Should Mayors Rule the World? Ed Koch Thought So and May Be Proved Right

Shouting and waving his arms throughout the 1980s, New York Mayor Ed Koch tried to make his city accept a harsh teaching that seemed incontrovertible to savants of municipal finance and governance at the time but may not hold now.
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Shouting and waving his arms throughout the 1980s, New York Mayor Ed Koch tried to make his city accept a harsh teaching that seemed incontrovertible to savants of municipal finance and governance at the time but may not hold now.

As the writer and one-time New York City budget official Charles Morris's bracing The Cost of Good Intentions encapsulated what would become Koch's hard truth, a municipal anti-poverty agenda like that of New York Mayor John Lindsay and other liberal urban apostles of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society in the 1960s makes no more sense than would a municipal program to explore outer space.

In this view, poverty's causes and cures run too deep for a city government to tackle, even with hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid. Left-liberals have to accept that you can't build economic justice or democracy one city at a time and that mayors have no choice but to expend their millions on tax breaks and other incentives to private investors.

Koch did that so extravagantly, and cut social services so unapologetically, that he got little credit for spending remaining federal aid -- more than $5 billion -- to repair massive devastation wrought by the city's private housing markets in the late 1960s and '70s. That's not exactly exploring outer space, but it's ambitious for a city government,

Koch, who usually wanted the whole world to follow his exploits, was uncharacteristically modest about this undertaking. He didn't acknowledge the truth that private markets alone never have or will put decent roofs over the heads of most of the hard-working poor, let alone of those they throw out of work. Markets have to be saved from themselves periodically by governments that holds some sovereignty over them. Too much public regulation and subsidy would strangle them, but too little leaves us with slums, trailer parks, and gated communities.

Now that both those who want all housing to be public and those who want only private housing have failed, mayors must find an ideological balance. Koch called himself "a liberal with sanity," but, given his own insecurities and his historical moment (which I reminisced about in the New York Times last week and portrayed more intimately in Dissent when he was mayor) -- he upbraided liberal Democrats more than the Reaganite supply siders and victim-blamers in whose direction the pendulum was starting to swing.

That pendulum is swinging back now, for reasons too obvious to reprise here. But one ironic new reason, according to the political scientist Benjamin Barber, is that new global investments, communications, and migrations are showing that we can and must rebuild economic and democratic justice one city at a time, after all.

Barber's new book, If Mayors Ruled the World, will be published soon by Yale University Press, but before that he's been giving interviews and talks on the subject with an enthusiasm rivaling Koch's in the 1980s.

Barber argues that while nations and states seem ever more captive to territorial and military sovereignty, global cities, where both democracy and cosmopolitanism began, are becoming ever more networked across national lines.

American mayors have united to push for reasonable gun control against other public officials who can't or won't recognize its necessity. Mayors all over the world, whose cities are most at risk of smog and strangulation by traffic, have led in climate-control initiatives that nations are too self-protective to address: At the Kyoto talks, Barber notes, "about 180 nations showed up to explain why their sovereignty did not permit them to do anything. [But] mayors were convening as well as heads of state. They stayed on, signed protocols and took action."

Even when in fighting terror, Barber claims, urban police departments around the world are learning more from one another, and sometimes cooperating more effectively, than are the vast, self-protective national-security state bureaucracies.

Democracy began in cities and works best in cities, he tells us, and mayors are the most pragmatic and effective of all political leaders because they have to get things done. "The paramount aims of city-dwellers... concern collecting garbage and collecting art rather than collecting votes or collecting foreign allies, the supply of water rather than the supply of arms, promoting cooperation rather than promoting exceptionalism, fostering education and culture rather than fostering national defense and patriotism."

I'm not so sure. On the one hand, Barber's argument makes intuitive and even romantic sense to New Yorkers like me who've experienced our city as a great heart that draws in the bloodstreams of a hundred societies; cleanses and uplifts them; absorbs them into its civic-cosmopolitan ways; and then pumps them out again as entrepreneurs, civic tribunes, managers, impresarios, athletes, artists and world citizens.

On the other hand, doing this requires support, however grudging, from people outside the cities themselves. Ancient "democratic" city-states were warlike and highly repressive, even when they were also centers of trade. The modern city-state of Singapore is little better. Because most global cities aren't states, they escape burdens of defense borne by their states. (But notice how New York's and some other police departments have rushed to take on those burdens in the fight against "terror.") If nations' and states' sovereignty continues to dissolve under riptides of global capital, world cities that network so constructively now may stop doing so quite so easily.

They already have a lot of internal heavy lifting to do. "Collecting art rather than collecting votes" is fine for globe-trotting elites, but collecting garbage remains the burden and prerogative of the children of urban "ethnic" migrant groups who bond along ethno-racial lines, and sometimes via organized crime, to capture those jobs and keep them from others. If this jockeying isn't to produce a city of warring ethnic camps, it requires policing, not just by cops but by social authorities (teachers, activists, and other civic leaders) that inculcate a kind of civic patriotism transcending ethno-racial divisions.

Precisely because world cities are so diverse racially, religiously and economically, they have to work overtime at this. And they have to be very good at it if it's not going to become narrow. That may require more resources than they have. And to inculcate civic pride and ethos potent enough to deflect internal conflicts, they may find themselves becoming more "nationalist" -- as cities -- than they've been in modern times.

Koch straddled such tensions and contradictions, struggling to balance his strong, often defensive Jewish patriotism with his more expansive (not to say megalomanaical) New York patriotism. He couldn't quite pull it off, and neither could Rudy Giuliani until, in his last year as mayor, 9/11 united the city for the ancient, and most regrettable of reasons.

Such reasons and social divisions aren't going away. Globalization may even provoke them, as people react defensively against market riptides' disruption of national and religious cultures -- as Barber himself noted in his book Jihad vs. McWorld.

Liberals often underestimate how deeply humans need stable environments in which to nourish children with strong cultural myths and bonds. The passions that pit people against one another run so deep in the human heart that cosmopolitanism can't conquer them any more than it did in ancient, cosmopolitan Rome. We still need something that, so far, neither cities or nations alone can supply.

Global cities may be taking a big new step toward finding it. But Koch's and Giuliani's mayoralties demonstrated that that step can quickly become a stumble and a lurch in the wrong directions. We need better myth-weavers as well as stronger managers such as their New York successor Michael Bloomberg, who is indeed leading other mayors on gun control but rides global market currents that are dissolving civic bonds.

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