Friday, March 8, 2013

Why Is City Governance Often Terrible?

The Urbanophile blog recently posted an incredibly succinct comment about the poor quality of governance and public policy in cities, employing the analytical lens of public choice theory:
Economists have a concept called “revealed preference” that suggests that consumers reveal their true preferences through the actual purchasing decisions they make. Applying this to public policy, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the real preference of the powers that be in most places is the maintenance of the status quo, not disruptive economic development. It probably also explains why every city obsesses over “talent” publicly, but almost none of them undertake actions that might actually attract it for real.
The problem of incumbent interests capturing and employing the tools of government to protect themselves from change isn't limited to cities (a classic example is a business group lobbying for regulation to keep possible competitors from easily entering the market), but might be most apparent there for several reasons. Density and the primacy of land use issues in urban policy means the dreaded NIMBYism is common. The relative ease of engaging with city government (as opposed to state or federal) means more NIMBY coalitions can thrive, and on a wider range of minor issues.

Another possibility is that the quality of elected officials on the city level is worse. I'm fairly skeptical that the link between politician quality and policy outcomes is really that tight, but it's not hard to imagine that lawmaking is a tough skill that takes time to master. If successful officials gain recognition for good work, they might tend to move upwards through the layers of federalism, leaving lower-quality governance in cities.

One peculiar fact that has almost certainly degraded the quality and efficacy of city governance is their long history of one-party rule. Democrats have had almost total control in urban areas for a very long time, with most electoral competition occurring in primaries between ideologically similar candidates. When one party stays in office long enough, interest groups inevitably gain power and influence. The basic mechanism of democratic accountability is broken when cities always vote for the same party regardless of policy outcomes. Republicans have little incentive to court urban voters with policy concessions (because they'll rarely win), and Democrats also don't need to compete for voters because they'll win no matter what. This basic phenomenon is a second-order claim about incentives and institutions, and is separate from one's party affiliation.

Lastly there's the possibility that this whole issue is merely a mirage--city governance may not be any better or worse than other levels of government. Cities face a unique set of challenges (poverty, crime, etc.) that may warp our evaluation of governance when looking at outcomes. Additionally, there are a great many cities in the U.S.  Naturally we'd expect some to have above-average governance and some to have below-average governance, occurring solely by chance and contingent historical and contextual factors. The emphasis on terrible city governance in the news media might just be a particularly bad case of selection bias: everybody hears about the bad cities, but few hear about the good ones.

1 comment :

  1. I do agree with your assertions that "we'd expect some [cities] to have above-average governance and some to have below-average governance, occurring solely by chance and contingent historical and contextual factors" and that "when one party stays in office long enough, interest groups inevitably gain power and influence."

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