Metropolitics and the Defense of Wealth

This is a very intriguing post by Destin Jenkins at the Organization of American Historians blog Process. Jenkins argues for looking at the phenomena lumped together as the “racial wealth gap” from the side of the possessors of wealth, asking how advantage accumulated. Jenkins particularly wants to challenge recent, but ahistorical, critiques from the left. Both politicians like Bernie Sanders and crossover heterodox economists like Thomas Piketty have identified the 1980s and 1970s respectively as decades when inequality accelerated. These arguments are not so much wrong, per Jenkins, as grossly incomplete, focusing on

implicit archetypes of deracialized middle class and poor Americans getting the short end of the stick while a deracialized wealthy elite collects the spoils. Though strong on explaining the expanding wealth gap, their histories miss how changes over the last fifty years, whether under the guise of such metanarratives as neoliberalism, financialization, or post-industrialism, compounded the deeper history of racial disparities in wealth. Indeed, one wonders whether it is the growing wealth gap amongst white Americans that has forced pundits to engage with wealth disparities.

Jenkins notes, building on work by Ira Katznelson and citing a recent Demos report “The Asset Value of Whiteness” by Amy Traub, Laura Sullivan, Tatjana Meschede, and Tom Shapiro, that researchers have built a solid case for extending the temporal frame of the wealth gap back to the New Deal era, when social support for housing helped white Americans to begin building wealth in home equity while excluding Americans of color.

Yet, Jenkins argues, a still longer frame, informed by W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction, allows historians to understand a far longer pattern of forcible and legal dispossession of Black Americans. This is a move of consequence, because it forces us to think not only of the incomplete development of U.S. social democracy (a problem  potentially fixable) but also of a more insidious history of dispossession by legal and extralegal means.

Most analyses of the racial wealth gap focus primarily on disparities in the acquisition of wealth. Hence they use the language of amassing, inheriting, accumulating, references to “inherited poverty,” and claims that black people are “late comers” to acquiring wealth. But we should also think about the racial wealth gap in terms of racial disparities in the defense of wealth: the relative ability to defend wealth from expropriation, whether through violence, state-sanctioned seizure, and sometimes both. After all, what good is wealth if you can’t defend it?

The historical record of whites’ ability to defend wealth and Americans of color’s relative inability to do so is bloody and brutal, and Jenkins’ focus on the period between Reconstruction and the New Deal bridges a gap between works like Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told and Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White as examinations of the links between state power, capital, and racism.

As a metropolitan historian of the later 20th century, I see an indirect connection to my own work, which deals less with overt violence and more with the ways that institutions can be mobilized and manipulated to defend the value (market and affective) of white-owned property, among other prerogatives. This is reflected in suburban incorporation and secession movements, where political boundaries are changed to enhance or protect wealth. This is still a fairly controversial proposition, and outside of fields influenced by critical race theory, the contingent and contested nature of political boundaries, like the inherent racial inflection of property value, is not always readily grasped, even by insightful analysts.

This kind of institutional politics requires ideological support to make the specific advantage of one group appear to be an expression of the general good: of freedom of choice, the market, or the American Way. I’ve written about the way that nascent public choice theory in the 1950s, which applied neoclassical economics to the organization and operation of local governments, both reflected and helped to defend and normalize the metropolitan fragmentation that accelerated in the postwar era. As suburban developers and homeowners in Lakewood, California and surrounding suburbs of Los Angeles County formed cities to capture local tax revenue, they fought against metropolitan cost sharing and defined a narrow and local sense of community that rejected wider ties.

Crucially, the ground-level work of these political entrepreneurs was mirrored by a group of academic entrepreneurs at UCLA, who theorized fragmentation not as a wasteful duplication of resources or a means of exclusion, but as a necessary adaptation of local government to market dynamics. I argued that the real intellectual work done by public choice theory was not descriptive but normative; the theory, adopted in bowdlerized form by political conservatives in governor Ronald Reagan’s orbit, effectively mandated a more competitive relationship between local governments, delegitimized metropolitan government, and raised the stakes of competition between local governments so that some would win and some would lose. For residents of cities like Compton, the consequences were devastating, as Black and Latino homeowners found that their home equity was tied to their city’s status as a losing competitor in the game.

This is why I’m quite interested to read Nancy MacLean’s forthcoming book Democracy in Chains, which is reviewed in Jacobin by Colin Gordon (certainly not coincidentally an urban historian whose work has detailed the economic and political consequences of public choice metropolitics in greater St. Louis). MacLean’s book mines the papers of James McGill Buchanan, a political economist and Nobel Laureate notable not only for his contributions to public choice theory but for his successful institutional entrepreneurship. Buchanan established numerous funded institutes dedicated to reorganizing social institutions around market principles, ultimately facilitating the Koch brothers’ beachhead in academe.

Unfortunately, as Gordon notes in summary of MacLean, Buchanan’s

market fundamentalism, and the policies that flow from it, are essentially faith-based — and either blind or indifferent to their own contradictions.

Here, MacLean echoes the recent work of the sociologists Margaret Somers and Fred Block, underscoring the many ways in which “free” markets are embedded in social relations. Ignoring this fact simply camouflages advantage and disguises the reliance and dependence of successful market actors on conditions (property rights, contract law, patent protection, worker suppression) secured by state action.

As Gordon notes, mostly (but not exclusively) Southern “Freedom Caucus” politicians carry this tradition forward today in Congress. But of course, campaigns for suburban secession, tax revolts, and other metropolitical battles also evince this

conviction that the polity could be cleft between “makers and takers,” and that it was the “takers” who, by employing state power to tax wealth and income, were doing the exploiting.

I found this thread running through the words and deeds of anti-tax politicians, advocates for incorporating new cities, and secession advocates in north Fulton County, and it runs through the strong support for Donald Trump and backlash politics in many American suburbs, as well as the right’s predilection to concentrate power in state governments through federalist devolution from Washington and preemption of local action.

GA 6 Special Election

So, Jon Ossoff came close to beating Karen Handel in the Georgia 6th district special election. I’m personally disappointed, surprised only that it was close, and not sure the result portends anything for the future.

As I’ve written (drawing from others’ commentary as well as my own historical work on the Atlanta suburbs), many affluent suburbs are Trump country. The 6th has become more ethnically diverse in recent years, but the effect of that diversity is mitigated by the fact that the district is drawn to elect Republicans. The 6th is a highly educated district, and Democratic optimists thought it would behave like the other 9 top-10 educated districts in supporting Democrats for Congress. It’s perhaps more like affluent but less educated districts than they were willing to recognize. Ultimately, as Molly Ball writes in The Atlantic, Republican voters in a structurally Republican district are going to vote Republican.

My personal take as a non-political scientist is that Ossoff’s efforts at minimizing ideology and idealizing pragmatism (to the point of being almost as unwilling as Karen Handel to refer by name to Donald Trump) are a bad strategy for Democrats in 2018. Even Matthew Yglesias is off the bipartisan civility train, though not as far off as Hamilton Nolan.

A Metropolitan Party?

Brookings Institution scholar Bruce Katz recently discussed the prospects and possibilities of a metropolitan political party. His argument in a nutshell is that the pragmatic orientation of local officials makes it more likely that they will resist the polarization of national partisan politics and implement solutions to pressing problems:

The United States desperately needs a new political force that resists the nationalization of partisan politics and, instead, infuses both establishment parties with the pragmatic, problem solving modus operandi of leaders at the local and metropolitan level.

This certainly sounds a lot better than what we’ve got now. But substantial caution is in order. Metro areas house about 8 in 10 Americans. So, while it makes sense to expect national politics to cater to the needs of those 8 rather than the 2 (who might lazily be inferred to live in Trump Country), it doesn’t make sense, given what we know about the contentious politics of metropolitan areas, to expect the 8 to agree on a comprehensive political agenda.

For example, Katz suggests sensibly that this new party build its organization and constituency at the state level, where significant policy decisions affecting cities and metro areas are made. Specifically, Katz identifies state legislative preemption of municipal action, a serious problem for economic equity, development, and environmental protection. This would avoid the Democratic Party’s fixation on the Presidency and the Senate and cultivate a roster of political candidates for US House seats. But state houses are already metropolitical battlefields. School integration and funding equity? Taxation? Welfare policies? Economic development? In metropolitics, all of these policy areas have been hotly contested, and contested more importantly as zero-sum games.

This overlaps neatly with the tendency of white Americans to see racial advancement for nonwhites as coming at their expense, and it follows from recent arguments that Trumpism has a strong base in middle-class to affluent suburbs in America’s metro areas. Modern conservatism is not (or not only) the dying scream of rural America, it’s the tantrum of the affluent suburbanite. Metro areas contain multitudes, and they certainly contain the Tea Party.

So, when Katz writes

There is clearly a set of issues that sane metropolitan leaders across the red-blue divide can agree on: investing in modern regional transportation that connects people to jobs and goods to markets; boosting the economic competitiveness and innovation capacity of local industries; or policy reforms in housing, education and workforce programs.

I’m not entirely sure that’s true. Perhaps the work of identifying a positive agenda for equitable growth can tie metro areas together across racial and class divisions; New Regionalist scholars have long argued that equitable growth improves outcomes for rich and poor by removing drags on metropolitan economies like poverty, poor education, and collapsed property values. The hurdle has historically always been securing buy-in from the wealthy. And if the Metropolitan Party is to exercise power above the local level in the United States, it is going to have to be in places like New York where fusion arrangements are common or as a caucus within one (gee, which one?) of the dominant parties. Which might tie it to the partisan rigidity that Katz decries before it results in serious reform to the party. And more radical thinkers in the Right to the City tradition demand a grassroots politics far more inclusionary and redistributive than the technocratic development politics that Katz’s proposal suggests. But thinking about metro areas in terms of the representation and influence to which their populations are entitled may be the best way forward to govern for an equitable and democratic society.