Saving Our Cities

 

Over the last few decades we’ve all been watching as many of the major cities in the US have been going downhill. Violent crime, poverty, filth, decay, unemployment, homelessness, riots, addiction. It’s terrible.

And it’s not getting better. Nobody is even talking about it getting better.

San Francisco is crawling with homelessness, addiction, and poop.

Detroit is apocalypse porn for French photographers. (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, click image for their site.)

Drugs turn people into zombies in Philadelphia. (Click image for “Streets of Philadelphia, Kensington Ave. Documentary.”)

And so forth.

And it’s making our country look really bad.  Looking like a cross between a third-world nation, a Soviet state, and a dystopian, post-apocalyptic movie.

So what exactly is going on? And who is at fault? And what can we do about it?

People will blame it on racism, the police, capitalism, inequality, or whatever excuse might be politically advantageous at the moment. It would seem better to blame the city governments, as running a city is their job. (As in, “You had one job.”) But those governments are elected by the people who live in those cities.  Are the citizens of the city, then, to blame?

Running a city isn’t difficult. I mean, people have been running cities successfully for a very long time, usually with far less to work with. There are lots of working examples out there. It shouldn’t take enormous amounts of money or resources.

It seems you would have to try to have things turn out this badly.

Now, I don’t claim to have any firsthand knowledge in this area. I’ve always lived near major cities, not in them, and I’ve never been involved in municipal politics. But I think we can all see a pattern here.

One more example… This set of tweets from lifelong Democrat Michelle Tandler summarizes the frustration many are feeling:

(Also here, and here.)


First, I want to talk about The Curley Effect. It has nothing to do with our favorite stooge, but rather it is a political strategy named after James Curley, the four-time mayor of Boston. Read all about it here:

The Curley Effect: The Economics of Shaping the Electorate
The Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization
Edward L. Glaeser, Andrei Shleifer (Both with Harvard and the National Bureau of Economic Research)

Abstract:

James Michael Curley, a four-time mayor of Boston, used wasteful redistribution to his poor Irish constituents and incendiary rhetoric to encourage richer citizens to emigrate from Boston, thereby shaping the electorate in his favor. As a consequence, Boston stagnated, but Curley kept winning elections. We present a model of using redistributive politics to shape the electorate, and show that this model yields a number of predictions opposite from the more standard frameworks of political competition, yet consistent with empirical evidence.

Basically, the Curley Effect states that there are two ways for the mayor of a city, once elected, to be successfully reelected. The traditional approach is to do an excellent job running the city, letting businesses thrive, managing the revenue, growing resources, pleasing the electorate, and then bringing in the most votes on election day. Basically, like you’d play “Sim City.”

So traditional.

But there is another approach pioneered by James Curley, to “shape the electorate.” That is, to drive the people who are likely to vote against you out of the city, and recruit new residents who are more likely to vote for you.

This is called The Curley Effect, and the article goes into some detail about it.

Note that the authors are economists, not politicians or historians, and this is an analysis from an economic incentive point of view. It has nothing to do with left or right political ideologies, and has everything to do with working the system.

There are lots of ways to drive voters out of a city. You can do it by taxing one group and providing services to another. Crappy schools will drive people out. Or crime; the district attorney could adopt a policy of not prosecuting crimes in specific neighborhoods. Or NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) projects; strategically create the worst NIMBY projects and place them… precisely… in their backyards. And then shame them when they complain.

It’s easier to do in cities where the people who would vote against you can move just outside the border, into the suburbs, while still retaining social, recreational, business ties, and many of the other advantages of the city.


Now…

Unfortunately, the Glaeser/Shleifer paper doesn’t go into the consequences of the Curley Effect. I don’t think anybody has.  Our most revered economists (Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman) have always reminded us to ask, “What happens next?”

What exactly does happen as a result of shaping the electorate?

I’ll suggest:

  1. Future elections will be heavily biased toward the party of the mayor and city council. And the party will continue to win every election. That’s one-party rule.
  2. A changed electorate is a long-term affair. Once started, the shaping process and the effects of that process can continue decades after the election. The people who left are unlikely to return, there are a backlog of people in the planning stages of a move, the policies in place will continue to drive targeted people away, and bring other targeted people in. 
  3. Competent, capable people from the opposing party will be discouraged from running as their statistical chance of winning steadily falls. Any that do try will likely be nonserious candidates. Financial backing becomes more difficult.
  4. Political offices will effectively no longer be determined by a vote of the people, but are rather selected by the party.
  5. You no longer have the core essence of a Democracy. No checks and balances. No way to “vote the scoundrels out.” In short, you no longer have a Functioning Democracy.
  6. And no incentive to do a good job. Graft, corruption, bribery, fraud, waste, mismanagement can all thrive unchecked, and without limit. Federal financial assistance will be requested and squandered.
  7. Doomed. It’s basically stuck. Over decades you’ll see rising poverty rates, crime rates rising to 10 times the national average, unemployable people holding official positions. And you’ll see the population dropping as people move out, and the city is unable to attract new residents or businesses.

And this leads us back to the source, James Curley was also extremely corrupt. (“How corrupt was he?”) He was elected to Boston’s board of aldermen in 1904 while serving time in prison on a fraud conviction. And he spent part of his last term as mayor in prison.

So corruption can run rampant when the democratic process is crippled.

And this is completely consistent with what we’ve been seeing over the past 50 years.

An upcoming article will propose a solution.

Also, check out my previous article, Well, This Is Fascinating, which was basically a warm-up for this.

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  1. kedavis Inactive
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    namlliT noD: But there is another approach pioneered by James Curley, to “shape the electorate”. That is, to drive the people who are likely to vote against you out of the city, and recruit new residents who are more likely to vote for you.

    Doesn’t this – especially for the Dimocrats – almost always mean driving out the productive people, so that “winning” means you’re each time “winning” office in an increasingly-declining city?

    • #1
  2. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    kedavis (View Comment):

    namlliT noD: But there is another approach pioneered by James Curley, to “shape the electorate”. That is, to drive the people who are likely to vote against you out of the city, and recruit new residents who are more likely to vote for you.

    Doesn’t this – especially for the Dimocrats – almost always mean driving out the productive people, so that “winning” means you’re each time “winning” office in an increasingly-declining city?

    When I look at someone like Lori Lightoot, I’d have to say yes…

    BTW, Great Post…

    • #2
  3. kedavis Inactive
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    CACrabtree (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    namlliT noD: But there is another approach pioneered by James Curley, to “shape the electorate”. That is, to drive the people who are likely to vote against you out of the city, and recruit new residents who are more likely to vote for you.

    Doesn’t this – especially for the Dimocrats – almost always mean driving out the productive people, so that “winning” means you’re each time “winning” office in an increasingly-declining city?

    When I look at someone like Lori Lightoot, I’d have to say yes…

    BTW, Great Post…

    So this would be “run stupid campaigns, win stupid elections.”

    • #3
  4. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Does this explain why Democrats are now pushing for all to reside in densely populated urban areas so then all of the people will live under corrupted political conditions?

    • #4
  5. DonG (CAGW is a Scam) Coolidge
    DonG (CAGW is a Scam)
    @DonG

    namlliT noD: Nobody is even talking about it getting better.

    In my city (Austin, TX) we have lots of talk and lots of taxing, but not much else.

    I wonder if it is possible to use the Curley effect for good?   Is there some way of taxing the slackers and commies and redistributing money to the anti-commie patriots?   Tax latte’s and  avocado toast, then subsidize the cost of ammo and range time!    Cancel poetry grants and fill the potholes and roust the bums.  

     

    • #5
  6. lowtech redneck Coolidge
    lowtech redneck
    @lowtech redneck

    The cities cannot be saved, because a critical mass of their populations do not want to be saved; that would mean admitting they have been disastrously wrong, as well as welcoming into the city and voting for people they hate-to say nothing of the people whose parasitic fortunes and livelihoods depend on the status-quo.

     

    • #6
  7. RufusRJones Member
    RufusRJones
    @RufusRJones

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Does this explain why Democrats are now pushing for all to reside in densely populated urban areas so then all of the people will live under corrupted political conditions?

    BINGO 

    Andrew Wilkow talks about this all of the time. Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. It’s insidious and it needs to be fought constantly.

    The other thing is, they can force zoning patterns and transportation in a way that turns the suburbs into the same thing as the cities in the sense we are talking about. Then it all homogenizes. 

    • #7
  8. RufusRJones Member
    RufusRJones
    @RufusRJones

    lowtech redneck (View Comment):

    The cities cannot be saved, because a critical mass of their populations do not want to be saved; that would mean admitting they have been disastrously wrong, as well as welcoming into the city and voting for people they hate-to say nothing of the people whose parasitic fortunes and livelihoods depend on the status-quo.

     

    This is how you could describe Minneapolis –  St. Paul. 

    • #8
  9. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    You just described Portland, Oregon to a “T.” When I first came to Portland in the early ’60s, it was a beautiful city thriving after the recent cleaning out of a long-time corrupt faction. It continued to thrive until about the early ’80s, when it elected as mayor a flamboyant, incompetent tavern owner who made his mark by leading Friday takeovers of city traffic by leading hoards of bicyclists downtown and causing havoc by blocking traffic and ignoring signals and laws. This lawlessness from the top attracted others to emulate him and to denigrate the police authorities. Things snowballed, and eventually led to the interminable riots, lawlessness, boarding up of downtown, and business-flight that is now the signature of the once safe and beautiful city.

    • #9
  10. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    At some point cities subject to the Curley effect collapse under the disorder. It looks like we are close to that in many major cities. Then those driving the disorder will find they have chosen to reign in Hell rather than live in paradise.

    • #10
  11. namlliT noD Member
    namlliT noD
    @DonTillman

    kedavis (View Comment):

    namlliT noD: But there is another approach pioneered by James Curley, to “shape the electorate”. That is, to drive the people who are likely to vote against you out of the city, and recruit new residents who are more likely to vote for you.

    Doesn’t this – especially for the Dimocrats – almost always mean driving out the productive people, so that “winning” means you’re each time “winning” office in an increasingly-declining city?

    It depends on how you define “productive”…

    But yeah, winning office in an increasingly declining city is the big indicator.

    • #11
  12. namlliT noD Member
    namlliT noD
    @DonTillman

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    At some point cities subject to the Curley effect collapse under the disorder. It looks like we are close to that in many major cities. Then those driving the disorder will find they have chosen to reign in Hell rather than live in paradise.

    I guess it depends on the exact definition of “collapse”.   What we see now in the three examples at the top seem pretty collapsed.  (San Francisco, Detroit, Philadelphia, and many more.)

    In practice, those reigning in Hell tend to carve out little neighborhoods for themselves.

    • #12
  13. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    lowtech redneck (View Comment):

    The cities cannot be saved, because a critical mass of their populations do not want to be saved; that would mean admitting they have been disastrously wrong, as well as welcoming into the city and voting for people they hate-to say nothing of the people whose parasitic fortunes and livelihoods depend on the status-quo.

     

    Yeah, although I have never been an inner city resident, it has always seemed to me that the Democrats let the school systems degenerate into horrible, non-performing hellholes in which only the strong survived.  Those that dropped out couldn’t find a job; those who drove them out didn’t care; all became ready-made voters for the Dims.  (As an additional bonus, the Dims blamed the mess on a lack of Federal funds.)

    • #13
  14. namlliT noD Member
    namlliT noD
    @DonTillman

    CACrabtree (View Comment):

    lowtech redneck (View Comment):

    The cities cannot be saved, because a critical mass of their populations do not want to be saved; that would mean admitting they have been disastrously wrong, as well as welcoming into the city and voting for people they hate-to say nothing of the people whose parasitic fortunes and livelihoods depend on the status-quo.

    Yeah, although I have never been an inner city resident, it has always seemed to me that the Democrats let the school systems degenerate into horrible, non-performing hellholes in which only the strong survived. Those that dropped out couldn’t find a job; those who drove them out didn’t care; all became ready-made voters for the Dims. (As an additional bonus, the Dims blamed the mess on a lack of Federal funds.)

    This is an especially strong indicator because good education is not an inherently difficult thing.

    A good education doesn’t require a lot of money, it doesn’t require advanced technology, it doesn’t require shipments of exotic materials, we’ve been doing it successfully for centuries, so there are lots examples out there.  Sure, teaching skillz are important  and valued, but they’re available.

    So it’s another case of “You had one job…”.

    • #14
  15. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    I don’t have this all grokked, but where do those that leave go?  Don’t the politically spurned take their politics with them?  And how do these transplants affect their new towns and cities?  Or do rightists disappear into a political void?  Or, is political orientation and civic responsibility really a zero-sum game?  And how does this coincide with leftists fleeing leftists towns and cities to right-wing towns and cities and leftifying them?

    • #15
  16. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    The solution is for the States to revoke their charters. 

    • #16
  17. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    kedavis (View Comment):

    namlliT noD: But there is another approach pioneered by James Curley, to “shape the electorate”. That is, to drive the people who are likely to vote against you out of the city, and recruit new residents who are more likely to vote for you.

    Doesn’t this – especially for the Dimocrats – almost always mean driving out the productive people, so that “winning” means you’re each time “winning” office in an increasingly-declining city?

    I’m thinking of Elon Musk here. The guy who pioneered electric vehicles says that California is too lefty to do business in.

    • #17
  18. kedavis Inactive
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    At some point cities subject to the Curley effect collapse under the disorder. It looks like we are close to that in many major cities. Then those driving the disorder will find they have chosen to reign in Hell rather than live in paradise.

    They don’t seem to care much where they reign, as long as they reign.

    • #18
  19. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Does this explain why Democrats are now pushing for all to reside in densely populated urban areas so then all of the people will live under corrupted political conditions?

    Yes. Yes it does.

    • #19
  20. kedavis Inactive
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    The solution is for the States to revoke their charters.

    Wow I bet there’s a lot of judges just waiting to rule THAT can’t happen.

    • #20
  21. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    At some point cities subject to the Curley effect collapse under the disorder. It looks like we are close to that in many major cities. Then those driving the disorder will find they have chosen to reign in Hell rather than live in paradise.

    Out of a hatred for natural order and a ravenous desire for power, they destroy what is beautiful. You might have a future in literature Seawriter. 

    • #21
  22. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Those who run could care less about running cities if they’re on the Left. They just want the title and the power and the influence, and they’ll let others take care of business.

    namlliT noD (View Comment):
    So it’s another case of “You had one job…”.

    Yep. But they always redefine it to meet their own aspirations, not those of the citizenry.

    Good post, Don!

    • #22
  23. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Those who run could care less about running cities if they’re on the Left. They just want the title and the power and the influence, and they’ll let others take care of business.

     

    And now we have a President like that and it hurts.

    • #23
  24. namlliT noD Member
    namlliT noD
    @DonTillman

    Flicker (View Comment):

    I don’t have this all grokked, but where do those that leave go? Don’t the politically spurned take their politics with them? And how do these transplants affect their new towns and cities? Or do rightists disappear into a political void? Or, is political orientation and civic responsibility really a zero-sum game? And how does this coincide with leftists fleeing leftists towns and cities to right-wing towns and cities and leftifying them?

    There might be a tendency to think about this in terms of  left vs. right political ideologies, but I believe that’s misguided.  

    Rather that The Curley Effect results in one-party rule, which removes the major corrective feature of a Functioning Democracy, leaving a city government full of people who are, at best, blazingly incompetent, and with a ton of incentives to bleed the system to death through graft.

    Where do the people go?  Across the city border is easiest.  That way they retain the features of the city without the horror.

    (I saw an item in the news recently about the financial services company Stripe moving its headquarters from San Francisco to South San Francisco, technically a different city.)

    And sure enough, if you look at metrics such as crime, poverty, and bad schools, you’ll see that they stop at the border.  Which would be totally consistent.  

    (Is Detroit a good example of this?  I dunno.)

    • #24
  25. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    namlliT noD (View Comment):

    Flicker (View Comment):

    I don’t have this all grokked, but where do those that leave go? Don’t the politically spurned take their politics with them? And how do these transplants affect their new towns and cities? Or do rightists disappear into a political void? Or, is political orientation and civic responsibility really a zero-sum game? And how does this coincide with leftists fleeing leftists towns and cities to right-wing towns and cities and leftifying them?

    There might be a tendency to think about this in terms of left vs. right political ideologies, but I believe that’s misguided.

    Rather that The Curley Effect results in one-party rule, which removes the major corrective feature of a Functioning Democracy, leaving a city government full of people who are, at best, blazingly incompetent, and with a ton of incentives to bleed the system to death through graft.

    Where do the people go? Across the city border is easiest. That way they retain the features of the city without the horror.

    (I saw an item in the news recently about the financial services company Stripe moving its headquarters from San Francisco to South San Francisco, technically a different city.)

    And sure enough, if you look at metrics such as crime, poverty, and bad schools, you’ll see that they stop at the border. Which would be totally consistent.

    (Is Detroit a good example of this? I dunno.)

    Well, I used Left and Right as shorthand.  But what you describe appears to be happening, and making a bit of news today, as people are increasingly leaving whole states, such as New York and California.

    • #25
  26. namlliT noD Member
    namlliT noD
    @DonTillman

    namlliT noD: In short, you no longer have a Functioning Democracy.

    I adapted this concept from economist Amartya Sen, who is known for writing, “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.”

    Why?  Because democratic governments ”have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.”

    ‘Similar mechanism, eh?

    And that’s the fifth economist I’ve name-dropped now.

    • #26
  27. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    namlliT noD (View Comment):

    I adapted this concept from economist Amartya Sen, who is known for writing, “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.”

    I hate to be pedantic or to show my ignorance, but what does he mean here by “democracy”

    • #27
  28. Retail Lawyer Member
    Retail Lawyer
    @RetailLawyer

    I know San Francisco.  For 40 years it has been a theme park for young adults and LBGTQetc.  I mean it was really, really fun to live there.  Your friends would get married and move out, especially if they had children.  New young adults would move in. The schools were always terrible and many offer no PE whatsoever.  And for all of those 40 years SF did its best to harass car owners and parents really love to have a car.  Nobody had any roots and they voted in politicians based on their entertainment value, knowing they would move and leave their mess behind.  It was, and is, very entertaining.  It has changed drastically over the last 10 years, and is really in trouble now.  Software replaced finance, and software is not near as fun, and is the ultimate work from home job.  Workers are not returning to the office, companies are moving out because SF has  the highest business tax in the US according to the WSJ, and employees are complaining about crime.  High rent, crime and homeless encampments are changing everything, and for the worse.  Except for high rent, the voters wanted all these changes.  Maybe it will get so bad that voters will change, but not in the foreseeable future.

    • #28
  29. kedavis Inactive
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Retail Lawyer (View Comment):

    I know San Francisco. For 40 years it has been a theme park for young adults and LBGTQetc. I mean it was really, really fun to live there. Your friends would get married and move out, especially if they had children. New young adults would move in. The schools were always terrible and many offer no PE whatsoever. And for all of those 40 years SF did its best to harass car owners and parents really love to have a car. Nobody had any roots and they voted in politicians based on their entertainment value, knowing they would move and leave their mess behind. It was, and is, very entertaining. It has changed drastically over the last 10 years, and is really in trouble now. Software replaced finance, and software is not near as fun, and is the ultimate work from home job. Workers are not returning to the office, companies are moving out because SF has the highest business tax in the US according to the WSJ, and employees are complaining about crime. High rent, crime and homeless encampments are changing everything, and for the worse. Except for high rent, the voters wanted all these changes. Maybe it will get so bad that voters will change, but not in the foreseeable future.

    As was noted from the OP and onward, the people most likely to vote to change San Fran are the ones leaving.

    • #29
  30. Sandy Member
    Sandy
    @Sandy

    There is something more at work than the fact of one-party rule, as bad as that is. Big city mayors have not generally needed to drive people out in order to win elections. They had other means at their disposal.

      I grew up in Chicago and it has been a one-party town for almost a hundred years. In that time it went through some very bad but also some very good times and produced much to admire, as did many other one-party cities, including the blue, one-party small city where I now live. I despise living under such regimes but at some point the ruling party took a sharp left turn, and we went from a quasi tyranny to the full-blown thing. 

    To me this looks simply like part of a plan to control and indeed destroy our population.  

     

    • #30
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