Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Cities in the anti-global age?

Guest Blogger

Scott Cummings

For the Symposium on Richard Schragger, City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age (2016).

I began this response to Richard Schragger’s remarkable book, City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age, before last week’s presidential election. And suddenly what I had planned to say no longer seemed quite so apt. Indeed, for all that I agree with the vision of cities that Schragger masterfully presents—holding out “the possibility of an urban democracy that promotes individuals’ participation in economic and political life on terms of equality”—I began to reflect more deeply on how this vision may relate to our society’s other fault lines. And I began to think about how the focus on city power, for all its virtues, may pose its own challenges to re-imaging a healthy, functioning national democracy where at least some of the progressive values associated with “urban resurgence” find a home in suburbs, small cities, and rural areas. Looking at the county-by-county electoral map, I asked myself: How should we think about city power at a moment when that power is insufficient to counteract an existential democratic threat—and may contribute to the very inequality it condemns by geographically inscribing divisions that disable the difficult bridge-building and deep empathy necessary to reimagine society?
This question, of course, is not explicitly at the heart of Schragger’s project, but in many respects underlies the core issue he sets out to rethink: the interplay between economic globalization, inequality, and the possibility of an effective politics of local redistribution. In language that now sounds prophetic, Schragger argues that our society is experiencing a sense of “democratic loss” “accompanied by a concern that power is shifting away from democratic institutions to transnational corporations.” The local, in his view, offers the possibility of renegotiating “the terms of capital dependence” that “may undermine and destabilize the conventional wisdom” that local efforts to attack inequality are bound to fail. At bottom, Schragger’s argument is that cities have both the legal authority and political power to promote a more egalitarian vision of the economy and society. That Schragger is able to develop such a compelling descriptive and normative account of the city as a place where inequality can be addressed is a testament to his prodigious synthetic ability—seamlessly distilling and weaving together complex bodies of law, politics, and economics—as well as his clarity of vision. Because Schragger has such an incredible talent for making the complex simple, it is easy to miss what an astonishing achievement this is.
Yet distillation requires making choices about focus and narrative, and Schragger’s decisions in that regard shape the story he ultimately tells. It is, I emphasize, a story with which I deeply agree. In my own view, there has been no other book over the past two decades that so boldly and trenchantly makes the case for why cities can and should pursue the kinds of redistributive policies that the federal government and many states have abandoned. In this regard, Schragger deftly dismantles the conventional wisdom that cities are beholden to mobile capital and thus must do its legal bidding (with deregulation, lower taxes, and subsidies), replacing it with a vision that harnesses multiple aspects of city power—contracting, land use, and general welfare authority—to address “economic inequality” through minimum wage, antidiscrimination, wage theft, anti-homelessness, and other policies. But it is precisely the fact that this book speaks to me that I want to use as the starting point for my reflections here. This is, at the end of the day, a book that is largely about the big, urban metropolis in the United States, which has (outside the South) become home to the so-called Obama coalition: progressive millennials, affluent whites, and communities of color. That a gaping chasm separates these groups from much of the rest of America is now painfully evident.
In this regard, to me, the most critical—and now prescient—parts of the book are chapters five and six, which are about the connection between redistributive local policies and the interest group politics that both drive and are shaped by them. These chapters highlight many of the struggles waged by labor and immigrant rights activists in my own city and trigger critical questions about the meaning and impact of their work—particularly in the new political context those movements face. Here are, in my view, several key questions raised by Schragger’s insightful analysis:
  • Is the city a normative ideal or a second-best political solution for progressives, especially in a now-even-more-bleak national political environment? We might ask a thought experiment: if it were politically possible to achieve at the national level the redistributive policies outlined in the book—like a national $15-hour minimum wage, a national plan for affordable housing, stronger union rights, among others—would localism still be so desirable? Arguments in favor of localism, outside of political expediency, tend to emphasize the benefits of local flexibility and, sometimes, a preference for private ordering outside of public law (this has been at the heart of arguments in favor of community economic development, for instance). There are elements of those ideas in Schragger’s book. For instance, in his discussion of community benefits agreements, he argues that at least some community members may prefer its system of private ordering as a way of sidelining often-unhelpful or even hostile local officials. But this is only true insofar as local officials are unsympathetic; it is not a categorical preference. Indeed, activists pursued a local community benefits ordinance in Los Angeles in order to avoid the ad hoc mobilization around projects that CBAs require—but failed in the face of developer resistance and legal concerns. Local flexibility is also most useful when local conditions are significantly different; but with respect to many of the core problems facing American workers, such as the inadequacy of the basic wage, local variation is not the key issue.
  • Why isn’t the new redistributive localism a version of urban mobility politics on other grounds? In chapter six, Schragger seeks to disconnect the capital mobility story from the redistributive one by suggesting that interest group political mobilization in favor of redistribution may not depend on the existence of sticky industries: “the emphasis on exit assumes that traditional political processes in the city are relatively impotent.” Yet it is clearly true that the contemporary politics of localism, at least with respect to organized labor, is deliberately built around increasing union density in immobile industries. Schragger refers to agglomeration economies and the service sector, but the conventional “service-manufacturing” divide does not play a strong role in his analysis. However, the precise industries labor has targeted for reform—hospitality, construction, retail, health, restaurants, local trucking—are geographically tethered. In this sense, it is not just, as Schragger suggests, that localists seek to “reconstruct the economic order on a local and less vulnerable scale,” but that they are taking advantage of the opportunities for local initiatives that are already available in the new economy. But in so doing, they are not directly challenging the broader forces—like free trade—that have produced this arrangement, which leads to the next question….
  • Is there such a thing as a viable redistributive economic localism without a complementary and perhaps even prioritized national politics? Is it possible to talk with any confidence about cities as spaces where progressivism can flourish in the face of threats to deport immigrants and undo collective bargaining? If cities flex their redistributive muscles, how long will it be until federal laws are rewritten to tighten up preemption standards, conservative courts extend their reach, and state legislatures curtail the parameters of home rule? There are already 14 states that have explicitly preempted local governments from passing minimum wage laws. We may promote localism as a laboratory for policy innovations that trickle up and extend out. And, indeed, to take a very different example, the marriage equality movement succeeded in creating national policy through a strategy of local reform. However, the types of economic and social rights that are at the heart of the progressive city may face very different barriers to scale.
  • How should we think about city power when harnessed to undermine progressivism? Cities, of course, may be laboratories for progressivism—like my own city of Los Angeles—or they may be incubators of bigotry. When studying the local, scholars like me tend to focus on the ways in which it offers a more tolerant, multicultural, less economically stratified alternative to the national politics of division and stasis. Yet there is no reason this is intrinsically so. Just as we might hold up cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago for their immigrant, labor, and LGBT-friendly policies, there are other cities where hostility toward those groups is encoded into local law and policy. Until a court struck them down in 2011, there were more than 40 cities in the greater Los Angeles area with ordinances prohibiting day laborers from soliciting work. Maricopa County, Arizona remains quite proudly the center of aggressive overpolicing of immigrants.     
  • What should cities do in the face of their own struggles to counteract inequality despite redistributive policy? Big cities themselves have become the sites of the most dramatic economic inequality in the world. Los Angeles is home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of “super rich” and “extremely poor.” The median housing price has gone up to nearly $600,000 and rents have increased 28% since 2000, moving the city demographically toward a place where the poor will literally have no place to live. Housing prices, gentrification, and displacement are intrinsically linked city resurgence, which challenges the degree to which even the most progressive cities can be a place of inclusion for everyone.
  • Even when local redistributive policies succeed, do they contribute to the further division of our society between cosmopolitan/multicultural/redistributive cities and the rest of America? The power of City Power is to reject the “inevitability” of mobile capital subsidy and “impossibility” of local redistributive policy. In this way, Schragger is ultimately advancing a new legal framework to respond to the economic and demographic forces associated with globalization. While these shifts have helped produce the progressive city, they have also galvanized the “white-lash” now so evident in national politics. Indeed, these trends may be thought of as two sides of the same coin. The electorate has reacted against the global mobility of capital and labor (against manufacturing job loss and immigration). The vision of the progressive city in some ways embraces both: reconciling itself to economies based on immobile, largely service, industries and embracing immigrant labor. What power do cities—and those of us who live in them—have to bridge this dramatic, and growing, divide?

Scott Cummings is Robert Henigson Professor of Legal Ethics and Professor of Law at UCLA. You can reach him by e-mail at cummings at 

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