This article was co-authored by Nation contributing editor Joel Rogers. Itoriginally appeared in the September 17 issue of the New Statesman.
On the campaign trail, Barack Obama promised to champion America’scities and help them help themselves. So how are they faring under hispresidency?
America is a metro nation. About 80 per cent of the US population nowlives in metropolitan areas, which together cover about 20 per cent ofthe country’s land and create roughly 90 per cent of GDP. The top 100metros alone, on 12 per cent of American land, account for 65 per centof the population, 75 per cent of GDP, and comparable or greater sharesof critical infrastructure, education and research institutions.
While cities have long been to a large extent invisible in Americanpublic life, the country now has a president who actually likes them andunderstands their centrality. He recognises that almost all the bigtrends in US demographics (smaller households, ageing), culture (moretolerant, less racist), economics (the need for innovation, less waste,greater self-sufficiency) and the environment (dying) either predict orrecommend the growth of cities. And he thinks their present dysfunction- the source of most of the country’s main domestic problems, such asinequality, unsustainability and declining competitiveness – can becured.
During his campaign for president, Barack Obama promised to championcities and, most urgently, to change the way that federal programmestackled their multiple but often interrelated problems. For years,initiatives touching many of the same people and places but originatingfrom different departments – housing and urban development, energy,education, transport and environment – had too little shared purpose andco-ordination to get much done, and enough red tape to strangleinnovation. They were victims of a bureaucracy driven by process ratherthan outcome.
Since taking office, Obama has made good on his pledge to address this.After a series of strong appointments, and with firm instruction, thevarious government agencies are collaborating as never before. Havingformalised working agreements and joint staff teams, they aresynchronising complementary interventions (on matters of housing andtransport, for example, or – to be more specific – regenerating homesand installing broadband access at the same time), and they are askingcities to match that co-ordination with their own.
This is still small-scale and, admittedly, good government on a prettybasic level – as is Obama’s recent request that the Office of Managementand Budget should carry out a formal review of the effectiveness of allurban programmes (the first time this has happened in 30 years) and makerecommendations on strategy. Yet, in this particular area of USgovernment, it is a spectacular breakthrough to common sense.It has limits, however. One is that nobody in the administration hasdefined what success in a city means. Should it be measured byimprovements in sustainability, such as reductions in carbon-dioxideemissions; or productivity, such as asset appreciation; or equity, suchas the declining significance of family background, race or sex foreducational attainment, income, wealth or health? Or some combination ofall three?
The more glaring and urgent problem, however, is the stiff resistancethat Obama has run into over his substantive domestic investment agenda.The original strategy was “do everything at once” – to spend hispolitical capital while it was at its height in order to push throughreforms in health, climate, transport and education, after which thedirection on taxes would be clear. But this was immediately slowed downby two things.
The first was the continued mop-up of the financial disaster and Obama’sdeference to his Clinton redux treasury team in handling it. This led toa series of poorly defended and predictably unpopular decisions – tobail out favoured banks and insurance companies but not others; to selloff good assets to hedge funds while keeping the worst for taxpayers; toapprove colossal bonuses for those who nearly wrecked the economy; todecline providing direct relief to distressed homeowners – and has putunstated limits on the terms of future domestic spending.
The second spanner in the works was the Republican Party’s decision togo into near-total opposition, attacking anything that Obama proposed.This was evident from his first piece of legislation, the AmericanRecovery and Reinvestment Act. Widely proclaimed as gargantuan but intruth almost certainly too small, this was a straightforward effort tohelp an economy in free fall through tax cuts and public spending.
Virtually all economists (including former advisers to the Republicanpresidential candidate John McCain) agree that the act has done thetrick, thus far saving several million jobs and about2 per cent of GDPgrowth in a huge contraction. When it came up for approval in February,however, it was denounced by Republicans as wildly irresponsible. Lardedwith tax cuts to lure their support, the act got only three votes fromRepublican senators.
Things have only gone downhill since. The Republican Party’s oppositionto Obama now amounts to an all-out war, in which it is prepared toenlist and support any willing lunatics and liars, such as a “birther”movement questioning Obama’s citizenship, and others screaming about hisplans for concentration camps and mass euthanasia of the elderly. Theseantics are aired 24/7 on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network, where right-wingpopulists such as Glenn Beck feed their audiences a steady diet of rageand character assassination. Fox/Beck’s latest campaign, against theWhite House’s “green jobs” adviser Van Jones, ended with Jones’sresignation early this month.
So it is an uncertain time for cities. They won’t go down if Obama goesdown. The 2010 budget, all but approved, maintains support for thegovernment agencies of greatest concern to them. But a defeat on healthcare and climate, and a failure to reform transport, will make things agood deal tougher for cities. And at the moment, nobody is certain thatanything – not health care, not climate, not transport – is on track tosuccess.
There is a deeper problem, too. Despite the new president’s concern forand engagement with America’s cities, there is a stubborn legacy ofhostility and indifference towards them. There is, for a start, racism.Postwar federal housing policy encouraged a distinctly whitesuburbanisation. From the urban freeways of the 1950s, to Lyndon BJohnson’s Great Society reforms, to latter-day New Orleans or Oakland,urban renewal has meant black removal. Then there is the indifference ofthe mainstream left. Labour unions in effect dismantled their centrallabour councils and, outside the building trades, turned all theirattention to industry or employer bargaining, without regard for spatialcontext. There is the immense power of the auto-industrial complex, thesingle biggest source of employment throughout the postwar period, andits unremitting hostility to any place or alternative in its way. Thereis political and cultural conservatism. The electorate in US cities, asin cities throughout the world, is more progressive than elsewhere. Itbelieves in public goods, but it also admits vice, outlandish behaviourand other interruptions to middle-class order. As Jane Jacobs observed, cities create the middle class, theydon’t attract it.
A further obstacle is the fierce competition fostered among localgovernments, which severely hinders them from working togetherconstructively on metropolitan or regional schemes. Public spending inthe US, as a percentage of GDP, is about 10 points lower than the OECDaverage, and about 15 points below the EU one – that’s roughly $2trn notspent in the US on the social wage and public goods. As a result, acitizen in need of assistance in the US is not first and foremost aconcern for local government, but a cost. The federal governmentcompounds this public poverty by encouraging states and localgovernments to compete for business capital through tax, regulation andsubsidies. Last year alone, states and local governments handed out morethan $70bn in relocation subsidies to lure firms (or keep them frommoving) across jurisdictions, often only a few miles apart. Only in ahandful of cases – San Francisco, Portland, the Port Authority of NewYork and New Jersey – has regional government emerged from and survivedthe stranglehold of such divisively competitive local politics.
Despite all these difficulties, however, there is hope for US urbanpolicy, and for the president most likely to reform it. First, there iswidespread recognition among the elite that the irrationality of thecurrent system is creating costs that will eventually be unbearable tosocial peace, competitiveness or the environment. Second, thedemographic and cultural trends are on the side of cities, and theproperty market tells us that ordinary people – not just Generation Ycomputer graphic artists and designers – prefer to live in them. At somepoint, it just gets hard to move the mountain of consumers who wouldlike something other than empty suburbs and rural McMansions.
But the greatest cause for hope is the development of far more positiveand successful metro politics. This can be seen in the huge success ofreferendums on funding more city transport; the speed at which organisedlabour and communities of colour (for so long divided in US cities) arejoining together in vast regeneration projects; the emergence ofpro-planning/pro-tax business groups; and the astonishing range ofinnovation and experiment by communities and local political leaders onissues encompassing schools, public safety, health-care delivery, newproperty forms and types of financing.
This new politics breaks with many of the divisions that largely definedcity politics and urban decline during the second half of the 20thcentury: the endless wars between business, labour, environmentalistsand communities of colour. Now, by virtue of learning and necessity,these groups recognise that they cannot succeed with their oldstrategies. At least some parts of business recognise they cannot forever divest from a society on which they depend; labour knows that itmust be productive as well as redistributive; environmentalistsunderstand that they need economic power and an economic argument forsaving the planet, not just a moral one; communities of colour know thatprotest has diminishing returns when the society in which they’ve onlysought respect might finally be prepared to give it. And although thesefour groups are by no means at complete peace with one another, they dohave a shared political project, centred in the economy.
That project is to develop cities as “high road” places. That meansvaluing economic self-sufficiency; competing on distinctiveness andperformance, not commodity price; recognising the productive use ofdemocracy and the value of place; and developing by using democracy toorganise places to better add value, reduce waste, and capture and sharethe benefit of doing both. This project is Obama’s own (if not that ofall of his advisers) – to develop our metro nation in ways that make itmore self-sufficient, productive, sustainable and inclusive – and thosenow pursuing it across the country provide his real base. If they get abit more mobilised, we think, we’re going to be all right.