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.

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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.

Yeah, But…. Or, Economists do Postwar Metropolitan Segregation

Leah Boustan, an economist at Princeton and the National Bureau of Economic Research, published an Op-Ed in the New York Times last weekend that distilled the essence of her new book, Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets, described thusly by Princeton University Press:

Traditionally, the Great Black Migration has been lauded as a path to general black economic progress. Leah Boustan challenges this view, arguing instead that the migration produced winners and losers within the black community. Boustan shows that migrants themselves gained tremendously, more than doubling their earnings by moving North. But these new arrivals competed with existing black workers, limiting black–white wage convergence in Northern labor markets and slowing black economic growth. Furthermore, many white households responded to the black migration by relocating to the suburbs. White flight was motivated not only by neighborhood racial change but also by the desire on the part of white residents to avoid participating in the local public services and fiscal obligations of increasingly diverse cities.

I’m going to offer two caveats for my analysis right off the bat: First, the whole book is ambitious in scope, and proposes a provocative thesis that migration was less clearly a Good Thing for the interests of Black advancement (reading the blurb, one might approach the book asking “compared to what?” but….). And second, it’s quite difficult to express complex research findings in short form. The book seems highly worth reading, among other reasons because of the kind of media traction it’s getting through, well, NYT Op-Eds.

That said, I found the article to be flawed in its basic assumptions about the definition and nature of racism in American urban areas, particularly as related to metropolitan real estate markets in the 20th century, and not very informed about the historiography of that phenomenon. Continue reading

Trumpism and the Suburbs

This is a very interesting article by Jesse Myerson, which addresses something that’s irritated me about the discussion of Trump’s “white, working class” base. Leaving aside the sloppy definition of “working class” by the proxy of lacking a college degree, the implicit thesis embedded in the terminology is that Trump’s support reflects the economic anxieties of people who have been left behind by the transforming post-industrial economy.  Continue reading

An Old Metropolitical Friend

As the race to succeed Tom Price in the 6th Georgia House district settles into a runoff contest between Jon Ossoff and former Fulton County Commission chair Karen Handel, Handel has raised an old rallying cry: If it’s hard to secure a majority of the votes, it’s because it’s too easy for your opponents to cast a ballot. This, of course, dates back to Handel’s days in Fulton County politics, where she led a faction of north Fulton Republicans who were continually frustrated by the way that the black Democratic majority of the commission represented their constituents. In Fulton County in the late 1990s, Handel supported the shrinking of county government through budget cutting and advocated the “municipalization” of north Fulton into incorporated, white majority cities that privatized services, cut taxes, and avoided the established County workforce. I wrote about that in a scholarly way here, and also touched on some of the ironies of “good government” justifications for incorporation here.

Handel won election as Georgia’s Secretary of State, where she made the implementation of a controversial voter ID law written by fellow Fulton County Republican Hans von Spakovsky a top priority. This bill disenfranchised tens of thousands of Georgians due to false-positive matches in a database of convicts and other ineligible voters, without, as Richard Doner, Jonathan Schneer, and Dan Amsterdam have noted, demonstrably preventing any fraudulent voting (link to .pdf). It might not surprise you to know that studies of these database services demonstrate that the frequency of common names among Asian, Latino/a, and African American citizens contributes to higher rates of false matches, and therefore more wrongful disenfranchisement and more vote suppression, for members of those groups.

I’ve argued that that was hardly accidental, and not distinct from Handel’s background in Fulton County metropolitics, where voter turnout was a crucial factor in governing a county that was racially, ideologically, and socioeconomically divided between its north and south ends. While we think of vote suppression as consequential to the recent Presidential contest (as Ari Berman’s great reporting stresses), it has a great impact in metropolitan areas too, where gerrymandered districts, voting restrictions, and other tactics can create significant divergence between the people governed and their representatives in both local and state government.

More recently, Handel castigated the decision of Judge Timothy Batten (a G.W. Bush-appointed Republican) to overturn the state’s restrictive registration period for the congressional runoff election:

“Its [sic] clear Jon Ossoff’s campaign to deceive the voters of the 6th District is not working. When the Democrats can’t win Elections following the rules – rules they themselves authored and enforced for years – they file partisan lawsuits to change them,” she said in the statement. “This lawsuit should be seen for exactly what it is: A partisan attempt to change the rules in the middle of an election for a nakedly partisan outcome.”

Timothy Batten is no one’s idea of a staunch voting rights advocate. I criticized his decision in 2013 in Lowery v. Deal, which dealt with the dilution of minority voting power in Fulton County’s newly incorporated cities. And the judge had rejected a claim that new Secretary of State Brian Kemp intentionally purged Georgia’s voter rolls ahead of the 2016 election. His decision reflected a very clear reading of a statute that requires voters be able to register up until 30 days prior to an election, whether runoff or primary. But it shouldn’t be surprising that Handel views higher turnout as risky to her chances.

Cities and the Trump Budget

There are many ways to critique the budget plan outlined by Mick Mulvaney and the Trump administration last week. Priorities skew toward a bloated military and away from aid to poor people. Budget cuts seem aimed more at symbolic targets of longstanding conservative ire (PBS, the remaining non-abortion services Planned Parenthood can offer women on Medicaid, the respective National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities). But it’s also a budget that takes dead aim at cities and at local governments more generally. As Will Wilkinson writes in the Washington Post, this is partly an electoral ploy, as Trump does not see his support coming from big, diverse, coastal cities. However, not all cities are large, or diverse, or coastal, and the anti-urbanist rhetoric that Trump has favored on Twitter encourages many of Trump’s rust belt constituents to embrace a mental map of “urban” defined by large cities with significant minority, poor, and immigrant populations. Wilkinson notes aptly that Trump speaks of cities through

a fearsome caricature that bears little resemblance to the real urban landscape,

which perhaps makes it easier to imagine that cuts to social programs are aimed elsewhere (though, in reality, communities that went strongly for Trump in November stand to suffer greatly under his budget).

I wrote weeks ago about the nomination of Dr. Ben Carson to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Although Carson distinguished himself by appearing to discount the efficacy of HUD’s potential actions to alleviate poverty as a complex social problem, the bigger structural problem for the agency is that its very existence is politically imperiled. The budget plan proposes to knock $6 billion off the agency’s funding and eliminate Community Development Block Grants.

Mass transit funding support from the feds also faces severe cuts, at a time when mobility issues for people unable to drive cars constitute a major obstacle to economic security and mobility (both in metro and rural areas). But support for roads and highways will remain unchanged. Support for local law enforcement and anti-terrorism efforts figure to devolve to state and local governments too.

The administration offers a nominally principled defense of this action, stating

“State and local governments are better positioned to serve their communities based on local needs and priorities”[.]

However, this presumes a cooperative effort by states to work with urban governments to solve important problems. Very often, as Michael Wallace writes for the National League of Cities blog, cities have state governments holding one hand behind their back while federal cuts hold the other.

Taxing and revenue limits are part of the problem, but recent reports by the NLC also show an issue that I’ve devoted some attention to, preemption of local governments by state legislatures, is an increasing problem. The long and short of preemption is that at a time when local governments (representing large cities, small towns, and communities of all kinds in between) find themselves the only representative of people’s needs for housing, education, livelihood, and mobility, they’re alone in working to meet those needs.

I’m working up a longer essay on this urban moment, considering how cities fit ideologically and pragmatically in various forms of “resistance” to Trump’s brand of right-wing authoritarian populism and the Republican Party’s standard austerity. For now, I’d urge everyone to look closely at the NLC’s report “City Rights in an Era of Preemption” for a sense of how much state governments are working to restrict independent and flexible municipal policy in a host of areas, which may reflect special industry interests or broader culture war politics. To summarize, half of US states preempt local minimum wage laws, 19 preempt local paid leave laws, 17 prevent localities from establishing public broadband networks, and 42 limit local taxing and budget autonomy, a situation that NCL executive Brooks Rainwater argues

prevents cities from expanding rights, building stronger economies and promoting innovation can be counterproductive and even dangerous. When decision-making is divorced from the core wants and needs of community members, it creates a perilous environment.

If anything, the NLC report understates the problem, as it focuses on economic and social policy, exemplified by minimum wage and antidiscrimination ordinances, major areas of city-state conflict, although in many states local environmental protections have been preempted, which is increasingly important as the federal Environmental Protection Agency budget is slated for severe cuts and that agency’s head is a former state attorney general and fierce advocate of federalism (in practice, the voluntary compliance of industry with regulations the industries write) in environmental regulation. Without strong assistance from the Federal government, cities may be on their own against industry-friendly state houses in protecting air, soil, and drinking water. Preemption threatens what little individual cities may accomplish against problems of pollution that disregard local boundaries.

The NLC’s report also provides a concise summary of the legal and historical basis for restrictions on city autonomy. If that whets your appetite, you could read my award-winning article “Uniting Citizens after Citizens United” in American Studies, where I discuss the ways that recognizing the power of cities to act on behalf of their inhabitants may promote more inclusive, participatory, and democratic politics in an age where national and state politics are conducted through the exchange of money.