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Books and Culture

Stephen Eide
Autonomy and Its Limits
Should cities do more than they do already?
19 July 2013

The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy, by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley (Brookings Institution Press, 300 pp., $29.95)

The political scientist and Chicago alderman Charles Merriam (1874–1953) once proposed that American metropolitan regions secede from rural areas to form their own states. In The Metropolitan Revolution, the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley don’t go quite that far, but they do champion metros as “the new sovereign.” Katz and Bradley believe that localities are capable of doing much more than they currently do and that expanding their policy portfolios would pay off for them and the country.

The authors point out that many of the country’s most serious policy challenges are already being addressed at the local level. For instance, Neighborhood Centers, a Houston-based, Texas-sized nonprofit, has developed a compelling model for immigrant assimilation on a massive scale. Portland, Oregon’s emergence as an international trade hub demonstrates the promise of American exports. A manufacturing revival may be under way in northeast Ohio, of all places, thanks to the efforts of private-sector networks led by local foundations. Katz and Bradley contend that these and other examples demonstrate that domestic policymaking in America is more effective when it’s locally directed. They have almost nothing good to say about federal and state governments, whose distance from conditions on the ground and emphasis on process over outcomes render them incapable of good policymaking. Worse, their rules and regulations stifle metros’ inventiveness.

To complete the metropolitan revolution, the authors believe, we must rethink federalism as a policymaking framework. In the nineteenth century, amid contentious debates about the federal government’s constitutional authority to undertake “internal improvements,” state and local governments drove most economic growth by developing canals and roads and facilitating the railroads’ expansion. Power shifted to Washington during the Progressive era, when the federal government began overseeing the economy much more closely. By the mid-twentieth century, the New Deal and other federal spending programs had almost entirely crowded out states’ influence over domestic policy. More recently, states have revived their reputation as laboratories of experimentation in areas such as welfare reform and K–12 public education. Given federalism’s demonstrable flexibility, and with metros showing such positive results, why not devolve responsibility even further down, to the local level?

That would mean empowering city governments, since nothing deserving the name “metropolitan revolution” can transpire without those governments’ active participation (though the authors do celebrate the accomplishments of private organizations). As Katz and Bradley see it, city governments should do much more than just manage schools and provide for public safety. Cities should pursue grander visions, particularly with regard to trade, production, and other matters of economic policy. City officials, they suggest, should go on more international-trade junkets to help local firms gain access to foreign markets and attract foreign capital. They should establish more “innovation districts,” which cluster together academic institutions and private firms to stimulate research and, eventually, to produce commercial products. Too often, they believe, local economic policy focuses on brick-and-mortar projects, such as convention centers, stadiums, and big-box retail. Only production and trade actually increase wealth, so local officials should make them the top priorities.

Whether the authors’ conception would work on a broad scale is a question of capacity. Since they don’t suggest that federal and state governments would assume responsibility for traditionally local functions, what Katz and Bradley are proposing is, in effect, a significant increase in local governments’ workload. Most small and midsize cities probably can’t take on such an expanded role in economic policymaking, and they shouldn’t try. They may have reduced crime over the last 20 years, but they still have too much to accomplish with public education and fiscal reform to risk diverting resources and attention from those important areas. As for big cities, one wonders if it’s a good idea to encourage further mission creep among their political leaders. Big cities have an easier time attracting political talent than their small and midsize counterparts do, but they’re not necessarily any better managed—often because their leaders’ ambitions make them prone to distraction. A Michael Bloomberg can’t rest content with snow removal and balancing the budget; he must also tackle climate change and the obesity “epidemic.” But the small stuff doesn’t take care of itself, as Bloomberg discovered a few winters ago. And despite Bloomberg’s reputation for fiscal savvy, his successor will inherit a $7 billion budget gap.

No local official should apologize for focusing on the basics. Do cities deserve more autonomy? Absolutely. But as I argue in a recent report, that should mean more authority over their existing functions, such as labor relations, rather than an expanded mandate. There’s much to be said for cities’ sticking to their knitting.

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