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So my day job is teaching at a state university — some time back I did the “10 things your professor wishes you knew” post — but my interest, the thing I study and teach, is local government. Local governments in the United States are endlessly fascinating, in part because the US is abnormally fragmented compared to the rest of the world.
Perhaps an example helps. New York City Metropolitan Area has a population of 20 million. Moscow Metropolitan Area also has a population of 20 million. Yet Moscow has 19 million people living inside a single government, while New York City has less than half that, the other 11 million be spread across over 200 cities in five states. Here in my home state of Kentucky, fully a quarter of the incorporated cities — about 20% of the population of the state — are in Jefferson County (Louisville Consolidated Government).
Suburbanization, Autonomy, and Power
The majority of Americans lives in urban areas — defined variously over time — but currently a single jurisdiction with over 50,000 people and all adjacent territories of less than 50,000 that have strong economic and social ties. Historically, this definition has encouraged thinking about urbanization as “moving to the city,” and for most of American history that has been justified. After all, the jurisdiction with more than 50,000 residents is the “Central City” and the surrounding territories are the suburbs; and, obviously, the suburbs with economic and social ties are traveling into the Central City. For this reason, metropolitan areas have been created whenever new “central cities” cropped up — such as Anaheim and Los Angeles — even though the economic and social ties of the region do not mimic that sharp divide. It is also too much of a gloss over the real development of American local government.
For most of American history — really up until the 1940s — people had to live close to where they worked, and because industrial work required lots of heavy things be close by, this encouraged dense central cities. Americans have never liked that. As far back as the first settlers in the 1600s, those who were rich enough to own horses and carriages, or multiple homes, would rather live in the country and come into the cities to work when they needed to (in many ways, a pattern of living reminiscent of the 17th century nobility in England, though in the Colonies it could extend even to the middle classes). What happened starting in the mid-to-late 20th century was that cheap transportation, in the form of automobiles, made it possible for the working class to live this way, too.
What the working and middle class discovered in America was that moving out of large cities resulted in “better” government. For all the attempts to clean up American politics in the 19th and 20th centuries, all that was achieved was replacing one corrupt government with another, differently corrupt government. Residents failed to see the significant difference between a system of government where the machines gave jobs and contracts to the foot-soldiers of the party who jumped through the requisite political hoops, and one where the government gave jobs and contracts to the rich and educated who jumped through the requisite bureaucratic hoops. Most residents got cut out of the deals, regardless. But as they moved out of the central cities and into the suburbs, they formed new governments (initially just to fend off attempts by the central cities to re-acquire the fleeing residents). Those new governments were no less corrupt — the residents didn’t claim otherwise — but they were beholden to the residents of the city, rather than to the machines or the bureaucrats.
As time went on and the central cities tried to flex their economic power, the suburbs realized that if they just attracted jobs of their own, they could disengage from the central cities’ power bases and control their own destinies. By the 1980s or 1990s, metropolises were much less defined by people leaving the suburbs and driving into the city to work than by people driving from one suburb to another to work, to another to shop, to another for leisure, and home to another.
Thus, we saw the great fragmenting of American local government after 1970.
And local politics suddenly becomes all about maintaining the all-important autonomy.
Land, Money, and Voters
Maintaining local government autonomy requires three things: territory, money, and political power. That is, land, money, and voters. This explains the interests that tend to dominate local government: developers, bankers and businessmen, and home-owners. Generally speaking, their desires are similar. Developers and home-owners want housing to increase in value, and that’s good for the bankers (who originate the loans) and the businessmen (who serve the rich clientele). However, the confluence of interests is only true on a small scale. There are different types of living patterns and housing, different types of businesses and banking, and they don’t mix well. When people are moving into a neighborhood, they want it to have a certain, consistent feel. Allowing everyone to do whatever they want would wreck the feel, and while individual property owners might do well, the community as a whole would suffer. Cities control this partly by zoning, but zoning is actually pretty complicated to do right, so most cities actually solve the problem with a uniform zoning code and a small size. If the city and neighborhood are the same, then problems can be worked out ad hoc, but the results can be fairly consistent.
Do note, that while this is true of more than half of all cities, more Americans live in larger cities, so this is not true of most American’s experience.
Thus, while there was an initial fear that local governments would grow into each other and compete, in practice, most local governments are incredibly reluctant to annex new territory because doing so would upset the agreement of their major interests.
The Patchwork of Politics
The result is an American local government pattern of 89,000 local governments that are all different, and yet have strong similarities. The voters are most interested in having their governments be responsive, for which privilege they are willing to pay a bit more. Large cities, like New York and LA are actually quite cheap for most residents, because those residents are dirt poor (New York City is actually poorer per capita than New York State). Their housing accommodations are small and cramped, but they also don’t pay much in taxes. They live in the street – -not like a hobo — but in the sense that their apartments exist mostly as a place to sleep. The rest of their time is in comfortable parks and coffee shops. They also benefit from the many public services offered, from public transportation to local welfare agencies. In return for the low cost of living, they get very little say in how the city is actually run, decisions being made fairly centrally by the mayor, who is more responsive to the rich taxpayers, organized interests such as labor unions, and so on.
When residents become wealthy enough (frequently by getting married), they move to a suburb where they will have more control over the world they inhabit.
But that responsiveness is constrained by the needs to maintain the money and territorial integrity to remain autonomous from larger cities or to fend off the state. Thus, cities don’t get too small, and small towns are quite willing to merge if doing so will give them the size and power needed to fend off an annexation by a central city or mandates from the state. But they also don’t get too big.
To give an example, cities in Kentucky are fairly insular, partly because most of them are geographically isolated. However, they have, over the last few years, gotten quite active together in order to fight the Kentucky Retirement System which controls more and more of their budgets. This does not, however, extend to other issues. It is only because the danger of KRS altering the retirement contribution formula threatens them all that they are willing to work together (and I suspect the geographic isolation helps further; when separated by a hundred miles, such cooperation is unlikely to lead to a merger or annexation attempt). More than that, cities in Kentucky are willing to use the nuclear option of state-local relations: ask the IRS to intercede on their behalf against the state. Inviting the federal government to intervene in a dispute is only slightly less risky than asking Edward I to adjudicate Scottish Succession.
Understanding Local Government
In closing, I hope to give you a way to think about how local governments work. Unlike national politics, local government is not much defined by “compromise” on big things. Rather, local governments are about finding a coalition of money, voters, and properties that can make a functional community. Their behavior is driven by the need to keep the community relatively independent.
This doesn’t mean they need to be self-sufficient (they are more than happy to specialize and trade) but it does mean they don’t want to be reliant on another community for the continued operation of the government. Their behavior –annexing or not annexing, cooperating or running to the feds or state, even their services and taxes — can be understood as the result of these concerns.
So, next time you are watching a local government election or council meeting, look for voters, money, and land, and see how that is driving local decisions.