Would We All Be Better Off If Mayors Ruled the World?

It’s a tempting idea, but cities simply don’t have the power to do what most of their residents want them to do.
by | February 2014
A bipartisan group of big-city mayors meets with President Obama. The White House

More than 40 years ago, the sociologist Daniel Bell made a startling prediction: The coming decades would see nations decline in power and importance. The most important problems of the coming era, Bell said, would be either global or local. Countries would simultaneously fi nd themselves too big to deal with some of them and too small to handle others.

Bell’s prophecy didn’t become conventional wisdom, but it never quite died away either. At moments when the American federal government has found it diffi cult to take action, critics have not hesitated to portray it as ill-suited to cope with the most urgent decisions in the modern world.

This is one of those moments. As Washington struggles to conduct even the most routine functions of public policy and administration, the op-ed pages are full of proclamations that we need to look to another level of government to set the example for eff ective performance.

Some of this rhetoric comes from governors and national newsmakers, some of it from journalists and academics. Former Vice President Al Gore recently told an urbanist conference that “the nation-state is becoming disintermediated”—in other words, it is coming to be an irrelevant middleman. The New York Times published an article in October titled “The End of the Nation-State?” and another in November called “As Washington Keeps Sinking, Governors Rise.” All of this echoes the view of scholars such as Heather Gerken of Yale Law School, who wrote last year that “when national politics are the problem, state politics can be the solution.”

Meanwhile, another cadre of analysts is contending that the real alternative to atrophied federal power won’t come from the states, but from the localities. One example is the widely discussed recent book The Metropolitan Revolution by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley. According to Katz and Bradley, it is metropolitan areas—city and suburb together—that are solving problems the feds find themselves unable to solve.

They dismiss the notion that states are the logical place to look for governmental initiative. Metros, they point out, contain two-thirds of the U.S. population and generate three-quarters of the nation’s gross national product. “We do not believe in fairy tales,” the authors write. “The federal government will not heal itself anytime soon. The states are political artifices, not natural markets. We … believe in metropolitan pragmatism, metropolitan power, and metropolitan potential.”

Katz and Bradley go far enough to be controversial. But they don’t go nearly as far as Benjamin Barber, a political scientist and longtime advocate of grassroots democracy. Barber’s new book, If Mayors Ruled the World, is both an argument for local authority and an angry screed against national governments all over the world. “Cities should rule the world for a good reason,” he declares. “Nation states haven’t and can’t. … As nations grow more dysfunctional, cities are rising.”

Barber has little interest in states or provinces; he barely mentions metropolitan areas. Cities are everything for him, the natural heirs to what he sees as the inevitable decline in nation-state fortunes. “As it was our origin,” he writes in one of his typically florid passages, “the city now appears to be our destiny. It is where creativity is unleashed, community solidified, and citizenship realized. If we are to be rescued, the city rather than the nation-state must be the agent of change.”

A lot of this depends on the provocative contention that cities are, one might say, better behaved than nation-states. They are pragmatic, working toward piecemeal goals rather than serving up the rhetoric of false pride and chauvinistic glory. They don’t waste time worrying about their sovereignty, mostly because, in the end, they have no sovereignty. By and large, they don’t share borders with one another, so they don’t become enmeshed in fruitless territorial squabbles. In sum, cities have avoided the excess baggage of nationalism that prevents countries from solving the problems that they should be solving. Or so Barber believes.

It is not just cities that are growing in influence, in Barber’s view, it is the mayors who lead them. He may be the most passionate supporter of mayoral power ever to take up a pen. His primary American exhibit is Michael Bloomberg, the just-retired mayor of New York City. But his book is laced with examples from urban affairs all over the world, encompassing the mayors of London; Moscow; Seoul; Delhi; Stuttgart, Germany; and Bogotá, Colombia, among others. “Mayors in ordinary times,” he believes, “are often extraordinary, bigger than the cities they govern and able to dramatize the city’s character and amplify its influence.”

If you find all this a bit much, you surely will not be convinced by what comes next: a parliament of mayors, representing cities all over the world, meeting three times a year, passing resolutions and adopting programs that will challenge weakened national governments through sheer moral suasion.

The idea of a parliament of mayors presents so many logistical obstacles that mentioning just a few should be sufficient. Barber wants to include mayors from each city with a population of more than 50,000. On a global scale, this means tens of thousands of jurisdictions. In the United States alone, there are 726 cities with populations of 50,000 or more. With just a few hundred mayors at each meeting, it would be decades before all the cities of sufficient size could participate in even one session.

When the mayors return home with the decisions made by the conclave, they would face the task of selling them to their constituencies, since the parliament would have no formal powers of enforcement. More than that, they would be forced to confront those citizens who had been unrepresented—namely residents of rural areas and smaller suburbs unable to reach the 50,000 threshold.

You get the idea. A parliament of mayors would be impossible to create as anything more than a talking assembly. And if it’s no more than that, most mayors with real problems to solve at home would be unlikely to attend.

So if you see all this as a wacky fantasy with little relation to the real world, and want to stop reading now, you are entitled to do that. There isn’t going to be a world forum of the sort Barber envisions. But his larger point about cities and nations is worth taking seriously.

To a great extent, the world that Bell predicted and that Barber envisions is already coming into existence. While the American and Chinese governments squabble over issues large and small, American and Chinese cities are sharing information and best-practice knowledge on a regular basis. The largest European cities are managing their economic aff airs with relative success, helping to stave off the lurking irrelevance of the European Union.

These are examples of what Barber calls “glocalism”—the power of a network of world cities to work toward goals unachievable at higher levels of government. “Glocal” is already a word in economics: It refers to products sold everywhere but adapted to particular places. It’s a medium-sized step from that definition to a new meaning as a network of world cities strung together by thickening cords of practical cooperation.

It’s possible to look at some of the most rancorous debates in American politics and see the outlines of what glocalism might mean. Or it’s possible to use those same debates as a means of challenging it.

One can describe the Affordable Care Act as an example of the federal government accepting its responsibilities and dealing with the urgent national problem of a huge uninsured or underinsured population. Or one can view the resistance of more than half the states and the rollout failures as evidence that the nation is too divided and the problem too complex to admit to an efficient national answer.

But either way, it’s hard to see what cities have to contribute to a health-care solution. We can’t have municipal health insurance. We could theoretically have comprehensive health care in this country on a state-by-state basis, but it’s not clear what that would say about glocalism. In any case, it isn’t going to happen. The nation-state, imperfect as its eff orts may be, is now the vehicle for managing health care in America, as it is in virtually all of the developed world.

The failure of countries to agree on a policy toward climate change would seem to be the most striking possible evidence of failure at the nation-state level. Barber makes much of this, noting the number of city-based organizations that have sprung up to combat climate change in recent years, and citing the independent actions of numerous California cities to restrict carbon emissions as an example of how glocalism might work. But it’s hard to resist the suspicion that these small-scale initiatives are drops in the bucket, and that in the absence of a concerted effort among nations, climate change will continue to get worse.

Then there is gun violence. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, started in 2006 by Bloomberg, now has 600 mayor-members from more than 40 U.S. states. A new organization called the Global Network on Safer Cities was founded in 2012. But in the United States, at least, serious local eff orts to contain gun violence ultimately run up against the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Cities simply don’t have the power to do what most of their residents would seem to want them to do.

Can cities exercise new influence through global cooperation? I think so, and I think we will be seeing more of it in the coming years. I also agree with Barber that we might all be better off if mayors really ruled the world. But nations will always have the authority to trump them. Personally, I’m all for glocalism. I just don’t think it will upend national sovereignty anytime soon.

Alan Ehrenhalt
Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Contributing Editor
aehrenhalt@governing.com  | 

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