Looking for Help in all the Wrong Places!ORWhy Urban Political Scientists are Little Help to an Economic Developer

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The topic this month is urban political science theories and approaches. The question we pose is if urban political scientists offer any guidance to economic developers in field on how to cope with politics in their daily job? Do they provide some description, case studies, outlines or analysis of the forces which whipsaw practicing economic developers? Do their theories and approaches offer some degree of understanding what goes on politically with the sub-state politics and program administration? This question allows the Curmudgeon to present a review of how urban political scientists conceptualize urban politics in a vein similar to last month’s assessment of the underlying economic theory of innovation and the knowledge economy. At the same time, the review could offer nuggets of assistance to the struggling economic developer. God knows, the economic developer in the field can use some help with politics.

Economic developers are often outspoken regarding politics at higher or other levels of government, but are usually very closed mouth about what goes on in their own particular bailiwick. They are not dumb, after all, and silence is nothing but the verbal equivalent of good judgment.

But despite this Great Silence, the Curmudgeon believes that Politics, in a wide variety of forms and experiences, constantly rears its multifaceted head during an economic developer’s professional life—

Politics is a really decisive influence on the administrative behavior of an economic developer.Those of us who have plowed the fields of local economic development have probably stumbled across a rock or two, thrown by someone labeled by society as a “politician”. Politics matters to local economic developers. The Curmudgeon is not exactly saying that the dirty secret of sub-state economic development is politics, but he does observe that economic developers practice a profession whose middle name is “Politics”. Not that politics is discussed very much in the economic development literature. My experience is that economic developers are not especially loquacious about the effects of politics on their individual professional lives (it is only mentioned after several beers or bourbons).

Interestingly, economic developers are often outspoken regarding politics at higher or other levels of government, but are usually very closed mouth about what goes on in their own particular bailiwick. But despite this Great Silence, the Curmudgeon believes that Politics, in a wide variety of forms and experiences, constantly rears its multifaceted head during an economic developer’s professional life—to the extent that, it is a really decisive influence on his administrative behavior and an impressively important cause of nighttime inability to sleep well (guilty conscience also probably contributes).

Politics is not a strange bedfellow for the Curmudgeon; he was in bed with politicians and politics long before he entered into professional economic development. Yet, on the job, he found the phenomena of small “p” and big “P” politics constant, pervasive and really hard to navigate. His instruction manual on politics was missing a whole lot of pages and the pages that were there seldom were any help. How to deal with politicians, the policies they advocate, and their “involvement” (never interference) in program administration were daily headaches. Don’t talk to the Curmudgeon about elections, either! He twice had the Chair of his Board run for county executive against the Vice Chair and then hold a board meeting the day after the election. Fun!

In his professional economic development life, the Curmudgeon (despite being initially a political appointment, owing in large measure to his role as an “operative” during the previous election) probably was perceived by most politicians as a “technician” and not a “player”. This perception provided sometimes considerable armor and insulation and even allowed a degree of bipartisanship in his contacts and program administration (for those not familiar with the word “bipartisan”, not to worry, it passed away over a decade ago and shows no promise of rising from the grave like a vampire on True Blood).  The Curmudgeon was able, for instance, to work (for awhile) for a County Executives of a different political parties than the Curmudgeon’s. He even penetrated different party caucus and various other internals of political party dynamics. He was the proverbial fly on the wall of some of New York politics. None of this knowledge, however, made him sleep any easier, but in retrospect his interrelationships with state and local politics were vital to his success and failure on the job.

Can academic political scientists offer any guidance on how to cope by providing some description, case studies and analysis of the forces underlying local and sub-state politics and program administration”?

Forgetaboutit!

The sad reality is that most academic political scientists do not have much to say to economic development practitioners regarding politics.Yet, despite some insularity and background in politics, day to day experiences could be brutal—and inescapable. Politics was a daily facet of his local economic development experience and he suspects, that even if the average economic developer is quiet on the subject,  it is an important aspect of their administrative and policy life.

So, the question arises, “can academic political scientists offer any guidance on how to cope by providing some description, case studies and analysis of the forces underlying local and sub-state politics and program administration”?

Forgetaboutit! The sad reality is that most academic political scientists do not have much to say to economic development practitioners regarding politics, and offer less help in the design and implementation of economic development policy and programs within a political environment. Indeed, most academic political scientists are off in a  Monty Pythonesque quest to change urban governance, and you my friend, the professional economic developer, are often their enemy.

If the reader has already searched the journals of political science (and associated sub-disciplines), it’s a good bet you have usually found actual hostility or at least a very serious critique of economic developers. This critique borders on outright disparagement (or what Rick Perry would call “treasonous”) of most kinds of local economic development programs, a negativity which carries over to the dark souls who administer them.  The reader saw a bit of this hostility in March Issue (3) of this Journal, dealing with tax abatement.

Just what is going on with academic political scientists? Why are they so unhelpful?

 

A Brief Summary of the Last Fifty Years Literature on Urban Political Science

It may come as some surprise to the professional economic developer, but the study of cities and topics such as economic development occupy a fairly backwater, out in left field kind of status within the larger political science discipline. Several political science studies since the 1950s have “discovered that only a tiny fraction of the articles from the selected journals (American Political Science Review and the Political Science Quarterly) are about urban issues”(P.4, Orr and Johnson, Power in the City, University of Kansas, 2008). Orr & Johnson demonstrated that of the articles published between 1886 and 2002 “only 2% are on some aspect of the field” (urban).  This is not an isolated perception; political scientists, prominent in the study of urban politics, have themselves consistently rued their fate as having been “removed once again to the periphery of the political science discipline” (Peterson, 1981, ix-x).  In fact, with the exception of a twenty or so year period (1960-85), the “urban politics subfield” traditionally and historically has been “at the margins of the study of American politics” (P.4-5, Orr & Johnson).

Despite its pervasiveness in the economic development-related literature, innovation and the knowledge-based economy is a largely asserted without proof, commonsensical, mother and apple pie, almost off the cuff, set of almost religious “beliefs”.

Innovation and knowledge-based economic policy initiatives ought to be based upon some body of knowledge which support its premises and provide it credibility.This operating at the margins should not diminish the considerable impact and the quality of the research on urban affairs during the urban politics’ Golden Age of the 60s, 70s and early 80s. Concepts such as pluralism, community power, and incrementalism impacted the entire political science discipline and powerful authors such as Banfield, Dahl, Moynihan, Lowi, Wilson, Polsby, Peterson and Wildavsky (and many others) set the tone of national debate and academic research. This is the period of the Curmudgeon’s formative years in academia and admittedly he is much dependent upon it to this very day.  The obvious question needs be asked: “what happened”? Why has urban politics returned to the frontiers of political science after the eighties, an exile lasting to the present day?

Orr and Johnson suggest a number of competing rationales for urban politics drift to the professional backwaters.

  • First, “ideological blinders and a reformist tradition colors urban political science scholarship, pushing it out of the mainstream” (Jennifer Hochschild, in Orr & Johnson, 2008);
  • Second, others have observed urban politics literature has focused almost exclusively on central cities and have either ignored or treated pejoratively the suburbs, rural areas, and small towns (Danielson & Lewis, 1966);
  • Third, a prominent urbanist, Paul Peterson, has decried the subfield’s balkanization (proneness to specialize into policy areas like economic development, transportation, education, housing, etc.) and the influence of“neo-Marxist determinism” (P.6 Orr & Johnson);
  • Sapotichne, Jones & Wolfe (2007) called attention to theoretical (ideological) and methodological barriers that insulate urban politics research from the vigorous trends that have engulfed other parts of political science”;
  • Orr & Johnson suggest that the “in and out” urbanists who write a book or two in urban affairs and then depart for more mainstream political science in an effort to gain a position or tenure, send a clear message to young graduate students about the desirability of urban politics as a career focus.

If these reasons were not sufficient, the reality that much of urban politics (at least of the central cities) involved racial politics, and research discussing  race developed its own baggage. Many “liberal scholars shied away from researching behavior construed as unflattering or stigmatizing to particular racial minorities” (such as the underclass) or from findings which seemed to “blame the victim”. (P.8, Orr & Johnson).

Urban political researchers and academic analysts built into their work  a wide variety of subjective values (such as a preference for central cities and a distrust of suburbs as the expression of a racism-based sprawl).

Many urban political commentators assumed there could be, indeed should be, a more equitable, just, or rational set of policies which created more desirable urban governance and policy-making.

In general urban political scientists looked out over the urban political landscape, and they sure as heck did not like what they saw! And you, my associated but fine-feathered economic developers, were the perpetrators of this social and economic injustice.Tossing in his proverbial two cents, the Curmudgeon suggests that one theme which overlaps many of these reasons is that the urban politics subfield became, in the jargon of academia, highly normative or, in normal language, highly ideological.

Urban political researchers and academic analysts built into their work  a wide variety of subjective values (such as a preference for central cities and a distrust of suburbs as the expression of a racism-based sprawl). Many urban political commentators assumed there could be, indeed should be, a more equitable, just, or rational set of policies which created more desirable urban governance and policy-making (such as countering the influence of a “growth coalition”) environment. In general urban political scientists looked out over the urban political landscape, and they sure as heck did not like what they saw! And you, my associated but fine-feathered economic developers, were the perpetrators of this social and economic injustice.

In many instances, these assumptions and biases, as well as individual moral or value preferences were unspoken, but were internally shared among the group of professionals who published and researched the subfield. This normative and ideological thrust created “in groups” and “out groups” and isolated the subfield from the profession.  Urban-related research became highly critical of contemporary urban political behavior and, in particular economic development policy-making. Such urban political scientists practically repudiated many traditional and core economic development programs, especially ones like tax abatement, which many urban political scientists believed advantaged a manipulative, if not abusive, private sector and in turn crippled a fragile and vulnerable urban community and its marginal populations.  Much of urban political research became infused with these normative biases and, in some instances, the research became an outspoken call for change and action, setting the tone of discussion and relationships for the entire subfield of urban politics, both practitioner and academic.

 

Current Theories and Models of Urban Politics OR How We Got Into This Revolting Development

The Curmudgeon, from his perch outside academia, looks into its literature and thinks he sees a literature which reflects three or four different theories or approaches to urban political research and analysis. The dominant approach has been dubbed by David Imbroscio (Urban America Reconsidered, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2010) as “Liberal Expansionism” (P.5). A second, very influential, model of urban politics is “urban regime theory”.  A third approach, which probably still awaits a unifying consensus, has been tagged with several monikers including Neo-liberal and LEADS (local economic alternative development strategies) by the aforementioned Imbroscio. The Curmudgeon, who is presently developing his own book, embraces still another approach, the public policy approach, which analyzes the process of how policy is developed and implemented.

“This book grew out of our frustration with the current stalemated debate about the condition of cities and our conviction that we can move beyond it….

Place Matters reflects our view that the problems presently facing America’s cities are primarily political in nature. Since their origin lies in politics, so does their solution.

New political coalitions and public policies could make a big difference in the social and economic conditions in metropolitan areas…. We view this book, therefore, not only as a synthesis of research findings but also as a road map for reform. (P. xi)In this review, the Curmudgeon will outline the core concepts and key relationships of liberal expansionism and urban regime theory. These two models constitute mainstream urban political science research. Most articles will reflect one or the other. The point of this exercise is to present the reader with enough information to (1) evaluate ideological slants, and (2) to be able to categorize and hopefully better evaluate urban political science literature.

LIBERAL EXPANSIONISM

Adopting Imbroscio’s label, Liberal Expansionism as a name for what arguably is the dominant model in urban political science, betrays the Curmudgeon’s belief that a description of this model is best accomplished by its linking with a political ideology. This seems justified in that the opening lines in the preface of the book we are reviewing as an example of this approach  (Peter Dreier, John Mollenkopf and Todd Swanstrom, Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-first Century, University of Kansas, 2001) are:

“This book grew out of our frustration with the current stalemated debate about the condition of cities and our conviction that we can move beyond it…. Place Matters reflects our view that the problems presently facing America’s cities are primarily political in nature. Since their origin lies in politics, so does their solution. New political coalitions and public policies could make a big difference in the social and economic conditions in metropolitan areas…. We view this book, therefore, not only as a synthesis of research findings but also as a road map for reform.” (P. xi)

At the outset, the purpose of this book (and the approach it advocates) is to address and correct certain specified deficiencies in the urban experience and through political action, correct them.

Agree or disagree with its specific positions and values, the liberal expansionist approach is not neutral in its adoption of certain values and worldview of the American urban phenomena.  Liberal expansionists select and define which problems are most critical, define why they are critical and how they have been brought about, and set the agenda of change to correct these problems and create a new state of affairs based on the approach’s conception of the ideal urban condition.

The single most crucial deficiency, “the fundamental urban problem—namely, [is] the growing concentration of poverty in the central cities (and now inner suburbs) and the growing separations between the poor and the well-to-do”. (P.xii) “Building a political majority in support of new policies to address metropolitan poverty and inequality will require several elements: a favorable climate of public opinion, vigorous leadership from elected officials and citizen activists, a workable set of programs, and an accurate diagnosis of the root causes of our situation”. (P.xii) “We believe that a new political majority must be built around identifying and building on concerns that unite those who live in central cities with residents of suburbs…. This book sketches out that common ground (between central cities and inner suburbs) and proposes ideas about how to meld it into a new majority”. P. (xii-xiii)

Again, it is not the Curmudgeon’s purpose or intention to disparage or contest the definition of the fundamental problem of American cities by “liberal expansionists”, but to call attention that the dominant, in his opinion, approach of American political and policy scientists toward the urban phenomena is unabashedly value-laden, thoroughly infused with, and probably irretrievably linked to, one of the ideologies of modern American politics:  that of progressive liberalism.Again, it is not the Curmudgeon’s purpose or intention to disparage or contest the definition of the fundamental problem of American cities by “liberal expansionists”, but to call attention that the dominant, in his opinion, approach of American political and policy scientists toward the urban phenomena is unabashedly value-laden, thoroughly infused with, and probably irretrievably linked to, one of the ideologies of modern American politics: that of progressive liberalism.

Let’s explore this approach more deeply.

“Economic classes are becoming more spatially separate from each other, with the rich living with other rich people and the poor with other poor. The latter are concentrated in central cities and distressed inner suburbs, and the former are in exclusive central-city neighborhoods and more distant suburbs. This rising economic segregation has many negative consequences, ranging from reinforcing disadvantage in central-city neighborhoods to heightening the cost of suburban sprawl as families flee deteriorating central cities and inner suburbs”. (P. 1)

“PLACE MATTERS!”

“Place affects our access to jobs and public services (especially education), our access to shopping and culture, our level of personal security, the availability of medical services, and even the air we breathe.”. (P. 2-3) …. “Our argument in a nutshell is that although growing economic inequality is bad, it is greatly worsened by growing economic segregation. This dynamic harms the quality of life for the working and middle classes as well as for the poor, imposes costs on society as a whole, and lessens American society’s capacity to engage in vigorous democratic debate and to act collectively to address its pressing problems.” (P. 12)

Reaching back to Gunnar Myrdal’s, An American Dilemma (1944), the authors of Place Matters employ Myrdal’s concept of “cumulative causation” in which racial (and, we assume economic) segregation nurtures the qualities in blacks that lead whites to discriminate against them, fueling more segregation. “The idea of cumulative causation or a vicious circle, applies to place-based inequalities in the United States today.” (P.24)

Earlier (P.20) Place Matters asserts that “Politically, the problem is not so much the existence of poverty, but the gap between the rich and the poor….Rising inequality makes a mockery of the democratic principle of one man, one vote”. Citing FDR’s Third Inaugural Address (1941), they posit that the basis for a strong, healthy democracy rests upon “equality of opportunity; jobs for all those who can work, security for those who need it; the ending of special privilege for the few [underlining is mine]”. In short, liberal expansionism ultimate fear is that segregation of rich and poor, as postulated in Place Matters, is, in the extreme, a threat to the viability of American democracy.

Once again, agree or disagree with this definition of Urban America’s most fundamental problem, (1) many of the derivatives of the fundamental problem are most simply unproven assertions and (2) it is reasonable to concede that others might offer equally plausible definitions of what constitutes urban America’s most fundamental problem (regional competitiveness, broken clusters, intrusive government, business climate disparities, population, capital, and job mobility, for example). To accept liberal expansionism, however,  is to buy into one particular definition of what arguably is a multi-faceted and complex set of issues and problems.

A final Curmudgeon warbling calls attention to liberal expansionism’s almost obsessive focus on central cities and inner suburbs, and the implied proposition that “other places” (small towns, other suburbs, rural areas) are part of the problem because they are home to “the rich”. Let’s leave to the side, that the 2010 Census is already complicating this liberal expansionist assertion that such places exclude the poor and are homogenous enclaves.

This concern for inequality as core to liberal expansionism makes the Curmudgeon wonder how “these folks” (liberal expansionists) perceive “them there folks” in the “wealthy outer-ring suburbs”. Always sensitive and sympathetic to the plight of the urban rich, liberal expansionists assert (again as an article of faith) that outer-ring suburbanites have problems with their gated communities deep in the heart of exurbia. These problems can motivate the rich to join in the crusade (i.e. the earlier mentioned “coalition”) to overcome the effects of sprawl and income inequality. The problems of the wealthy wrestle with, as defined by  liberal expansionists define are:

“In contrast, residents of outer ring suburbs … work long hours and commute long distances, leaving little time for family life and community responsibilities, partly because they want to live on the urban fringe far from urban problems. Their family stresses and lack of leisure time are related to the fact that an acceptable form of more urbanized living is not available to them. … The polluted air and lack of green space in central cities may be abominable, but the flight of households to greener pastures on the urban fringe gobbles up farmland and spews additional automobile emissions into the air.” (P.23)

It would appear the best solution to the present urban situation is  (1) for the family to be together more (2) End sprawl, live in the central city where no troubled families exist, and (3) by restoring “greener pastures” in the central city.

As for more time to “chill with the fam”, ask your always insightful teenager what they think of the liberal expansionist solution. A smog and simplistic critique, to be sure, but, forgive the Curmudgeon for thinking the liberal expansionist definition of life and problems of the “wealthy outer ring suburbanites” is a bit smug, if not self-serving, wrong, and massively simplistic.

Returning to Place Matters, its authors clearly state the earlier-mentioned cumulative causation of Myrdal also applies to “the geographic concentration of the wealthy”. “The geographic concentration of the wealthy…encases residents in a privileged environment, especially with respect to local public education. Not only do children in rich school districts get a better education; they also make contacts (through internships, jobs, and college admission connections) that help them succeed. While “class war” may be a hyperbolic overstatement, the Curmudgeon can see not so dim shadows suggesting “some” partisan dimensions and “certain” local electoral behavior patterns in this, even if correct description, of the injustices created by economic and racial segregation.

From these and other descriptions of the rich and their suburban castles, the Curmudgeon wonders if the liberal expansionists possess  an implied, if not acknowledged, preference for “places” with higher density. Given an acceptable choice, one senses that liberal expansionists believe that outer ring suburbanites would choose a central city location—or at least they SHOULD choose that preferred location.

The preference for density enjoys a long-standing dominance in the study of things urban. But, the Curmudgeon also calls attention to much literature, (for instance Crabgrass Frontier) regarding suburbanization and the preference for small town locations as a counterweight. Methinks, suburbanization and sprawl may be more complex, cultural, subtle and disturbingly different than that posited by liberal expansionists.  In any case, if one is a perverted Curmudgeon-type, there may be a more or less clear link between liberal expansionists and the more rationality-based, density preferred, New Style Progressivism represented in the new urbanist planning movement. The link need not be considered insidious, but, if such a link is real, adds a robust dimension to the liberal expansionist perspective regarding the land of the rich.

This preference for density is made more explicit when Place Matters refers to cities as engines of prosperity:

“Urban density enhances economic efficiency and innovation…. The density of employment in cities reduces the cost of transportation and increases each business’s access to skilled and specialized labor. The geographical clustering of industries in certain cities further enhances productivity. In many industries, understanding ambiguous information is the key to innovation” (P 24-5)

Michael Porter couldn’t have said this better! And from this very clear linkage of density, central cities and inner suburbs as the engines of national prosperity, a prosperity derived from virtues associated with the knowledge and innovation economy (see Issue 7) and from cluster economics (see Issue 5), the Curmudgeon can see evidence, as early as 2001, of the symbiotic and synergistic partnership of liberal expansionists with these economic development approaches. Not surprisingly the structural cornerstone of these approaches is regionalism, if not regional government.

“This trend in the spatial organization of American metropolitan areas is not the simple result of individuals making choices in free markets. Rather federal and state policies have biased metropolitan development in favor of economic segregation, concentrated urban poverty and suburban sprawl. We need new policies for metropolitan governance that will level the playing field and stop the drift toward greater spatial inequality. We also need a political strategy for uniting residents of central cities and suburbs in a new coalition that will support these policies.” (P. 1)

Imbroscio, in his somewhat sympathetic (P.7,  Urban America Reconsidered), Neo-Liberal critique of liberal expansionism restates Place Matters essential core, and offers his summary of Liberal Expansionism’s defining  fundamental problem accounting for why “central cities are failing”:

“they and their poorer residents are too isolated—governmentally, politically, socially, fiscally, and economically—especially from their wider metropolitan regions (i.e. from the suburbs that surround them) as well as from the resources of extra-city institutions such as higher-level governments and large philanthropic foundations. The antidote to this multifaceted isolation is EXPANSION—creating governmental, political, social, fiscal and economic linkages between the central city, its population and institutions and resources existing beyond its boundaries…  the vehicle for fostering these expansionist linkages is the ACTIVIST STATE.” (capitals are Curmudgeon’s)
(P.5-6, Imbroscio, Urban America Reconsidered: Alternatives for Governance and Policy, Cornell University Press, 2010)

To satisfy the drive to overcome sprawl, racial and income segregation, and inner city decline, liberal expansionists advocate a “new” regionalism and metropolitan governance. Regionalism, service consolidations et al are proposed as necessary platforms to accomplish the desired ends of liberal expansionism. As Imbroscio explains, metropolitan regionalism is an expression of “the need for cities to create linkages with the global economy, tap extra regional labor pools, and draw down additional intergovernmental (especially federal) resources in the form of an enlargement of the social welfare state.” (P.7, Urban America Reconsidered).

The local scale is, as Dreier, Mollenkopf, and Swanstrom (2004) argue in Place Matters, much too limited to do much good; thus the only alternative is to search elsewhere for solutions….

More generally, it (liberal expansionism) greatly deemphasizes place-oriented strategies, which are rooted in the community development approach that attempts to confront urban problems where they spatially exist, in favor of people-oriented strategies which frequently seek to relocate persons far from the places where they now reside.  (P.7, Urban America Reconsidered)Individual central cities/inner suburbs are not capable of addressing the fundamental problem and they must garner the resources of the outer ring to correct them.

The local scale is, as Dreier, Mollenkopf, and Swanstrom (2004) argue in Place Matters, much too limited to do much good; thus the only alternative is to search elsewhere for solutions…. More generally, it (liberal expansionism) greatly deemphasizes place-oriented strategies, which are rooted in the community development approach that attempts to confront urban problems where they spatially exist, in favor of people-oriented strategies which frequently seek to relocate persons far from the places where they now reside.  (P.7, Urban America Reconsidered)

Imbroscio further illustrates what he calls “the pervasiveness of expansionist ideas” by identifying a number of authors and think tanks that he associates with liberal expansionism: these include the authors of Place Matters, Myron Orfield, David Rusk, Neal Pierce, National League of Cities, Brookings Institution Center for Urban and Metropolitan Policy, and the Urban Institute. Imbroscio also links prominent Democratic leaders, such as Gore, Clinton and Obama with liberal expansionist ideas and programs. (P.6)

At this point, the Curmudgeon will cease and desist with his treatment of liberal expansionism. As an interim summary, the Curmudgeon suggests that liberal expansionism reflects several core values and policy preferences such as: elimination of inequality, a positive focus upon higher density central cities/inner suburbs, an early association with several prominent economic development approaches, and a clear position that political action, not just intellectual advocacy, is necessary to redress the dire problems of urban America.

We now move onto the second most impactful urban political science model: urban regime theory.

URBAN REGIME THEORY

The Curmudgeon has selected Marion Orr & Valerie C. Johnson’s “Power in the City: Clarence Stone and the Politics of Inequality”, University of Kansas, 2008, as his principal source for an explanation of urban regime theory. Clarence Stone is the principal author of this model of urban politics and his works have built the urban regime model into a forceful, robust and very accepted approach, well within the mainstream of the contemporary academic urban political science discipline. Power in the City is a summary to date, a testimony to Stone, and in concluding articles by Stone himself and a second by the co-authors, an assessment of the approach.

Stone writes about urban politics, but his real concern is with American democracy. “His findings show how social and economic inequality perpetuates a political system that is biased in favor of the well-off. …. If one theme unites Stone’s scholarship, it is that urban politics is embedded in a system of social stratification that tilts the political balance, perpetuates inequality, and weakens local democracy: P.11). Back to inequality again! Already, without doubt, the Curmudgeon knows the reader now appreciates that for most political scientists, the central overriding and most preferred over all other social and moral values is EQUALITY. No shocking surprise in that the other model which we will not discuss, the Neo-Liberal, also stressed Equality.

This stress and undisputed preference for equality uber alles deserves a comment from the Curmudgeon. Not all philosophies and models believe or assert that all men/women are in fact equal, can be equal or even should be equal. Much of conservative thought assumes inequality is natural, inevitable and on occasion beneficial. The Curmudgeon advocates neither side of this position in this review; rather, he must make explicit the obvious. Political science models currently in vogue are not non-partisan. They pick defining values, fight for them, and seek the overthrow of those who do not share in their perspective. These values shape their research, the methodologies, the questions they ask—and their findings. Be Aware!

Unlike liberal expansionists, however, Stone and urban regime theory is firmly anchored in placed-based realities; they are commentators on the politics within cities and they do not, as liberal expansionists suggest, believe that one must elevate political power to more regional and metropolitan-wide institutions in order to solve problems which result from urban politics or urban spatial behavior. For Regime advocates, urban problems occur at the local level and must be dealt with at that level.

At the local level, regime theory asserts that anyone (calling such folk “political actors”) desiring to succeed in urban politics, and after success, govern and administer programs and policies require the formation of coalitions of different groups and segments of the community. A candidate for mayor cannot hope to get elected nor, if elected, hope to conduct a successful administration without the support and the active assistance of different formal and semi-formal sectors of the community. That political actor cannot do it alone; she needs allies to be successful. Central to Stone is that each of these sectors vary in terms of power, wealth, degree of organization, access, etc. and that logically therefore, some sectors are more powerful than others. To Stone it is virtually inevitable that the more powerful elements or groups will be sought after by desiring political actors, and, if possible, will be included in the political actor’s electoral and governing coalition of groups.

This almost inevitable gravitation of political actors to groups with wealth, power and resources creates a deep and pervasive bias in urban politics, a bias that spreads across cities, regions, and states.

The most powerful and common urban sector is the business community. In effect, business and business leaders have the inside track on supporting winning candidates and becoming valued constituents in a winning candidate’s governing coalition. Stone calls this “systematic power” and it results from the business community enjoying a “positional advantage” in elections and administration and usually results in “cumulative policy benefits at the expense of competing groups” (P.12) and the business community possessing “preemptive power” which potentially can dominate the coalition and at minimum protect, usually advance, the privileged position of the business community.

While Stone admits there can be temporary exceptions to the dominance of business in local politics, the combination of systematic power, positional advantage and preemptive power mitigates against an urban politics in which shifting coalitions of groups produce different winning and governing coalitions. Business, he argues, almost inevitably, will be present in most winning coalitions and will maintain its preemptive power overcoming seemingly powerful partisan and populist forces. Accordingly, the usual state of urban politics is that:

Public matters are concentrated in the hands of the state, while ownership and authority of productive assets are typically controlled by the private sector. To be effective (to carry out major decisions), local leaders in both the public and private sectors must accommodate the division between state and society, and this accommodation often involves a significant role for civil society and how the civic sector is organized. This accommodation is what Stone calls an URBAN REGIME. For Stone, the real work of local governance takes place through urban regimes, those informal arrangements by which public bodies and private interests function together in order to be able to make and carry out governing decisions. (P.13)

Two Curmudgeon warblings might be in order at this point. First, a simple background observation concerning Stone and the research upon which his model is built. Stone develops many of his concepts from observations and research of Atlanta’s politics; his supporting evidence is almost all based on large central city politics. Whether or not we can extend these concepts into suburbia, small towns and rural areas is unclear and possibly never been considered. Urban Regime Theory is big city politics. Secondly, consider the plight of us poor economic developers, who, some would assert almost by definition, are intended to assist and foster growth in the business community. Consider the outrage of regime advocates if, or when, an economic developer provides tax abatement to the ruling privileged class of urban politics. We are part of the problem from an urban regime perspective.

Regime theorists often conceive of the city and its political governance as while not necessarily controlled by the business elite, certainly vulnerable and susceptible to its overtures. Indeed, a central insight of regime theory is that local governments are too weak to govern without the support or resources of the private business community. Public officials, to govern effectively, must create an urban regime which includes business. In a previous issue of the Journal (click here) we discuss concepts such as mobile capital (business money able to flow from city to city, region to region, country to country) which creates the need for cities to satisfy business demands in order to maintain the “competitiveness” of their community. In such a world, a city and its political governance are “negotiating” from weak positions and insufficient resources, with a mobile, rootless, and greedy private enterprise. Internally, policy malfunctions, such as urban renewal and downtown redevelopment, usually occurring at the expense of tax payers and neighborhoods, come about because of the power of the so-called “growth coalition” (See Fainstein and Fainstein, 1983) which dominates local politics and the mayors elected from a local political system dominated by this growth coalition.

An important critique of regime theory, usually made by those from its political left (the Neo-Liberals) is that urban regime theory, having demonstrated the power of business and the private sector in local politics, simply stops and does not provide solutions on how to stop, ameliorate, or end the inequality created by such a distorted political system. Imbroscio, again, states “… as currently formulated, urban regime theory can offer no prescriptive guide to how urban regimes can be progressively reconstructed to advance both democracy and equality in American cities”. (P.4)

Let’s Wrap this Thing Up!

Urban political science literature offers little to the professional economic developer in the field. First, the literature is dominated by a preference for one value over all others: equality. To a political scientist, equality does not simply mean “all men are created equal” a la the Declaration of Independence. In fact, equality and what is meant by equality is a highly contested and multi-faceted sub-field of political philosophy. Concepts such as “equality of opportunity” versus “equality of condition” are each on opposing cliffs separated by a Grand Canyon-like chasm. In regards, to political science whose defining concept is usually “power”, equality can, and often does, take a support the underdog, curtail authority and those who possess it, dimension. While the values advocated or implied within the various models of urban political science might enlighten the values and perspectives of most economic developers, they are not likely to offer guidance or direction in terms of political dynamics and policy administration at the local level.

It is interesting to note that liberal expansionism and urban regime theory treat the business community very differently. Urban regime theory obviously exposes the bias in local policy-making and governance to favor the business community—it is more than skeptical that this bias is good helpful to the community. Liberal expansionism, however, will embrace the business community, especially as members of a coalition supporting regionalism, cluster-based programs, and metropolitan governance. Whether the business community recognizes and agrees with the central root definition and concern of liberal expansionism, economic and racial segregation, is less known. Businessmen can, and the Curmudgeon suspects, often support metropolitan government and regionalism for their own reasons, based on their own distinctive attitudinal subculture. Advocates of regionalism are today usually well aware that members of their coalition come from different sectors, espouse perhaps conflicting values, and are motivated by varying problems or deficiencies they wish to correct. It would be fascinating to watch such a coalition succeed and metropolitanize a community, only to watch the coalition rupture into competing and antagonistic factions in its attempt to govern.

As we wind this puppy up (what a metaphor that is!), we realize we have not ever come close to answering the concerns presented in our opening paragraphs. Politics is real to an economic developer. But how to best cope with it still remains a mystery. Gleaning some practical comments from the political science theories present, as a gross and highly fragile generalization, the Curmudgeon has felt the media, as a profession, have tended to reflect the urban regime theory in their musings. This colors their approach and questions. Yet, there is no way, the Curmudgeon can believe that there is such a thing as “the business community”. Business politics is also quite real and the politics within the business community can be quite volatile, yet very subtle. They are NOT united, and their factions struggle in a kind of civil war. All this only reinforces the Curmudgeon’s belief that it is time to better understand politics in real life and put to the side the value-laden advocacy included in political science theories of politicized rationality.

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