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THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Nation's mayors leading way out of U.S. doldrums

on July 29, 2013 10:20 AM

As Americans, we’ve been raised on the notion that any child could dream of becoming president. But when you see how much “fun” Barack Obama and his immediate predecessors have had in that job — and when you look at where the most exciting innovations in governance are happening — how long will it be before our kids, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, answer: “I want to be a mayor.” Except in Detroit, mayors today have more fun.

In fact, if you want to be an optimist about America today, stand on your head. The country looks so much better from the bottom up — from its major metropolitan areas — than from the top down. Washington is tied in knots by Republican-led hyperpartisanship, lobbyists and budget constraints. Ditto most state legislatures. So the great laboratories and engines of our economy are now our cities. This is the conclusion of an important new book by the Brookings Institution scholars Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, titled: “The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy.”

METRO REVOLUTION

For generations, they write, we held the view that “the feds and states are the adults in the system, setting direction; the cities and the metropolitan areas are the children, waiting for their allowance.

The metropolitan revolution is exploding this tired construct. Cities and metropolitan areas are becoming the leaders in the nation: experimenting, taking risks, making hard choices.” We are seeing “the inversion of the hierarchy of power in the United States.”

What produced this shift? First, they argue, the Great Recession blew up the deformed growth model we had settled into — one “that exalted consumption over production, speculation over investment, and waste over sustainability.”

The new growth model, which the most successful cities are practicing, focuses on creating networks that combine skilled laborers and knowledge workers, with universities and technical schools, with quality infrastructure and high-speed Internet, to do manufacturing, innovation, technology development and advanced services — with an eye to exporting all of them. That’s how we build a 21st-century middle class.

“The best cities now understand that you need to a have a sector of your economy that is world class” in order to thrive, the authors argue.

Second, cities know that neither Washington nor state government will save them. “Cities and metropolitan areas are on their own,” the authors write.

“Mired in partisan division and rancor, the federal government appears incapable of taking bold action to restructure our economy and grapple with changing demography and rising inequality.”

Look around and you see cities “doing the hard work of growing our new economy,” they said to me in an interview. With federal funding for scientific research uncertain, Michael Bloomberg “has created Applied Sciences campuses in New York City to spur innovation. Voters are putting up tax dollars for large-scale transit investments in Denver and Los Angeles and local leaders are leading the modernization of ports, airports and freight rail in Miami, Chicago, Jacksonville and Dallas.” A network of economic development organizations in northeast Ohio is “helping manufacturing firms retool their factories for new demand, using some federal dollars but also sizable investments from philanthropies.” And, in Houston, a network of neighborhood centers is connecting new immigrants with low-cost banking, education, child care and health care — while the immigration bill is stalled in Congress.

“Washington is dysfunctional politically, and it is not just a momentary thing,” Rahm Emanuel, who gave up being the president’s chief of staff to become mayor of Chicago, told me. “We always said that there’d be a day when all that the federal government does is debt service, entitlement payments and defense. Well, folks, that day is here. So, federal support for after-school programs has shrunk. We added to ours, but I had to figure out where to get the money. The federal government is debating what to do with community colleges. We’ve already converted ours to focus on skills development and career-based education. I worked for two great presidents, but this is the best job I’ve had in public service.”

D’s and R’s will work together locally, unlike in their statehouse or Congress, say the authors, because how they feel about the place where they live and work “is much stronger than how they feel about their party.”

'EXTREME CASE'

Then there’s Detroit. It is “an extreme case,” Katz and Bradley explained. It is a perfect storm of municipal mismanagement, auto company mismanagement, major job decentralization and property abandonment. “Other cities face many of these challenges, but none to the same extent,” they argued. “Philadelphia has a daunting pension situation, as does Chicago, but both of those cities have things that Detroit lacked for decades: more jobs in their downtown cores and elected leaders who are not waiting for miracles but trying to move more aggressively to grow their economies, increase revenues, and manage debt.”

Wish them well. With both D.C. and the states increasingly AWOL, we need cities more than ever to be our engines of smart growth.

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