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‘The Nation City’ Review: The Strength of Mayors

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‘The Nation City’ Review: The Strength of Mayors

The Wall Street Journal April 1, 2020
Urban PolicyOther
OtherCulture & Society

Rahm Emanuel believes that city leaders are better than state and federal politicians at dealing with society’s most pressing issues.

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel picked a difficult moment to publish a book called “The Nation City,” with the subtitle “Why Mayors Are Now Running the World.” Before Mr. Emanuel was elected mayor, he chaired the House Democratic Caucus and became President Barack Obama’s chief of staff. As mayor, Mr. Emanuel concluded that “the national government was in retreat and cities were emerging as the new power centers filling the void,” and that “about a hundred cities around the world drive the economic, cultural and intellectual energy of our planet today.” Unfortunately, cities are particularly vulnerable to pandemic, and mayors alone cannot stop a plague. The energetic pragmatism that Mr. Emanuel champions does, however, provide a model for the state and national leaders who must grapple with this global crisis.

Mr. Emanuel’s book follows the late Benjamin Barber’s 2013 “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities.” Like Barber, Mr. Emanuel believes that “by the time Obama took office, the federal government was broken” and was failing to “take the lead on education, infrastructure, research, and protections (military, environmental, and public health).” Barber’s response to this verdict of national dysfunction was that mayors should rule. Mr. Emanuel’s conclusion is that mayors already do.

Economists Fernando Ferreira and Joseph Gyourko have documented that mayors are far less partisan than national leaders. When a Democrat is elected mayor with 51% of the vote, a city’s policies are the same as when a Republican is elected with the same narrow vote share. At the national and state level, small vote differences that replace a Democrat with a Republican can produce enormous policy differences. The nonideological nature of mayors reflects the nonideological nature of a mayor’s job. Mr. Emanuel reminds us that mayors “have to get the garbage picked up, the snow plowed, and the potholes filled.” There is no Republican or Democratic way to plow snow. 

Mr. Emanuel proves an entertaining guide to running a great city. One moment he is convincing the secretary of transportation that a “walking and biking promenade” along the Chicago River is a national transportation project, because “the coast guard and the Army Corps of Engineers manage the river.” Then he is getting airlines to pay for the modernization of O’Hare Airport by threatening to hand power over gate fees to “fifty of Chicago’s finest aldermen.” He is right that airports should be funded by the airlines and their generally well-off passengers, not by general tax revenues. He is also right to criticize cities “offering tax breaks and subsidies” to companies like Amazon, and to recommend that good mayors should shamelessly imitate “the best ideas of other mayors.” 

Mr. Emanuel believes that “the single biggest issue for mayors and cities” is “income inequality,” but the local ability to redistribute income is limited. If you tax businesses and the rich, they just “vote with their feet” and leave. Cities also, typically, have to run a balanced budget, but they can still run up a massive unfunded pension liability, as Chicago itself illustrates. Mr. Emanuel’s most obvious mayoral success was “providing equal opportunities for every child” in Chicago: The city’s four-year high-school graduation rate increased to 78% in 2019 from 54% in 2011. Over the same period, the graduation rate for African-American males rose to 64% from 38%.

One explanation for this growth is Chicago’s emphasis on keeping freshmen on track. Mr. Emanuel himself gives more credit to “adding an extra hour and fifteen minutes to the school day,” empowering principals and closing “forty-nine failing schools in 2013.” If higher graduation rates translate into upward mobility, then Mayor Emanuel has indeed shown how a city leader can reduce national income inequality.

Most mayors know that they will be judged on how well they do “the essential tasks that keep a city going on a day-to-day basis,” especially fighting crime. The number of murders in Chicago declined to 433 in 2011 (when Mr. Emanuel was elected) from 943 in 1992 (when I lived in the city). By 2016, the rate was back up to 771. In 2016 the Chicago Police Department’s clearance rate (the rate at which murders were solved) fell below 30%—low by U.S. and historical standards. 

The clearance rate subsequently rose, and by 2019, the year Mr. Emanuel left office, homicides fell back down to about 490, but as mayor his control over the police department seems to have remained imperfect. The relationship between the Chicago Police Department and the community was fractious throughout Mr. Emanuel’s tenure. On Jan. 31, 2019, the police department was put under a federal consent decree intended “to put in place reforms that govern police training and policies and provide officers the support they need to implement safe and constitutional policing practices.”

Mr. Emanuel believes “mayors have great power” because “of the immediacy, the intimacy, the impactfulness of the governments they run.” Mayors do have enormous power, but that power is never guaranteed. During a crisis, governors can mobilize the statewide resources and give statewide shelter-in-place orders. Covid-19 has pushed Andrew Cuomo, not Bill de Blasio, onto center stage in New York. 

The Covid-19 pandemic places cities and their leaders in a moment of extraordinary weakness. Contagious disease has been the most terrible demon of urban density since at least the Plague of Athens 2,400 years ago. In the 19th century, cities spent enormous sums to decrease their mortality levels. Mayors really did run the world back then. But future cities will only be safe against pandemic if national governments help develop vaccines more quickly and do a better job of checking the inflow of disease at the national borders. Mr. Emanuel himself told this newspaper that, as a result of the pandemic, “rather than view the federal government as a problem, we might start to see it as a solution, as a net plus.”

But even national leaders can learn from Mr. Emanuel’s book. The strength of mayors is that they solve hard problems in a nonpartisan fashion. Pandemic disease is one of the hardest of all problems. There is no Democratic or Republican way to fight a pandemic.

This piece first appeared at The Wall Street Journal (paywall)


Edward L. Glaeser is the Glimp professor of economics at Harvard University, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and contributing editor at City Journal.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images