“If Mayors Ruled the World” (Ep. 162)

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Former New York City Mayor Bloomberg at a MTA ceremony. (Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York)

Former New York City Mayor Bloomberg at a MTA ceremony. (Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “’If Mayors Ruled the World.’” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

The episode expands on an idea from political theorist Benjamin Barber, whose latest book is called If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. Barber argues that cities are paragons of good governance – compared at least to nation-states – and that is largely due to their mayors. Mayors, Barber argues, are can-do people who inevitably cut through the inertia and partisanship that can plague state and federal governments. To that end, Barber would like to see a global “Parliament of Mayors,” to help solve the kind of big, borderless problems that national leaders aren’t so good at solving.

In the podcast, you’ll hear Stephen Dubner interview Barber. You’ll also hear from mayors all over the U.S., including Eric Garcetti (Los Angeles), Toni Harp (New Haven),  Richard Berry (Albuquerque), and Marty Walsh (Boston). Walsh gives us a concrete example (pun intended) of how being mayor is very different from being a state legislator:

WALSH: As legislator we process things, we work forward to an ultimate goal, but by the time we get to a final vote it’s quite a bit [of a slow process]. … As a mayor, we can make an impact immediately. You know one small thing, I was driving down the street and there was a big pothole in the street down on Park Street. I made a phone call and five minutes later it was filled.

That is ultimate power, isn’t it? Mayors do get stuff done! Dubner also talks to Ed Glaeser, the economist and author of Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Glaeser doesn’t love the idea of convening a parliament of mayors:

GLAESER: I support the idea of communication across cities, so I think sharing ideas certainly is a good idea. A parliament is by definition essentially a legislative branch. I think the beauty of mayors is that they’re deeply executive. So I’m not particularly eager to transform these wonderfully focused executives into parliamentarians.

Dubner also talks to Chris Smith, who writes about politics for New York Magazine. Smith tells us that the power of New York City’s mayor is vastly under-appreciated and underestimated:

SMITH: Short of declaring war, New York City’s mayor has a greater direct influence on more lives, I would say, than even a president.

New York’s mayors are so under-appreciated that we’ve all but forgotten one of the best: George McClellan. (Not that George McClellan; his son!) McClellan’s list of accomplishments include:

  • Building Grand Central Terminal
  • Presiding over the opening of the subway
  • Taking a joyride on that inaugural subway trip
  • Licensing the first taxicab
  • Building 19 new fire houses, 110 school buildings, and 35 miles of new wharfage
  • Securing 277 acres of park space
  • Finishing construction of the New York Public Library
  • Opening the Queensboro and Manhattan bridges
  • Installing the world’s first high-pressure water service to fight fires

Yes, many of these projects were initiated by his predecessors — but still, what a closer! Hats off to you, Mr. Mayor.

Jeff Billard

Have bookmarked the podcast for later, but am definitely picking up Barber's book. I'm one of the 47 (!) candidates in the Toronto mayoral race to replace our incumbent, whom I'm sure everyone knows.

The Toronto mayoral position is similar to a "councillor-at-large": his/her powers aren't greatly different from the other 44 councillors, but to Barber's point above, when dealing with provincial and federal governments, is important in how he/she builds bridges between varying levels. And I'd say, even more important in how he/she builds bridges between councillors with their own interests in their own wards, and offers a unified vision for the entire city.

Shameless plug: my platform (centrist, collaborative, and visionary) is at mayorbillard.com ; and I'm on Twitter: @mayorbillard


Interesting podcast. It seemed to focus on those cities where the mayors have much greater powers. In many smaller cities in the US, it's the council president who wields the real power, and the mayor is more or less a functionary.

I would have also liked to have seen more discussion on the cities where bad, even criminal mayors have made things much worse - Detroit, Miami, Washington DC. Also, it would have been nice to hear about problems that the mayors have often made worse - the coming public union pension crisis, for a start.


Really? The TRILLIONS of dollars of interstate highways to and through cities gets swept under the rug? I mean, I dislike urban sprawl* plenty but it's hard to deny the city productivity increases as a result of those investments. But what's also prevalent is the cities pushing the cost of these projects onto the Federal government so the localities look healthy and saavy in the eyes of the local citizens (for providing local tangible goods) and the Federal government looks bloated and disconnected. WE made it that way by accepting/approving the projects in the first place.

*And how we're well beyond the point of diminishing returns on some infrastructure given that the American Society of Civil Engineers advocates $3.6 trillion in investments to save $1.8 in estimated lost economic activity.

Pavlov's Cat

I guess if you're an academic who wants to maybe get some fat consulting contracts with municipalities, kissing mayors' you know whats with a book like this is probably a pretty good way to peddle yourself. Does it add anything useful to the debate? No.

Paul M.

Seems like you missed a pretty big data point: The best run cities in the United States all run on a Council-Manager system. Weak mayors that sit with city councilors that hire professional bureaucrats to run the bureaucracy make cities that just run plain better. San Antonio kept its AAA bond rating while the United States of America lost its. Phoenix lost its. but the City Manager who got them that rating... left for San Antonio years before hand.

Another advantage to City Managers: Flexibility in labor location without fear of losing your political base! A city really can just hire the best person for the job of running a city.


Also didn't touch on the fact that cities, in general, are much more homogenous in their political spectrum than state and national governments. While there are a few big exceptions, like Bloomberg in NYC, the majority of cities share the same party lines for both mayoral and city council positions, quite often by supermajority. In NYC, 48/51 council members are Democrats. Chicago is 50/50 Democrats. Minneapolis is 12/13 Democrat with 1 Green Party member. In large cities the overall ratio is something like 52% Democrat vs 19% Republican. Even in many smaller cities where you have a Republican mayor I would venture to guess that many of them also have Republican majorities controlling the city council. The state and national legislatures, on the other hand, are much more evenly split, and as a result passing legislation becomes much harder to pass and enforce. Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, this is such an obvious difference in situations that not acknowledging it in the podcast was irresponsible, in my opinion.


Alex in Chicago

I feel like this is a bunch of Democrats/Liberals looking at the landscape of big cities being mostly Liberal/Democratic and fairly autocratic and thinking "what a dream if we could do that to America"!


Curious: What is the song playing toward the end of this podcast? Around 30:00 mark.


I think that this was one of the weakest podcasts you guys have yet cooked up and there have been very few that don't rate highly with me.
you let mayor Walsh get away with the excited "I can get things done" in reference to pot holes. So, Boston is left with wondering where he drives next to determine the quality of roads? Why could you not challenge an organization that Menino has run for decades that left the pot holes? He was mayor too! De-personalize it if you must, don't let the human take center stage. Much as a Mayor has broad interests, can order priorities, add energy to daily administrative duties, it has to be the organization that finds the potholes, does the peoples' work.

Thank God you have Glaser involved and he rightly makes hash of the notion that a mayor and his agenda could be wisely expanded to a larger stage.
What you COULD have done is challenged the notion that federal powers far exceed what they should be and that indeed local government, priorities and the like would be the emphasis in a more ideal world.

BTW I live in San Francisco and we have our own challenges.



Celebrating the high end of the bell curve is great, but saying that mayors in general are better at governing than any other politician is ridiculous.


I wonder if it just skipped your view that the cities and mayors you highlighted in this podcast were some of the worst run cities in America?
All of them were high crime, massive debt and high unemployment cities. Why use them when cities like Madison Wisconsin, Plano Texas and Seattle Washington are run polar opposite to these cities and with great success?

When one of the mayors cited free bicycles and banning E-cigarettes as major achievements I would have thought you might think that was a terrible example of a good mayor.

I normally love the podcasts but this one made no sense.


This is an old idea from workers self management.First introduced in former Yugoslavia by Branko Horvat.Some non communist countries used this system with huge success.

Gabriel Blumer

People from the 21st century are potencially more intelligent than people of past centuries?
Because all the knowledge discovered in the past is taught at school or college now, so this is enough to say that are we smarter than before?


"Licensing the first taxicab"
You list this as an accomplishment, but is it really a good thing?

Voice of Reason

"Mayors just tend to be better than Governor's and Presidents" this just sounds like something a liberal would say to avoid the elephant in the room that explains why their system doesn't work. Cities are run best, followed by states, followed by countries because of competition. On the spectrum of being run like a business verses run like a true government, cities are more like businesses, and the higher up you go, the more that politics gets in the way.

My main argument: social welfare and getting the wealthy and the businesses to pay for everything may get you elected and give you a warm, fuzzy feeling of altruism, but will in the long-run hurt your territory's prosperity and tank your stats. This is mainly because of adverse selection. If you treat the "desirables" well, they'll stay put, and more like them will come, and you'll have a desirable outcome. If you treat them like ATM machines and like intruders, they'll take their tax dollars, jobs, and wealth and go to a place that will welcome them, leaving you with people who will vote for you, but will contribute nothing to your treasury, cash your giveaway checks, and create no jobs.

Why is this more of an issue for the cities than America? We have a certain balance of conservatives and liberals that keep the other side in check, and make it so that it's gridlocked enough that things won't get out of hand. And, changing your citizenship is enough of a deterrent enough that people won't do it unless things get really crazy. On the other hand, changing your address does not require a citizenship test or approval. The wealthy and businesses are free to move wherever they want, whenever they want, to the highest bidder. As I had mentioned before, if you make laws that favor the poor and the destitute, that's who you will attract, but there will be no producers to take care of them. Kind of like the abusive husband/boyfriend who figures out how to take advantage of relationships, but ultimately winds up alone because he doesn't figure out that he has to make the other person benefit as well and it's not all about him.



What is your music, love the funky jazz. Great podcast. I know I feel more connected with my mayor than any other political official.

Del Cecchi

Why did this podcast ignore all the mayors in the US who have done absolutely terrible jobs? How many crooked and/or incompetent mayors in a row were there in Detroit? Stockton? Bell? and the list goes on.


It's quite funny that in China the situation is the opposite and more akin to what the author proposed: every state leader after Deng Xiaoping(i.e. those who began to work after WW 2) had been head of city in their career("Party Secretary" instead of "Mayor" is the No.1 decision maker of a city in China). I guess one large reason of it is because there's no party politics(at least formally), and thus state leaders can focus more on getting things actually done than being a "consensus builder" and doing a lot of talking. This might even be one advantage of China over US if you come to think of it(I'm not saying that in overall rule by one party is better than multi-party politics. It's just that one has certain advantages over the other)


Actually it's basically a must for a Chinese state-level leader to have city-level and provincial-level working experience.