Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Why #MetrosDontShutDown is not only dumb but harmful

Brookings is running a social media publicity campaign under the #MetrosDontShutDown campaign to publicize their work on the rise of metropolitan areas and to highlight the kinds of policies they at Brookings seem to generally support. From the new parks construction agenda of Rahm Emanuel in Chicago to a STEM worker attraction project in Houston, Brookings is highlighting the ways cities work while the federal government fails and that metro areas are where "real" change gets done.


Forgive the profanity, but this campaign is emblematic of what's very wrong with the way popular urban commenters view cities/metro areas and their relationship with the rest of the country and world. Allow me the space to offer a few reasons why this kind of campaign is harmful and disingenuous to the point of being offensive.

The Literal Approach- Cities/Metros Do, in fact, Shut Down

I appreciate a pithy hashtag as much as the next twitter user, but the hashtag itself is just wrong. Metros do shut down. In fact, there are multiple metros right now that are functionally shut down. Here's a post from Governing magazine covering recent municipal bankruptcies that forced city governments to sell off assets, cut essential services, or, in some cases actually dissolve. Yes, there are the expected cities on that map like Detroit but a quick glance at the map shows that the problem of actual governments shut down because they are incapable of meeting their obligations is very much a real phenomenon that has afflicted cities of ALL sizes. 

Some metros(in case you don't want to click the link provided) that have field for bankruptcy or have defaulted in the past couple of years:
  • San Bernadino, CA (population: 210,100)
  • Stockton, CA (population: 289,926)
  • Detroit, MI (population: 738,223)
  • Harrisburg, PA (population: 49,499)
  • Central Falls, RI (population: 19,360)
That's a little over 1.3 million people that live in cities that cannot meet its obligations to its creditors, employees, or citizens. And that's within the last few years! 

What are you actually trying to say?

Something that puzzles me about this position that Katz and Brookings have been pushing pretty consistently for a few years now is the basic question of why? Metro areas really don't need much more positive press extolling their economic might, their cultural influence, or as pockets of progressive, or at least daring, policy opportunities. So, what does it gain you to try and constantly parallel metropolitan governance to federal governance?

There's a curious politics here and I'm not entirely sure what it is. Is this more a libertarian call for radical decentralization of power and authority from the federal government to metro areas? Is this a call for a resurrected system of independent city-states al la Italy before the unification? What's your damn point?

The Quiet Hypocrisy or Brookings is just being dishonest

Something interesting about the way the so-called "metro revolution" is framed often by Brookings and other urban boosters is that there's little recognition or a begrudging admission that our metro areas exist in a federalized system that means that different scales of political organization and governance are dependent upon every other scale. This means that while metro boosters sneer at congress (and it is deserving of sneers) they should also take a look at their and themselves and their dependence upon federal resources.

For example, did you know that 10% of NYC's revenue (h/t to @xenocryptsite for this link) collected for its budget is federal grants and aid?  All of our cities and metro areas, ESPECIALLY the largest metro areas depend on the federal government to provide multiple essential services or to offer money for the city to operate those services. This interdependence means that urban boosters like Brookings need to not celebrate the fact that, supposedly, metros don't shut down, but instead they should look at how the shutdown of the federal government exposes their own weaknesses and how metro areas can navigate those weaknesses until House republicans pull their heads out of their asses. 

And, of course, I gotta point out the obvious contradiction of metro boosters championing and comparing metro areas with federally supplied data. Literally, the primary means by which these folks can say that metro areas are even engaged in a revolution is because the federal government gives them the data necessary to make that assertion. City and metro agencies that deal with a lot of federal data from environmental departments, to public health agencies, to city planning departments ALL depend quite heavily on current federal data in order to do their work. The shutdown of the census website is many ways a disaster for these departments and for the people they serve. 

Austerity as Shutdown or "It's About the Governance, Stupid"

Something that a cursory reading about the "government shutdown"makes clear is that this isn't really a total shutdown of the government. "Essential services" and employees are still in operation, although who counts as essential is a heated topic. Law enforcement is still in full effect but the vast majority of employees at the EPA, CDC, and NIH are no longer working.

While this is a tragedy this is not a total government collapse or a shutdown. This is a particular form of austerity politics played out in real time. It's open knowledge that the republicans are using this as a negotiating chip for future debates on the debt-ceiling. The direct cutting of federal jobs, limiting environmental regulation, freezing scientific research, and hobbling the nation's public health agency just happens to coincide with traditional targets of conservative ire. They couldn't cut out the EPA through direct debate so they use the shutdown. This is a particular articulation of right-wing governance. We should examine the policies conservatives in congress have called for before and what they say openly they want with their current shenanigans. That's a much more subtle job than simply pointing to a shutdown and simply citing "gridlock". This isn't about paralysis, this is about a group that seeks to impose a particular set of austerity-based policies that involve cutting environmental regulation, limiting civil rights, and increasing social inequality by favoring social elites.

Why does this matter? Because we see our metro areas engage in the same kind of austerity politics that are hostile to environmental regulation and exacerbate social and economic inequity. This is where Brookings performs a neat trick of selectively highlighting policies that fit its narratives around metropolitan policy leadership, particularly around encouraging exports, while ignoring issues around gentrification, other forms of displacement, poverty, and the increasing social inequity that now largely define many of our urban areas. For example, one of the programs breathlessly reported by Brookings is a new parks funding program in Chicago. While it is an ambitious program this is also the same mayor that signed off on closing nearly 50 schools, primarily in poor African-American and Latino neighborhoods, against the protests of teachers, parents, and students in neighborhoods, that due to decades of racial and social segregation and disinvestment, where schools were vital community centers. It is telling that the policies highlighted deal only generally with "economic development" and don't mention pressing issues around social justice, housing affordability, jobs-first policies, poverty reduction etc...

So...even if metros did not shut down, though they do, we still need to recognize the selective, shitty politics that Brookings seems hell bent on co-signing, both at a national and metro level by engaging in these antics. And I, for one, am tired of it. 

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