Localism

Why New York Should Have a Constitutional Convention, But Still Needs the Feds

Not exactly what we had in mind (newamsterdamny.org)

Not exactly what we had in mind (newamsterdamny.org)

Since the election of Donald Trump, a lot has been made about the need for more localism.  With the federal government either locked in partisan paralysis or actively cutting back on services, there is a compelling argument for letting states run their own affairs – after all, states are the great laboratories of democracy.  However, we can look at the recent talk of holding a Constitutional Convention in New York to see why this argument is ultimately flawed.

There are two main reasons that localism can’t help improve how our cities/states are governed. First, our society has evolved into a highly complex, integrated national and global environment where the actions of distant players have local consequences.  We need a strong, active federal government to manage the needs of loosely connected people and places.  Despite what many would argue as too many onerous regulations from the federal government (on things like environmental policy), the larger trend over the last 40 years is the retreat of federal policy (on financial policy as one example), which has produced some of the greatest inequality in our country’s history.

Second, this assumes that states are functional enough to handle more responsibility, which is, sadly, not at all clear.  Part of this goes back to the first reason. Our economy and society are too complex and integrated for state-level governments to be able to address all of their citizens’ concerns. Even well run states can be left behind as the economy and demographics shift. But part of it is bad governance.  New York State is a prime example.

I’ve written a lot about the flaws within New York State’s governance (and though I’ve been highly critical of Governor Cuomo, most of those flaws are structural and not his fault per se.)  The quirks of history and geography have put a mostly rural state together with the country’s greatest city.  It has also separated commuters across three states that have more in common with each other than their other fellow citizens.  These issues are beyond the reach of a (state) Constitutional Convention, but show the limits to what a state can address.

However, here is a brief list of what could and should be fixed in New York.  These changes, along with many others certainly, could improve on the quality of governance in the state, but the larger point is to demonstrate that they still couldn’t address the larger trends that pose current and future problems for the state.

1.     One Full-Time Legislature

Many states have a two-body legislative system with part-time legislators based on logic from the US Constitution intended to spread out political power across regions and classes. The idea of the citizen-legislator has romantic undertones, but in practice it means you get an unprofessional class of elected officials who are ripe with conflicts of interest.  

The increasing nationalization of all politics and flooding of out-of-state money into local elections further undermines this quaint notion.  Post-election, lobbyist groups like ALEC often write legislation word-for-word in many states and provide funds and perks for many elected officials all to eager to lighten their load.

The "Three Men in A Room" Era of New York politics has been the opposite. Not only have two of those three people ended up in jail, but also the system made a mockery of both bodies of representation.  The dynamics of New York politics dictate that downstate voting power dominates the Democrat-led Assembly and downstate financial power dominates the Republican-led Senate. This unholy alliance works because we have too many weak legislators.

Paying professional politicians and staff to govern our state through one representative house would produce better outcomes with more transparency.  Singapore has shown how paying comparable private-sector salaries can improve the efficiency and efficacy of government.  We get what we pay for, and I’d rather pay fewer people more to do a better job. 

2.     Home Rule

Localism as it is described in many circles calls for cities to control more of their destinies in the Trump Age. That belies the fact that they can’t.  The US Constitution does not mention cities at all and empowers states exclusively outside of the federal level.  This means that a city like NYC doesn’t control its own transportation, taxation, or even education. 

The honest truth is that NYC is special (obviously I have fully embraced my NYC-centric worldview) and needs to run its own affairs.  It’s one of the world’s premiere cities and needs to have autonomy to run its own affairs to complete with global cities like London or Hong Kong.  That it can’t manage its sprawling obligations and opportunities as easily as Paris or London can costs NYC, New York, and the US. 

Some ideas have been floated for the Convention about returning limited home rule to NYC or as radical as creating autonomous regions (see the picture above) or even succession.  If there was some compromise that cut out a special designation for the 5 boroughs given its unique nature, but would still guarantee some upstate financial exchange - that might just work. But if such a scenario that could benefit both the city and the rest of the state (and the rest of its cities) even exists remains to be seen. And I for one don't want to create a scenario where one region suffers because the other separates.

Furthermore, it’s unlikely that upstate communities would want to surrender access to NYC tax dollars. More importantly, it’s unlikely that upstate politicians would want to surrender access to downstate political money, which would evaporate if upstate influence wasn’t needed.  And no governor, certainly not the current one, would want to surrender the power, and access to the spotlight, that NYC provides. 

3.     Debt Service

Technically, this is more about transparency, but how the state borrows money is in need of a major overhaul.  Right now the Constitution says that voters must approve any state borrowing over a certain amount but that hasn’t happened in decades.  This is because most state borrowing comes through sub-state authorities and agencies that are explicitly exempt from voter referendums. 

Many elected officials, including at one time Governor Cuomo, have criticized this “back-door” borrowing but when push comes to shove, it is a very convenient tool to get projects funded, so the practice continues.   At $300b, New York has the second highest state debt in the country (although, it has been on sound footing for several years.) 

It should be said that debt is not a bad thing for a state to have, especially when it is borrowing for infrastructure and public services that have long-term benefits. The problem is less the outright number or the state’s current ability to fund its debt service and more the ability to determine priorities. The assumption is that most voters won’t know enough or care enough about the state borrowing for a new bridge and might vote it down with enough protest.  This is unfortunately true in some cases. 

However, this is myopic.  The larger truth is that New York, like most states, gives money away for terrible projects all the time without facing voters’ wrath.  The city and state gave close to $500m to Yankee Stadium, without a “yes” from voters.  The Governor gave billions of dollars to upstate, without a “yes” from voters.  Just two weeks ago, it was announced that Aetna, the publicly traded insurance giant, will receive $34m in city/state money to move 250 jobs to Chelsea. Without having to justify expenses to voters, the state has wasted billions and will continue to. 

This all while expansion of public education, transportation, and pension funding all suffer.  It’s always the big-ticket items that get political pushback, but too many little things get through the cracks. This happens because the state thinks voters are ignorant and lazy when in reality they are ignored and misinformed.  Only by changing the way we control our taxes will that change.

There are a lot of other issues that could be addressed in a Convention and there are risks that silly ideas or even bad ones will get traction or distract the process.  These potential issues don’t outweigh the need to reboot the state of New York.  It is entirely healthy for citizens to revisit the organizing documents of its government. I hope that we do this fall. But it’s clear to me that without stronger federal action, cities and states can’t fend for themselves no matter how well run they are.

5 Reasons We Need More Federal Intervention in Housing

The United Cities of America (wired via garrettdashnelson)

The United Cities of America (wired via garrettdashnelson)

This past week, Urban Institute released a report on the dire state of the affordable housing crisis.  Put simply, every county in the country has a significant shortage of affordable rental housing.  Every. Single. County. This report focuses on extremely low-income (ELI) households (which make 30% of average median income) and shows that there are only 21 market-rate units for every 100 ELI renter households. The number climbs to 46 units with federal programs.  On it’s own, this report shows why federal intervention in housing is so important to this population, but taken in a broader context, it shows why we need to re-embrace the type of large-scale federal intervention that we saw from the 1930s-1960s. Here are five reasons.

1. Localism Makes Things Worse

“Localism” is a call for more local autonomy that acknowledges the deep geographical divisions that have paralyzed our federal government. Frenemies Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin have come together to make a compelling argument for why the only way to overcome this is to essentially admit defeat, avoid relying on the federal government, and let local preferences control tax dollars/policy. 

As I explained in last week’s blog, though both scholars, coming from different ideological perspectives, present solid reasons for supporting this idea, there are two practical problems that would potentially make the housing crisis worse.

First, we already have localism and it stinks.  As Matthew Yglesias pointed out recently about Palo Alto, localized planning policy has skewed political outcomes for one constituency – the connected present – at the expense of the non-connected present (and the future). These local groups in these select economic areas are suffocating the entire national economy. Right now.

Second, the history of NYC before the dawn of federal intervention in the 1930s shows that in many cases, even at the local level, the interests of “financial power” and “voting power” rarely align and at best create a corrupt status quo that serves only the leaders of each faction.  We wouldn’t likely see a return to political machines, but can we assume that contemporary “financial power” and “voting power” have similar political goals? Or can they find political strategies that both sides buy into?

Whether its local planning policies that prevent growth or deeply divided local political interests, our current reliance on localism is counterproductive. Removing the small federal power that exists now would only make these issues worse. We need to supersede these local interests as a nation.

2. Regionalism Has Too Many Boundaries

A counter-argument presented to localism is regionalism.  Amy Liu wrote about several areas – Chicago, Denver, and Seattle – where local municipalities are working together, across city-lines, to create equitable development.  Though these examples are encouraging, they show the larger political conundrum of planning this way.

Regions, let alone cities, are not recognized in the Constitution, which poses fundamental challenges to cooperation and coordination at the sub-state level. You only need to look at the dysfunction in North Carolina over Charlotte’s bathroom policy to show that the partisan divisions at the federal level are just as toxic, if not more so, at the state level. Cities and regions are not powerful enough to overcome bad state-level planning.

Even worse, NYC shows the challenge of interstate coordination.  Hundreds of thousands of commuters are stuck in perma-hell over the deteriorating train tunnels under the Hudson River, partly because NY and NJ have bickered about who pays for what. Forget Bridgegate, Governor Chris Christie's legacy will be scandalized for canceling ARC.

State boundaries in many cases do not reflect the larger economic and political cohesion of a commuter-shed and instead have the affect of pitting residents of the same region against each other or putting residents in one state under the whims of politicians in another. The only recognized power to overcome these obstacles – to get cities, states, and regions to work together - is the federal government.

3. There Already is Intervention - Just the Wrong Kind

The US is a majority suburban, majority homeowner society.  Why? Because the government decided that we should be. More specifically, the US federal government decided to promote white homeownership and car ownership as the bedrocks of the post-war American economy by building free highways, underwriting mortgages, and segregating neighborhoods.

There is nothing organic or market-driven about how our communities are organized in America.  These were political choices that tipped the scales decidedly towards certain outcomes that were not pre-destined and were certainly not universally accessible.

Over the last 80 years, the US government has spent trillions of dollars subsidizing the suburban expansion of our country.  Even today, 60% of government spending on housing (over $100b) goes to subsidizing homes for wealthy Americans.  We don’t think of this as a ‘handout’ in the classic sense, but it absolutely is and it has had immeasurable consequences to our society.

If we acknowledge that the federal government has always played a central role in our economy, we can get over the childish ideologies that continue to harm our country.  Instead, we can focus on how we want the government to intervene.

Do we really want to spend billions of dollars subsiding the homes of wealthy Americans when we can spend a fraction of that on providing guaranteed, affordable housing to all vulnerable citizens? This isn’t a crazy, ideological question.  It’s a value judgment first and foremost, but it also makes more economic sense on top of that.

If the economy is moving towards innovative jobs clustered in urban areas, we need to build more housing in those communities to encourage spillover affects for all workers. The federal government has picked housing winners for 80 years - we just need it to pick different ones now.

4. Late Capitalism is Eroding Our Civil Society

Late capitalism is an increasingly mainstream term to describe the inevitability of the economic and political malaise we have been in (depending on how you measure it) for decades.  We are in a sustained period of inequality, inopportunity, and insecurity that shows, demonstrably, that something is deeply wrong with our economy and the politics organizing it. The person who ignores this is a fool and the person who defends it is a villain.

Just as I outlined in the previous section, this is no accident.  The federal government over the last 40 years has tilted the economic playing field towards stateless globalization, corporatist monopoly, and sanctioned corruption. The logical conclusion of this unabated trend is social collapse. Maybe that sounds hyperbolic, but the populism seen on both ends of the political spectrum in the US and across much of the western world is a direct response to late capitalism and another step towards this frightening possibility. How (and if) this anger can be channeled constructively is the great political question of our time.

However, as we’ve seen during other eras of extreme political and financial inequality, that anger can be channeled positively at the federal level.  The legislation passed during the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society were all far-reaching attempts to address massive, system-level problems (obviously with uneven results.)  Just as federal policies are the cause of many of these current problems, they can and must be the solution too.

5. It’s the Environment, Stupid

All of this comes back to the ghost at the feast: climate change.  Sorry Bret Stephens, but there is no debate about the danger this poses to our society.  Sure, scientists don’t know exactly how, where, or when these changes will manifest as an existential threat, but it’s not an academic question.  We are experiencing this all over the world right now.

The simple, unsexy truth is that our development history – sprawl – has been terrible for the environment overall and terrible for the health of many people specifically.  (One area where HUD Secretary Ben Carson has shown some potential is this connection between housing and health.)

Creating denser communities where housing and jobs are walkable and connected to public transit isn’t some liberal fantasy for its own sake.  It’s a proven form of addressing inequalities and inefficiencies harming our environment and our collective health. 

Localism and regionalism can’t address the dangers of climate change if some localities “want” to maintain sprawl.  Decades of federal intervention in homeownership and car ownership that cause climate change can’t naturally be reversed. The ills of late capitalism that have damaged the physical and political health of our society won’t fix themselves.

The federal government is the only entity strong enough and ultimately legitimate enough to adequately address all of these problems.  Giving up on this idea, as academics or advocates, is giving up on the American experiment itself.

Rather than abandon the idea that the federal government can help, we must commit ourselves to a national “reboot” of political, economic, and social priorities.

Starting with housing seems like the logical place to begin this process.  The moral urgency of the housing crisis calls for big, bold national ideas.  The economic and social benefits of committing the nation to housing-as-a-right are self-evident.  Where and how we build that housing may just be the difference between a sustainable future or something far darker.

Localism Is OK If It Means Less "democracy"

Make NYC Boss Again? (niemanrports/thomasnast)

Make NYC Boss Again? (niemanrports/thomasnast)

This week, President Trump has been busy trying to amass some “wins” for his 100-day mark (which, sure, is arbitrary, but sort of isn’t) and has taken two shots at cities to do so. The first is his (so far) failed attempt at “punishing” Sanctuary Cities and the second is his “skinny” tax cut plan which would presumably make good on proposed significant cuts to HUD.  Both cases highlight the specter of Federal cuts hanging over struggling cities in the Trump era, which has heightened the call for greater local control.  There are some sound arguments for ‘localism’ but they must include less democracy to make sense.

Before I get attacked for being a fascist or (even worse) a technocratic neo-liberal, let me explain what I mean by less democracy.  There are two naturally existing powers that make our quirky form of urban democracy uniquely dysfunctional.  These powers are currently harming our cities, each in their own way, and they would only get worse if cities were able to control themselves without federal intervention or oversight.  Both of these powers would have to be weakened significantly to make the types of changes our cities need. It’s unclear to me how exactly localism would do that.

The first power in urban politics is financial power.  As progressive and liberal as big coastal cities like NYC are in many ways, rich people that live in them still donate to and vote for rich people policies.  This means lower taxes, less regulation, and more privatization. These policies generally don’t help a lot of not-rich people, but get a lot of attention and support from elected leaders who need rich people’s money and support.

The idea that these folks would embrace (or, more cynically, allow) truly progressive politics to capture and distribute their mega wealth or undermine their political or social power to shape policy is…optimistic.  It’s much more likely that they would continue to find, support, and get elected Cory Booker-types to appeal to the left while diligently normalizing rightward policies that potentially undermine the civic health of the city in the long run.

The second power in urban politics is voting power.   As progressive and liberal as big coastal cities like NYC are in many ways, most people that live in them still vote against policies that change (or perceive to change) their neighborhoods too much. NIMBYISM is a unifying feature across all income-levels. A lot of people just don’t want taller buildings, greater density, or more homeless shelters in their neighborhoods. They don’t think that the short-term disruption they would endure would benefit them in the long run (which is true in many cases) and generally resist top-down or outside-in policy prescriptions.  

After the horrors of Urban Renewal (though federally funded, its programs were controlled at city and state level, infamously by Robert Moses in bulk) this reaction was understandable and necessary.  Community Boards, ULURP, historical preservation, and other policy tools were all successful attempts to localize power at the neighborhood level.

However, decades later, many of these same tools have devolved into reactionary platforms that can easily be gamed by incumbent interests at the expense of other constituencies in the present, who don’t know the ropes, or future residents who can’t be at CB meetings and the like. This doesn’t serve the city's civic interests either.

So the inherent problem with localism is thinking that even in liberal, progressive NYC, we all want the same thing.  If only we could stop sending so much of our money to DC, we’d get the political out comes we all want spending it locally. It’s obviously not that simple.

Financial power and voting power sometimes align in NYC, but for the most part have few shared political goals.  And even if they have shared goals, they don’t have shared strategies.  For example, would most voters want charter schools to replace public schools? Would most wealthy residents (or corporations) stay if their taxes went up significantly? What would the political environment look like if these two groups clashed endlessly for power? Would it actually produce better results for NYC?

We don’t have to speculate much on this scenario, because its how politics worked in NYC for generations before there was any federal intervention. The city’s long and colorful political history is dominated by the struggle between financial power and voting power, which constituted “democracy” at the time. 

Tammany Hall is perhaps the most infamous political machine in American history and dominated the voting power in NYC (mostly by corralling the immigrant working class) from the late 18th century well into the 1940s, occasionally losing power at the city or state level to various temporary reform coalitions backed by wealthy interests.

The consistent result of this political dynamic was a deeply, shockingly divided city.  For most of the 19th century and early 20th century, New York was the epicenter of modern capitalism’s contradictions: The highest levels of progress and culture and the lowest levels of squalor and brutality.  No level of municipal government, political machine, or private philanthropy could fix this generational poverty and inequality.  These institutions had no interest in challenging the status quo because, in many cases, they benefited from it. 

By the way, if you haven’t heard of Henry George, this is a good opportunity to check him out.  This type of normalized corruption is what prompted Mr. George to study contemporary urban capitalism and democracy.  His seminal work on the topic, Progress and Poverty (1879) is why he is considered the father of progressivism. He even tried (and failed) to run for Mayor in NYC against Tammany Hall.

I’m not suggesting that NYC would return to 19th century machine-style politics in a new form of localism, but this history shows how truly “local” politics tend to create extremely disconnected factions.  Corruption and demagoguery thrive in this environment. Even worse, these factions tend to stabilize around a mutually beneficial status quo that rarely serve the interests of the larger political body (in the present or future). It also shows how exceedingly difficult it is for new politics to enter this status quo once its established.

This to me is the great contradiction of promoting localism.  How can localism create the type of political room to change our current status quo? Would it simply mean greater power in the hands of a small elite? Would it also mean greater power in the hands of NIMBYists? These problems already exist with the current levels of federal involvement, how would removing that involvement fix them?

Returning to Henry George for a moment, he (like me if you can believe it) was an optimist and believed firmly in people.  Democracy to him was not a collection of token attributes achieved simply by voting.  It was an ever-changing intellectual and emotional forum for all people to challenge the purpose of our economic and political organization.  He saw the small-d ‘democracy’ of the Gilded Age as an affront to this ideal and as a threat to our republican form of government.  No doubt he would see today’s small-d “democracy” in a similar vein. 

I see the appeal of ‘localism’ in its basic sense.  Next week I’ll talk about some of the larger dangers that I think it could present, but there is nothing wrong with wanting more local control.  Who would actually wield that control and to what end is the great unknown.