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Civics Tue Nov 18 2014

Cities Need a New Old Philosophy: Justice

Civics by Ramsin CanonThe entrepreneurial government, once a promising and slick vehicle for change, has lost that new governance philosophy-smell. What was once seen as nimble has become ossified. America's cities are facing the problems of a new millennium as new generations come of age, facing new challenges. Since at least the early 1990s, big city governments have reoriented to a philosophy of governance rooted in free-market and entrepreneurial principles. In the early 1990s, this orientation for urban administration was described as "the New Public Management" by academics like Peter Aucoin. This entrepreneurial government philosophy was meant to replace the egalitarian and "rules-oriented" aspirations of reformers beginning in the 1970s. Recently, the word "neoliberal" has been thrown around, often imprecisely, to describe this ideology. But that word isn't quite accurate.

The type of government we've had in Chicago, and cities following Chicago's lead, is something very specific: giving individual leaders and small groups of leaders in cities broad discretion to set policy, akin to the managerial powers of corporate executives, as a means to achieve efficiency--efficiency in competition for capital investment and efficiency in provisioning services to the public. Its features have been well studied and explicated [PDF]: budget cuts, "accountability," privatization, consumer models, labor flexibility, and a hostility to politics vis a vis management (i.e., technocracy).

In a world opened up by the easier movement of capital across borders, elite city leadership figured they had to be lean to compete. This then-new philosophy saw self-management by professionals (like teachers and health care workers), rule-bound agencies, and egalitarian aspirations as inefficient, because by their nature, these processes are slow. It couldn't move at the pace of business at a time business was striking for better deals, or fleeing altogether. To keep and lure capital and talent, decision-makers couldn't be bound by exacting rules--whether those were workplace rules in the form of collective bargaining agreements, "due process" rules, or procedural safeguards meant to guarantee inclusion of underrepresented and underserved people.

This New Public Management -- the entrepreneurial government, the Third Way, neoliberalism -- may have been the best available solution at the time, a cynical attempt to roll back the social and economic justice movements surviving from the New Deal and Great Society eras, some combination of these, or something else entirely. It was certainly the philosophy adopted by the younger Mayor Daley by 1991, and which he pursued with gusto through his abrupt retirement in 2010. It is the philosophy that guided his top-down takeover of the public schools, the privatization of public housing, and the myriad "public-private partnerships" that have characterized the last decade.

Whatever its true genesis, whatever the reasons for the wholesale adoption of this "new public management," entrepreneurial government, that era is over. After nearly 30 years, the experiment has exhausted itself. Electing a powerful "CEO" with immense power to direct policy is no longer an answer to the challenges cities face.

Mayors like Rahm Emanuel are not villains or caricatures; they are relics. The challenges contemporary cities are grappling with are not challenges "entrepreneurial mayors" seem able or willing to face.

By speaking the language of new technologies, the New Public Management Mayors may dress up entrepreneurialism as the next new thing, but it's obviously as old as capitalism itself. There's nothing new about wanting to fuse business with the state, whether that's by running the institutions of the city like a corporation, by turning social programs into investment opportunities, or by using business-to-government revolving doors through organizations like the Civic Consulting Alliance. At this point, it's old hat.

What are the problems of the contemporary city? Not surprisingly, they are the problems that have been ignored, or that market logic couldn't solve: persistent income inequality; lack of affordable housing; a broken criminal justice system that criminalizes black and brown people, and the poor; racial segregation; job insecurity; criminalization of people with mental health issues; and a general lack of distribution of social power amongst diverse communities. The list could of course go on.

For a generation or more, cities have competed with each other to lure capital; capital has responded with ever-increasing demands. We see this in the form of tax incentives like tax increment financing (TIF) districts and incentive zones, and what seems like a visceral aversion to progressive forms of revenue, like financial transaction or income taxes. This in turn has required cities to under-fund pensions, lay-off workers, and contract out services to the lowest bidder, all of which can only aggravate income inequality.

The entrepreneurial mentality is lauded on the grounds that it treats citizens as "customers" and can offer the best product for the lowest "price" (i.e., taxes). But, after thirty years, is there any evidence that cities have become cheaper for its "customers"? To the contrary, cities are consistently getting more expensive. In Chicago in particular, rent as a percentage of income has risen to 31%, from a historical baseline of 21%--all while sales taxes have increased, wages have remained stagnant, transportation fares and parking rates have increased, and services have dwindled.

The new public management is the status quo, and defenders of the status quo--and critics of terms like "neoliberalism"--tend to roll their eyes at the burgeoning movements against that status quo. Advocates of increased minimum wages (such as the Fight for 15 movement), public sector unions, parent-student organizations, environmental justice groups, police reform advocates, are, at their core, fighting for an egalitarian and inclusive vision of city government and policy. Not government that that can better compete for investment, but government that seeks out, and tries to fix, injustice.

Contemporary observers and insiders from the Harold Washington era describe an effort, after his successful 1983 campaign, to fuse government with the broad, participatory coalition that swept him into office--this was the "city of Neighborhoods" idea. In the early transition phase, according to essays in Wim Wiewel and Pierre Clavel's Harold Washington and the Neighborhoods, the idea was to put community organizations, groups, and institutions into positions of actual power. The local school council (LSC) is emblematic of this philosophy. Microlocal bodies, composed of a representation of the community of interest (parents, teachers, students, and administrators), elected locally, had meaningful authority over administration of individual schools ; and these bodies, in the aggregate, exercised macro-control of the school system through their power to appoint the school board. The power of LSCs were curtailed by the 1995 Amendatory Act, pushed through the state legislature by Daley, which gave the Mayor executive control over the schools through the Board of Education. So-called "mayoral control" has been a staple of New Public Management-style administrations in cities across the country ever since.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the entrepreneurial government model has failed. Communities are howling for change, and inequality and injustice persist. The needs of our cities suggest it's time for a new governing philosophy. That clearly cannot come from government institutions premised on the idea that institutions and people at the top need the maximum of individual discretion, insulated from "politics." It can only come by bringing the impacted communities into government. That's the only way the various challenges and injustices people face can be aired, and solutions proposed and debated. From the turbulent process of participatory government, cities can forge new styles and philosophies of administration.

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Tom Tresser / November 19, 2014 4:58 PM

Great work here. The Privatizers (Big Capital) are seeking to wring risk-free monopoly profit from public goods after they burned their own financial houses down (and the public bailed them out). We need MORE public, not less public. More investment in infrastructure, public trans, public ed, etc. So - my rallying cry for the Chicago 2015 elections are: Take back the meters. Re-open the schools. Cut class size in half. Elected school board. Trauma center for south side. End TIFs and start a city-wide grassroots sustainable economic development plan - one that benefits ALL, not just the mayor's friends.

John / November 24, 2014 1:28 PM

I guess the real question here is:
Who was better, Marius or Sulla?
Looking forward to your thoughts.

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By Phil Huckelberry / 2 Comments

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By Ramsin Canon / 2 Comments

It's not surprising that some of Mayor Emanuel's sympathizers and supporters are confusing people's substantive disputes with the mayor as the effect of poor marketing on his part. It's exactly this insular worldview that has gotten the mayor in hot... More...

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