuing bonds) out of fear that it will send jobs elsewhere. The exception to this rule is when the city thinks it has something special - e.g. professional sports or culture - that it simply cannot afford to lose.

The reason why many companies are moving to the suburbs and exurbs is because they have fund municipal politics there to be more flexible to their interests. Lurking beneath the surface of all of this, I am afraid, is the bigger issue of corporate power.

Posted by Jim Dallas at May 23, 2005 07:51 AM | TrackBack


They are afraid that business will leave if they raise taxes because business WILL leave if they raise taxes. That's not corporate greed. That's good business sense.

Posted by: Drew at May 23, 2005 10:33 AM

Good posting and excellent liner notes by the Big Jim D. Out here in LaLa Land a big progressive electoral victory for Antonio Villaraigosa last week and some of us now are asking the question from the last line of "The Candidate"--"what do we do now?" But Antonio and his topsiders have been preparing for this for some time. If anyone can figure it out they (and we) will be able to.

The last comment alluded to higher taxes. Here in Los Angeles the progressive city council greatly simplified and reduced taxes on small businesses which are largely started and run
by hungry hard working immigrants as well as creative types like tv and screen writers that
I represent as a labor lawyer.

There are still ways to be compassionate and tight fisted with the tax dollar at the same time. The key is finding the right balance and the necessary common trust, participation and consensus to offset corporate overreaching.

Also keep in mind that a large city does not have to choose all of one thing over another. Just leave "room enough to caper" as Billy Lee Brammer once wrote.

Posted by: Tom Coleman at May 23, 2005 12:49 PM

Kotkin throw out a number of statements that he expects us to accept as true. Unfortunately, the statements do not hold up under scrutiny.

Who is promoting "the current progressive agenda--with its anti-growth economic bias"? Here, Kotkin is setting up a strawman. If anything, the "current progressive" agenda is linked with New Urbanism which certainly isn't anti-growth. The only anti-growth folks still around are holdovers from the 60s and various, disparite groups of NIMBYs.

How is it that the political power of cities is shrinking? If anything, the imporatance of urban areas in our economy is increasing. The urban areas are not, however, usually bastions of Republican support. While that may mean that the cities, at the moment, have less clout in D.C., it doesn't mean that their power is shrinking on the state level. Certainly, in Texas, the urban and suburban counties are on the rise, while the rural counties are in decline.

The Austin City Council runoff election does, however, provide an interesting contest between a candidate dedicated to promoting economic development and opportunity, particularly for small businesses, and a candidate who is styling herself as an advocate for anti-growth groups.

Posted by: Jeb at May 23, 2005 02:02 PM

Professional sports is something special? Please.

Posted by: Michael Hoffman at May 23, 2005 02:04 PM
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