NYTimes: Will Liberal Cities Leave the Rest of America Behind?


How can governments adopt substantial, effective policies in order to benefit the poor and the working class when corporations, the affluent and owners of capital can pull up stakes and relocate with ease?

The declining ability of the American political order to deliver a steadily rising standard of living to the vast middle and working classes began to show itself in the 1970s, well before most people grasped the significance of what was happening around them. Decades of globalization have been accompanied by diminishing opportunity for those in midlevel jobs; by stagnant wages, especially for men without college degrees; and by the virtual collapse of private-sector unionization.

Standing in opposition to these adverse trends, a wave of newly elected mayors from New York to Seattle has taken office committed to deploying the power of city government and aggressive wage and tax policies to attack inequality and revive social and economic mobility.

These outspoken mayors have generated a growing optimism on the Democratic left that local officials can restore support for government activism. Mayors and city councils, in this view, can lead the drive to improve the prospects and living conditions of those in the bottom third of the income distribution.

Harold Meyerson, the editor at large of The American Prospect, argues in “The Revolt of the Cities” that this insurgency is already in motion. Urban chief executives are raising minimum wages; requiring contractors to hire inner-city residents and to increase pay on municipal projects; backing local union organizing efforts; initiating or expanding pre-K schooling; extending public transit into poor neighborhoods; and requiring police to videotape contacts with citizens.

“They are, in short, enacting at the municipal level many of the major policy changes that progressives have found themselves unable to enact at the federal and state levels,” Meyerson writes. “They also may be charting a new course for American liberalism.”

Meyerson’s list of mayors charting the new liberalism includes (but is not limited to) Pittsburgh’s Bill Peduto, Minneapolis’s Betsy Hodges, Seattle’s Ed Murray, Boston’s Martin Walsh, Santa Fe’s Javier Gonzales and, of course, New York City’s Bill de Blasio.

The political impetus behind this ideological development is the fact that American cities are on the cutting edge of the current demographic transformation of the United States into a majority-minority nation.

Minorities are significantly more liberal and more pro-government than whites, according to survey data from American National Election Studies.

“What’s happening in cities can be described as Obama’s agenda trickling down to the jurisdictions where it has enough political support to be enacted — but it’s also the incubation of policies and practices that will trickle up,” Meyerson writes. “With considerable creativity and limited power, the new urban regimes are seeking to diminish the inequality so apparent in cities and so pervasive nationwide. They are mapping the future of liberalism until the day when the national government can bring it to scale.”

While Meyerson’s political and demographic data is on target, and he accurately describes a movement toward more redistributive policies, there are reasons to be cautious.

First and foremost, a number of the cities Meyerson points to have exceptional, built-in advantages: major research universities; financial and high-tech corporate centers; substantial and strong artistic and intellectual communities. Pittsburgh, for example, has Carnegie Mellon, metropolitan Boston has Harvard and M.I.T., Seattle has Microsoft and Amazon, and New York has its own varied, almost endless resources.

These advantages are the exception, not the rule. Just ask the residents of Peoria, Trenton, Camden, Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore, Birmingham or Modesto.

There are clear differences in the resources of these eight cities and the six cities cited by Meyerson. The per capita incomes in the six listed by The American Prospect average $33,200 annually, 57 percent higher than the $21,200 annual per capita income in the less affluent eight. Equally important, the median value of owner-occupied homes in The American Prospect six averages $319,800, 147 percent more than the median home value of $130,200 in the eight struggling cities, according to Census Bureau data.

Another way to look at this is that it takes money and resources to become a liberal city. “You can’t be a progressive without prosperity,” Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution’s metropolitan policy program, said in a phone interview.

In their book, “Toward a 21st Century City for All,” John Mollenkopf, a professor of political science and sociology at CUNY, and Brad Lander, a Brooklyn city councilman who represents Cobble Hill, Park Slope and Boro Park, acknowledge the disparity favoring already successful cities. Mollenkopf and Lander support many of the policies cited by Meyerson and point out that New York is unique in its ability to enact such policies because of its “competitive advantages,” which are “not available to the many declining cities of the United States.”

I asked Richard Florida, an authority on urban development and a professor at the University of Toronto, to take a look at the Meyerson article. He wrote back a much more pessimistic assessment of the state of cities, noting that there “are deep global forces over which cities and mayors have very limited control.”

Florida makes the argument that the most successful cities, including New York, are major drivers of growing inequality: “Clustering of talent is a powerful force, the most basic force of economic growth.” New York, San Francisco and other urban hubs attract the most creative and energetic populations, according to Florida, because of the attractive, dynamic nature of the pre-existing local ecology. At the same time, compared with the country as a whole, cities have a disproportionate share of recent immigrants and of the dispossessed, the impoverished and the marginalized.

The result, in Florida’s view, is that America faces “a new kind of urban crisis brought on by the success of some of our cities,” with diverging cities “divided by talent clusters, by concentrated disadvantage juxtaposed with concentrated advantage.”

I asked Meyerson to address the potential problems posed by the adoption of a liberal urban agenda, and he contended that such problems are overblown: “The businesses that remain in cities these days aren’t preponderantly manufacturing enterprises that can relocate, but stores, restaurants and other service providers that have specific local clienteles,” Meyerson wrote. “Gas stations and Starbucks aren’t about to pull up stakes and move over city lines because of a hike in the minimum wage.”

That said, Meyerson acknowledged that it is preferable to adopt regional, or at least countywide, wage policies. The city of Los Angeles, he noted, has 3.9 million people, while Los Angeles County has 9.8 million, with 87 separate cities. “While most businesses wouldn’t relocate if the city only hiked the wage, a hodgepodge of differing local wage levels would doubtless entice some.”

Meyerson’s progressive mayors may prove modestly successful in ameliorating the extremes of inequality within their jurisdictions, but there are a lot of questions marks. These include: Will tighter restrictions on police lead to higher rates of crime? Will increasing benefits for the poor draw more people seeking those benefits? Does expanding housing for the homeless increase the homeless population? At what point do redistributive initiatives drive out affluent taxpayers? How many corner stores and other borderline businesses reach a breaking point when forced by new regulations to not only raise wages but also to grant employee sick leave and other city-mandated benefits?

There is no question that demographic diversity and a solid stratum of high net worth taxpayers in key cities provide fertile ground for liberal politics. The larger question is whether the current left-leaning urban agenda is restricted to small elite of well-off municipalities with substantial resources. If so, the cities equipped to finance major enhancements will leave their less well-off counterparts sinking ever deeper in the hole.

Urban America is now on a reconnaissance mission for progressive politics. What we’re still waiting to find out is whether the policies and programs developed in the nation’s thriving urban core will prove to be broadly applicable. Can the new progressive mayors lay the groundwork for a national agenda, or will bold and innovative policy experiments that privilege New York and Seattle fail their disadvantaged cousins like Stockton, Detroit, Buffalo and Baltimore?

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