Author:Pritchett, Wendell E.
Position:Book review

Introduction 1449 I. Rethinking City Power 1450 II. Unleashing the City 1456 Conclusion 1461 INTRODUCTION

Are we beginning a new age of localism? Between the "Brexit" vote, the city-rural divide exposed by the American presidential election, and, more positively, the New Urban Agenda agreed to the United Nations Habitat III conference in Quito, evidence abounds that we are moving into a period that values local over global, the specific over the general. (1) It is a propitious moment for the publication of Richard Schragger's excellent book, City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age. (2) This book is a reminder that nations and their economies, social systems, and cultures, are primarily conglomerations of local economies, social systems, and cultures. This has been true for centuries, and was particularly true in the United States, as Schragger points out, in its periods of greatest dynamism. (3) The city, he argues with much evidence, created America. And since cities are at the front of creativity, economic growth, and cultural development, they deserve respect in our governmental system. As Schragger ably demonstrates, respect for local decision-making is the proper foundation of our federal system. (4) Moreover, as Schragger argues, the law should organize itself around supporting the power of citizens to govern themselves at the local level. (5)


    City Power is a major contribution to the literature about the history, current scope, and future prospects of urban economic, political, and social power in the United States. Schragger makes a strong argument for an expansive view of the role of cities and the power they should have. This Review assesses Schragger's major and most innovative arguments about local power in the United States, and uses Schragger's arguments to propose ways to go beyond "unleashing" local government by creating legal structures that prioritize and exploit the strengths of localism to build a better society. The current political climate, both nationally and globally, makes this an ideal moment to set up sustainable local government structures--structures that would contribute to the global debate over the role of the city in society.

    City Power addresses two deeply connected issues: first, whether cities can govern themselves, and second, whether cities should be allowed to govern themselves. Schragger answers yes to both. (6) Cities have the power to shape their economies and social systems, and they should use this power to improve life for their citizens. As Schragger says this book is "really about the relationship of local economy and legal institutions." (7) Cities, Schragger argues, shape economic growth and are shaped by it. Cities have shown themselves, through boom and bust, to be creative responders to the challenges facing their residents. With greater freedom, Schragger argues, cities can develop innovative solutions to the challenges of poverty, sustainability, and other social problems. (8)

    Yet cities have been limited in their abilities to respond to these challenges. These limits are both legal and conceptual. State and federal laws restrict the authority of cities to provide services, regulate markets, and engage in policy innovation. (9) Even more restrictive than these legal limitations is the view during the past half century that what cities should do to respond to urban challenges extends only to their role as competitors for "consumer-citizens" whose only concerns are the bundle of goods that they, as cities, can offer. (10) Schragger argues this competitive city model has narrowed what is possible in our cities, and people need to open their minds to alternative approaches:

    My own conception of the city is grounded in its public role: the city as a site for individual and collective economic and political development. Like all cities, that city is an abstraction. Municipalities have political boundaries, but cities have sociological, economic, and spatial ones too--and municipal boundaries do not usually capture those. (11) This broader understanding of the role of the city allows for the possibility of more comprehensive government interventions that will enable cities and their residents to flourish.

    Chief among its many contributions, City Power successfully weakens the argument that economic competition must direct local decision-making. For more than sixty years, the Tiebout Hypothesis has hung over urban policy like the Sword of Damocles. (12) In his famous work, Tiebout theorized that, in a market society with free mobility, cities must view themselves solely in economic terms and sell themselves to prospective inhabitants. Residents, Tiebout hypothesized, each have a distinct preference pattern for public goods and select their community based on the optimal satisfaction of those preferences. (13) Correspondingly, he argued that successful cities are those that best match the public goods they provide to the demands of consumers. (14)

    Though Tiebout noted several possible bundles of public goods that might attract consumer-citizens, (15) the Tiebout framework has come to be accepted as defining a model of city governance that prioritizes economic development over other values. (16) Further, proponents of this framework have argued that promoting economic development means very specific types of policies, in particular, low taxes that attract investment and wealthy people that will pay for basic services. (17) Finally, the accepted wisdom holds that service costs must be strictly limited, or consumer-citizens will move to more "attractive" communities. (18)

    Tiebout was honest that this was a theory, one that needed to be backed up by research, data, and evidence. (19) However, even without much evidence to support it, this framework soon came to dominate urban policy at local and even national levels. (20) If the data ever supported this thesis, it certainly does not support the Tiebout framework in twenty-first-century America. Schragger shows, in detail, how the last two decades of urban growth undermine, if not obliterate, this theory. (21) If the theory were true, Schragger argues, shouldn't cities with low taxes and service provisions have the highest economic growth? Not only is this not the case, but some of the cities with the highest taxes and service budgets (New York being the most striking, but far from the only example) are exactly the places with the highest economic growth. Conversely, places like Detroit, which has adopted some of the most "investment attractive" policies in the country at the local and state levels (for example, eliminating taxes for most economic development and providing public subsidies to boot) while slashing services, have among the slowest economic growth. (23)

    Schragger does not just make the point that the arguments for economic development-led urban policies are weak; he goes further by arguing that it is impossible to draw conclusions about why some cities prosper economically while others struggle. (24) There is no definitive...

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