The political economy of city power.

Author:Schragger, Richard C.

Introduction 91 I. Weak Cities 96 A. Market-Based Local Government 96 B. State-Based Federalism 98 II. Efforts to Enhance City Power 102 A. Home Rule 101 B. National Urban Policy 107 C. Regionalism 111 III. [Re]conceiving the City 114 A. The Critical Legal City 115 B. The Right to the City 118 C. The Solidarity Economy 170 IV. City Power 124 A. A New Urban Economics 124 B. A New Urban Politics 128 Conclusion 131 INTRODUCTION

American cities are on the march. Many city populations have stabilized after a long decline, downtowns are thriving, and commentators celebrate the city resurgent. (1) In addition, cities are flexing their policy-making muscle. Cities have been adopting ordinances in areas as diverse as environmental protection and health care and asserting themselves into policy spaces often considered exclusive to the state or the federal governments. (2)

Despite this general shift in city fortunes, however, American cities continue to be weak in important ways. Consider Detroit, which declared the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history after a state receiver was appointed to take over the city's government. (3) Some Detroit residents protested the suspension of elective municipal government, but for most outsiders, neither the declaration of bankruptcy nor the appointment of a state receiver garnered much attention or outrage. (4) Questions about the efficacy and justice of appointing unelected state officials to govern entire cities were only raised after the crisis in Flint, another Michigan city with an appointed state receiver. (5) In Flint, public officials who had replaced the elected city government failed to respond to complaints about the city's water supply, which was subsequently shown to be thoroughly contaminated. (6) The failures of Flint's water supply revealed both the entrenched inequities in America's basic infrastructure and the striking limits of the electoral, economic, and political power of residents living in struggling municipalities. (7)

This lack of local political power is not restricted to municipalities in serious economic crisis. After Charlotte, North Carolina adopted a transgender rights ordinance, the state legislature responded with sweeping legislation aimed at limiting the authority of local governments to regulate across a number of areas. (8) The North Carolina legislature objected to Charlotte's law because it permitted transgender citizens to use bathrooms that conformed to their gender identity, as opposed to their biological sex. In a statute known popularly as HB2, the state not only overturned the "bathroom" portion of the city's ordinance but also declared that wage and hours regulation, municipal contracting, employment discrimination, and public accommodations laws are all "properly... issue[s] of general, statewide concern, such that... [state statutes] supersede and preempt" any contrary local policy. (9) Many American cities have adopted local LGBT anti-discrimination ordinances, living wage laws, or other forms of social welfare regulation. (10) And many cities have seen state legislatures preempt those ordinances, laws, and regulations."

What is striking about city power is how constrained it actually is. In 1967, political scientist Robert Dahl observed that "[c]ity-building is one of the most obvious incapacities of Americans." (12) Little has changed over the last fifty years, as suburbanization, deindustrialization, and the shift of policy-making authority from cities to states and states to the federal government has continued apace. Despite the urban resurgence of the last decades and the increased prominence of municipal lawmaking, the city's political economy remains the same. Cities in the U.S. federal system continue to be limited in important ways. The city's exercise of authority, political influence, and economic power is incidental to, or parasitic on, the exercise of power by the private sector or higher-level governments.

This Article describes the current political economy of city power and efforts to reform and remake it. U.S. cities are resurging in many cases and their economic power sometimes generates policymaking power. But the two examples noted--state takeovers of distressed cities and state preemption of municipal law--strikingly illustrate the significant distance between municipal policy efforts and the city's actual political and economic clout. U.S. cities can do little without support from state authorities, which often block them from adopting preferred local legislation, fail to come to their aid when they are struggling, and take them over with relative impunity when they fail. (13)

Part I describes two significant features of the U.S. political economy that account for the city's weakness in relation both to markets and the centralizing state. The first is the practice of treating cities as competitors in a global marketplace for capital and labor, which requires cities to "compete" for investment. The second is the practice of state-based federalism, which increases the number of political competitors who seek to influence or control city policy-making.

Part II considers past efforts to address these weaknesses through three institutional reforms: home rule, national urban policy, and regionalism. Home rule efforts in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century sought to address the attractiveness of cities to state legislators eager to exploit the political and financial opportunities of the urban population boom. (14) Home rule gave municipalities some modicum of self-government, but it did not aid those cities that would experience industrial decline many decades later. In the more recent past, national urban policy and regionalism have been offered as strategies to buttress cities in decline and provide more financial support for cities in the face of suburban growth. (15) Those efforts have also been for the most part ineffective in providing urban financial stability for a significant number of municipalities.

Part III considers more ambitious (and to this point, mostly theoretical) efforts to challenge the city's basic lack of economic and political power. A range of advocates and theorists have argued that city powerlessness is a deep feature of the global market economy. Critical theorists argue that the city's lack of power is a core component of a particular kind of liberal economic order--one that privileges rights of property over rights of self-governance--and that the answer to city weakness is to challenge that prioritization. (16)

These disparate challenges to the liberal market order have failed to coalesce and seem unlikely to do so anytime soon. Nevertheless, Part IV suggests how the recent urban resurgence offers an opportunity to open-up some political and economic space for the exercise of city power, short of a radical transformation of the existing economic order. What is necessary is a political movement, not necessarily a political revolution. This Article does not make a sustained argument on behalf of that movement. (17) Instead, it describes the reasons for the city's economic and political weakness and a set of institutional and academic responses to that weakness. The reader does not need to agree that city power is ultimately desirable.

That being said, this Article suggests here and in conclusion that city power can serve as an antidote to a growing global democracy deficit. Neither the nation-state nor the transnational corporation seem able to address the political alienation and economic instability felt by many citizens in the U.S. and elsewhere. This felt instability has given rise to both left-and right-wing populism, often tainted by xenophobia and nationalism. (18) In the United States, Donald Trump's presidential victory is illustrative of the latter. His rise to power is consistent with the British vote to exit the European Union and the increasing success of reactionary parties on the continent. (19)

There are many sources of citizen dissatisfaction with conventional politics at the turn of the twenty-first century--immigration, terrorism, outright racism, and economic stagnation all contribute. But surely another factor is the failure of national elites and distant government bureaucracies to provide effective responses to the economic and social dislocations caused by the global market economy. For those who see the city as the best chance for a robust local participatory politics, who celebrate the city as holding out--in Dahl's words--the "promise for the good life lived jointly with fellow citizens," (20) challenging the basis of city weakness is a central task. If it can be fostered and protected, city power is one possible answer to increasingly potent economic and political estrangement.


    Two features of the U.S. political economy define and limit city power. The first is the ideology and practice of market primacy--the idea that most goods and services should be produced through (free) markets and that state power should generally be limited to preventing, or solving, market failures. The second is state-based federalism, which interposes a regional tier of government in the U.S. between the nation and its cities. Market primacy shifts power toward the private sector, while state-based federalism drives policymaking toward central governments.

    1. Market-Based Local Government

      Two aspects of the ideology of market primacy influence city power. First, the city is understood to be dependent on private investment for its economic health and welfare. Second, the city is understood to be engaged in a competition for private investment with other locations. Local officials, citizens, and interest groups all believe and act on these understandings. The municipal politics that results tends to be development-favoring. Local politics and policy are generally premised on the view that the exercise of city power is possible only to the extent that...

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