Sunday, July 28, 2013

Less romantic

Thomas Friedman in "I Want to Be a Mayor" writes, "With both DC and the states increasingly AWOL, we need cities more than ever to be our engines of smart growth." 

Cities exist and grow because they are "engines of growth."  But the "smart" part can be many things. That's usually the problem.  Who are these smarties?

Friedman's whole essay is about how cities are governed. When he mentions "cities", does he mean city government?  Many people confuse nations with their governments; many also confuse cities with their governments. Friedman loves it that "Voters are putting up tax dollars for large-scale transit investments in Denver and Los Angeles ..." Politics without romance is adults-only sobering but Friedman will have none of that.

Economists refer to a "sun tax" (or a "commodity curse" or a "curse of oil") when bad governance is made possible in high amenity (or other good fortune) settings.  I have lived in a bad governance setting for many years but economic prospects are still passable.  Exhibit A would be Silicon Valley.  The shenanigans of Bay Area and California politicians have not killed it.  But not all areas have enough "sun" to offset high taxes, crazy policies, unfunded liabilities and such.

By the time a "perfect storm" gathers, it is usually too late. Detroit had badly run General Motors (with many industry soulmates including auto workers' unions) as well as badly run city hall.  Looking back, it is not easy to unscramble these eggs.

Cities are likely to be engines of growth if we do not look for "smart" stuff from city hall; less stuff would be much better. But that is less romantic.