Tuesday, November 15, 2016

City Power after the 2016 Election

Guest Blogger

Richardson Dilworth

For the Symposium on Richard Schragger, City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age (2016).
I think it’s safe to say that, even if he didn’t intend to, Schragger wrote City Power for people like me – folks who are highly educated, have higher than average incomes, who care about and more than likely live in cities, and who more than likely voted for Hillary Clinton for president. And between the time that I started writing this review – on Monday, November 7 – and now – on November 11, as I am finishing it – my liberal big city bubble has been burst, and Schragger’s book has taken on a somewhat different meaning.

Before I explain how I think the meaning of Schragger’s book has changed, let me say that I think overall it is a great achievement. It brings together a broad and diverse body of scholarship to make a new and important argument regarding the redistributive potential of cities (mostly in Chapters 5 and 6, which I see as the real core of the book). Even if it did not make a new argument, the wealth of scholarship that Schragger weaves together would still make this a valuable contribution.

I am guessing that the title of Schragger’s book is a response to Paul Peterson’s 1981 book City Limits (and here let me add the shallow critique that Schragger could have taken a lesson from Peterson and not used a subtitle – “Urban Governance in a Global Age” doesn’t add much and is a bit misleading). Peterson’s book stirred controversy in urbanist academic circles because it proposed – during a time that the American city was one of the primary subjects of the social sciences – that urban politics simply wasn’t very interesting. Since cities had to compete with other cities for labor and capital they couldn’t realistically pursue redistributive policies, and since the developmental policies that were designed to attract labor and capital benefited all city residents (and here Peterson, reflecting the conservatism of his time made an explicit “trickle down” argument) they were largely consensual and not generally subject to debate. City politics thus focused on the relatively uninteresting patronage struggles regarding who got employed to perform basic housekeeping functions such as policing, fire protection, and picking up the trash.

Schragger’s primary argument is that cities’ fortunes rise and fall as a result of larger social forces over which they have little control, and thus the traditional argument that cities are constrained – or “disciplined” by the marketplace of municipalities – simply doesn’t hold. In fact, city-level policies in pursuit of development (such as business improvement districts, property tax abatements, or tax increment financing) are more often the effect rather than the cause of economic growth. And the big development projects that city officials and growth interests so often like to pursue often end up being notably bad investments, as many others have argued, most recently perhaps Heywood Sanders in Convention Center Follies (2014).

If city-level policies don’t actually have much of an effect on city fortunes, cities are thus free to pursue whatever policies they like, including redistributive policies – or, at the very least, you can’t blame redistributive policies for the failing fortunes of some cities. There is in this argument an echo of Peterson’s argument that urban politics is ultimately not very interesting. That is of course not the direction Schragger intends to go, and so as to not go there, he has to show that in fact the relatively limited impact of current city policies could be made more impactful. In this I think he has mixed success.

Schragger argues that, since cities do better in periods when agglomeration becomes a more important factor in production – as with the “meds and eds” and other high-end service industries that have caused at least some cities to “resurge” – and capital that depends for its value on agglomeration is by definition relatively immobile, the current urban resurgence is a uniquely opportune time for cities to pursue redistribution, as indeed some have. Schragger examines in particular the use in cities of labor regulation through land use policy, community benefit agreements, and mandatory wage floors. He extends this to imagine cities that engage in import substitution strategies to become even less reliant on exports and mobile capital. He concludes that the agglomeration economies that have led to the resurgence of cities creates at least the potential for more autonomous cities that might grow a new middle class and foster a richer form of democratic participation.

And then we elected a new president, which in some respects has revealed cities’ resurgence as one end of a tremendous political, class, and racial divide between the densest parts of metropolitan areas and the rest of the country. And under the incoming administration, and with the current national dialogue, it does not look particularly likely to me that bridges are going to be built across these interlocking chasms in the near future. If cities do indeed currently have the opportunity to gain more autonomy, I hope that autonomy leads to new waves of municipal consolidations and annexations, giving us bigger cities with greater influence in their state legislatures, and once again becoming important forces in national politics.

Richardson Dilworth is Professor of Politics and Director, Center for Public Policy at Drexel University. You can reach him by e-mail at rd43 at 

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