June 14th, 2014

_The Metropolitan Revolution_, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley

I got it at the library here in town. Of course I am glad that I did. The authors are associated with and the publisher is the Brookings Institution, which I always feel like I ought to like, but in practice winds up being annoying, at best. In this case, the subtitle oversells the thesis, which itself is over-ambitious: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy. Our broken politics are an artifact of basic disagreements within our polity, manifesting in institutions which must be representative and which, in turn, either must come to agreements or Do Nothing. Naturally, when the polity is not in agreement and the national institutions must represent the polity, the national institutions will be Broken. Duh.

Cities and metros, by contrast, have a lot of choices. Most of what annoys the authors about cities and metros are the attributes which enable them to come to agreement: choice and the ability to separate. Katz and Bradley wish that metros had more sovereign-ness and also that they were less fragmented institutionally. If they got their wish, cities would look like our national institutions.

Katz and Bradley fail to mention some things that are so puzzling in their absence that they cry out for comment. Cities can (and Seattle has recently) set minimum wages for workers. But when Katz and Bradley very occasionally contemplate governmental action to assist the poors, it is only through federal entitlement programs. It is not through local municipal action to raise wages. Not even cooperatively, which you would think would be interesting to them.

While Katz and Bradley talk about education, it is almost exclusively at the post-secondary level. The constituent parts of metros have strong educational mandates K-12 (and, increasingly, pre-K, a major issue at play in NY). These mandates are controversial and they are expensive. Katz and Bradley wholeheartedly ignore these issues, in favor of mandates that metros don't actually have (such as trade missions). It's always easier to impress people by doing someone else's job, when your job is difficult and thankless.

While I _love_ the idea that cities are Where It's At in the present and future (thinking decades here), Katz and Bradley are nibbling around the least interesting parts of that future. There are a few transit projects -- but not great ones. The discussion of Detroit is ... weak. There is a lot of stuff about networking groups that try to get non-profits and governments all moving in the same direction. *sigh* Necessary, but wow. Perhaps the best stuff was Neighborhood Centers, Inc. in Houston, and how it continues the settlement work of the 19th century that we associate with Jane Addams' Hull House and similar, but anyone who is paying attention knows that settlement work really can't address systemic problems.

And Katz and Bradley are busy pretending that those systemic issues (I would here identify things like: demographic changes, technology changes, decisions made somewhat quietly at the national level that limit what can and cannot be done such as whether the dollar is strong or weak, changes in the energy portfolio, etc.) sort of don't matter. And just because they would like to believe that metros can forge their own way (because they kind of have to!) in the middle of a massive national disagreement about what our world should be like, doesn't immediately translate into convincing me that is possible.

I sort of wish that Katz and Bradley had spent more time on things like Colorado and Washington State's legalization initiatives and Villaraigosa's efforts to fund transit. These are awesome examples of how cities and states can identify specific changes that need to occur at the national level, and then successfully advocate for making those changes and mitigating several layers of objections/potential harm. When that works, it is because the requested changes don't start _out_ identified with political parties at the national level. So Katz and Bradley's suggestion the state level representatives for metro districts, and the national caucus for the state should work together is an _excellent_ on.

There's good stuff in here -- it's probably worth reading if this is an area of interest for you. Don't believe every detail -- there are some basic misunderstandings of the history of zoning, for example, that are supported by the author citing himself (Katz), and be skeptical of whether the examples in general are really worth the time spent on them. But thinking about our world from the metro perspective is valuable, and they provide an interesting overview of some of what is happening out there.