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Chris Smith writes about politics for New York Magazine.
Stephen J. DUBNER: You’ve been at New York Magazine for how many years?
Chris SMITH: Since 1988.
DUBNER: Who would you say is the most, let’s call it, influential mayor in New York City history?
SMITH: Oh, easily LaGuardia. Both because of the time he was mayor and the fact that so many mayors, not just New York City, try to model themselves after him.
[LA GUARDIA SPEECH]
Fiorello LaGuardia was New York’s mayor from 1934 to 1945, a long and eventful period — the Great Depression, the Second World War. To lift the spirit of the citizenry, LaGuardia would sing to them; he’d read them the funny pages.
[LA GUARDIA READING THE FUNNIES]
DUBNER: How about another iconic New York City mayor?
SMITH: Giuliani makes a good case in terms of saving the city, at arriving at a pivotal time in the city’s history, inheriting terrible crime statistics and making the city governable again in a law and order sense, and a lot of that is being imitated, the data analysis. The data driven approach to crime that he and Bill Bratton, then and now the police commissioner introduced, has been imitated all over the world.
Because Chris Smith knows so much about New York City politics, I wanted to see if I could stump him. I wanted to know if he could name another of New York’s most accomplished mayors.
DUBNER: Alright, let me read to you a list of accomplishments from one of our past mayors. This person built Grand Central Terminal, still stands; presided over the opening of the subway, still runs; licensed the first taxicab, they’re still going; built 19 new fire house, 110 school buildings, including 11 new high schools, built 35 miles of new wharfage, including 51 new piers; any idea who that master builder was?
SMITH: Hmmm. John Hylan, Seth Low…I don’t know.
DUBNER: Both good guesses. Any more? You got any more guesses?
SMITH: Vincent Impellitteri.
DUBNER: Man… you…before him…
SMITH: No. Those are colorful names, but bad guesses.
DUBNER: So who is the man who did all that – and who also secured 277 acres of park space, finished construction of the New York Public Library, opened the Queensboro and Manhattan bridges and installed the world’s first high-pressure water service to fight fires?
DUBNER: George McClellan.
DUBNER: Do you have him in your baseball collection of great New York City Mayors?
SMITH: “George Mac,” I call him.
OK, so most people haven’t heard of Mayor George McClellan. His father, also George McClellan, was a Civil War general. The younger McClellan was mayor of New York from 1904 to 1909, just one term. And look at everything he got done in one term! Now, granted, many of those projects were initiated by his predecessors. But even so: what a closer this guy was! George McClellan’s fingerprints are all over the city — and yet he’s largely forgotten.
Today’s program is about mayors – how they get stuff done, out of necessity – and yet, unlike certain more visible chief executives, they’re often overlooked. Chris Smith tells us that people even underestimate the power of New York City’s mayor.
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.
On today’s show, you’ll hear from mayors all over the country:
Richard BERRY: The Rio Grande runs right through Albuquerque, so we’ve got the river. We’ve got the longest urban stretch of Route 66 in the country, so a lot of great vibe here.
Eric GARCETTI: We have the number one airport in the world for origination and destination. The top port in the country. The largest municipal utility…
OK, now you’re just pissing us off here, I have to say!
Marty WALSH: I think the Red Sox are going to win the division.
WALSH: I do hope the Yankees are better his year, because it’s not as much fun winning the World Series when the Yankees are so bad.
And we ask whether cities are a good template for the way government should work.
Toni HARP: A city is where you come face to face with all of the possibilities and the problems that are presented in our country.
Ed GLAESER: I think perhaps most dramatically about five years ago we crossed the threshold with more than 50 percent of humanity now lives in cities.
Benjamin BARBER: If you’re down, if you’re feeling dispirited, if you’re feeling nothing works, have a second look at cities.
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is Freakonomics Radio, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
Today’s show is about mayors.
DUBNER: OK, so we are, we happen to be in New York City.
GARCETTI: I’ve heard of it.
DUBNER: You’ve heard of it, thank you. And I’ve heard of yours.
Eric Garcetti is the mayor of Los Angeles.
DUBNER: So you went to LSE, you are a jazz pianist, a photographer, you are a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve. So I read your qualifications, I have to…Please don’t take this the wrong way, aren’t you deeply overqualified to be a mayor?
GARCETTI: You know, I think a mayor has to be ready for almost anything. I mean the only thing that’s predictable in this job is its unpredictability. You might be talking to a homeless resident of your city, somebody who’s living on the streets and then meet the Crown Prince of Spain right afterwards. So you have to have a pretty wide range of experiences. So I still think I’m under-qualified.
DUBNER: We talked to Benjamin Barber who’s an academic, a political theorist, who wrote a book called If Mayors Ruled the World. I understand you may have read the book, or no?
GARCETTI: You know, I just sleep with it right next to me to inspire me. But yes I know Benjamin well, he’s come and visited me out here.
BARBER: Benjamin Barber. I’m a senior research scholar at City University of New York, professor emeritus at Rutgers University, a political theorist, and author of 18 books, the most recent of which is If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities.
In the book, Barber argues that cities are paragons of good governance – potentially, at least, and at least compared to nation-states – and that is largely due to their mayors. Mayors, Barber says, are inherently bipartisan – they can’t afford not to be – and that above all else, they are focused on solving actual problems. Mayors, of course, love this book.
BARBER: You know, Mayor Walsh, the first day in office, there is a picture in the front of the Boston Globe he’s sitting with a copy of that book right in front of him. Mayor Garcetti has it, Mayor de Blasio has it. Mayors are reading it; it’s a great thing.
What is it that Benjamin Barber so admires about the modern mayor?
BARBER: There’s a great story I tell of Teddy Kollek, the long-timer mayor of Jerusalem, who’s a Zionist and quite one-sided in his views but had to deal with a city full of Jew, Muslims and Christians, and he tells the story on himself of the day in the 1980s in which Jewish rabbis, and Muslim imams, and Christian prelates were in his office arguing, as they often did about access to the holy sites in Jerusalem. And they were ranting at each other, and going on and on, and he finally interrupted them and he said, “Gentlemen, gentlemen, spare me your sermons, and I will fix your sewers.” And that is a telling point about what mayors do. They fix sewers, they keep the trains running, they get the snow plowed, they pick up the garbage, and that is their job. So pragmatism is essential.
DUBNER: OK, Mr. Mayor?
DUBNER: Hey, Stephen Dubner. How are you?
WALSH: Stephen, how are you?
Marty Walsh became Boston’s mayor this past January. I talked to him shortly after his first day in office.
DUBNER: Alright, so first of all, congratulations. How do you like being mayor so far?
WALSH: My five weeks and one day have been great.
Before he became mayor, Walsh served in the Massachusetts State Legislature for 16 years.
DUBNER: Tell me something you’ve learned so far about the reach of the mayor’s power that you hadn’t quite anticipated.
WALSH: Very different than being a state legislator. As legislator we kind of, we process things, we work forward toward an ultimate goal, but by the time we get to a final vote it’s quite a bit…As a mayor we can make an impact immediately. You can, 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.
HARP: It’s kind of where the rubber hits the road.
Toni Harp is the new mayor of New Haven, Connecticut. Like Marty Walsh, she spent many years in the state legislature. Also like Walsh, she appreciates her new job.
HARP: Well, you know, I think the difference I that in the senate you set policy, you can even, you write a budget, but you actually don’t do implementation
Harp didn’t like not being able to implement. She says she’d often spend a lot of time and effort on a project, getting it funded for instance, only to watch it fizzle out once it got out of her hands.
HARP: Well it’s frustrating, you kind of have an idea of how you see it rolling out, how you see it working and then to find out later that for one reason or another sometimes the money doesn’t even get to the street at all.
The same goes for Richard Berry, mayor of Albuquerque. He, too, was a state legislator.
BERRY: As a legislator it’s much more deliberative. There’s a lot more policy discussions. And as a mayor you do have the ability to be more agile and make things happen quicker. For example, recently we were able to craft, put forward a bill to prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors in Albuquerque. We were able to get that done much quicker because we didn’t have to wait for the legislative session and in the process that goes with that. So, I think the agility is a big part of it. And you can bring initiatives to play and get them implemented quicker, and more effectively, and you can do a lot of bold things. There’s a reason that mayors love their job. There’s a reason that people are turning to mayors to get things done, because mayors have shown their propensity to get things done.
Now, one reason that mayors look so good to Benjamin Barber is that our federal government looks so bad: inert, mired in gridlock, outdated. In his book, he writes that the very idea of the nation-state is anachronistic.
BARBER: It argues that nation-states, even where they work well, even where they’re not frozen in time, even where they’re not polarized and incapable of taking action, were born in an era of national societies where the problems the world faced were mostly contained by national jurisdictions.
As we’ve argued before on this program, the President of the United States isn’t nearly as powerful as many people might imagine, or hope him to be. But it goes beyond the straight comparison of president to mayor. As Barber points out, city governments are more nimble even when dealing with complicated issues. Eric Garcetti, L.A.’s mayor, says he’s seen this firsthand with climate-change policy.
GARCETTI: The C40 is actually the 40 cities in the world that are combatting climate change and doing it probably more effectively than the G20. I do think that there is going to be an increasingly robust space for cities to talk to each other. I always like to say that mayors are a band of thieves. We like to steal the very best from one another. I watch what a mayor in London is doing and say that would be great here. You know, we stopped smoking in L.A. and then New York did it. There’s bike share in New York, we’ll steal that and do it in L.A. So these things I think really are global. Cities are much more nimble, they’re ready to act, and they have the platforms to do it in a way that national governments can’t.
Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: If mayors are such great, hands-on executives, why have so few of them made it to the White House?
SMITH: You make a lot of enemies as New York City mayor. Even if you are successful, you tend to piss a lot of people off.
And: What if mayors ruled the world?
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, you know, wonderfully focused executives into parliamentarians.
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
OK, here’s a quiz. How many U.S. presidents started out as mayors? Fifteen? Twelve? How about… three: Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge. Why so few? Here’s Chris Smith again, the political writer from New York Magazine.
SMITH: Probably a couple of reasons, that mayors because they have to pick up the trash, and run police departments and do a lot of the quotidian, important things tend to be more focused on managerial qualities than grand visions, the kind of things that play well in presidential campaigns.
DUBNER: Ah, in campaigns, yeah.
SMITH: Second, particularly in the case of New York City mayors you make a lot of enemies as New York City mayor. Even if you are very successful, you tend to piss a lot of people off. And that baggage, you know, when you take it to a Democratic Party, or Republican Party in rarer instances, just in political terms I think that’s held back a lot of New York mayors.
DUBNER: That’s interesting. Is it easier to not tick people off as a governor of a state whether it’s New York or elsewhere? I mean, obviously governors…
DUBNER: Why’s that?
SMITH: Both because you’re interacting less in the day-to-day lives of your constituents, also because you also generally, you know, in major Northeastern states certainly have to balance a lot of different, both political and practical desires. You know, upstate New York, very different than New York City.
DUBNER: So that is interesting just the idea that a characteristic of a mayor whether successful mayor or not is someone who inevitably will do things that will upset people because that is the job, versus…now, wouldn’t you think that…
SMITH: It is also a harder job to succeed.
DUBNER: Because the measurables are more measurable, in a way?
SMITH: Exactly, yes.
DUBNER: You’d think that the traits make someone successful as a mayor would be incredibly valuable, however, at a state or federal level. Being an executive getting things done, understanding that you are going to tick off certain constituencies in order to serve the greater good. And yet, it seems like when we look at this moment in time at least in the U.S. at state and federal governance we see on one hand people who love to shout at their enemies across the aisle, but it’s not like they are shouting in service of great accomplishment, are they? It seems like if you had to measure what’s getting done on a daily basis I’d think that most mayors are getting a whole lot more done than most governors and federal officials, yeah?
SMITH: Yeah, but this is probably another reason why mayors, particularly in New York City, haven’t gone on to higher office historically, is that the conditions that allow them to be autocratic here don’t exist at the national level. It is very much more at the national level about building some, you hope, sense of compromise. You know you’ve got to work with the Senate and the House in a way that doesn’t exist at the local level. And so to Obama’s frustration, obviously, he’d like to operate more like a mayor, more sort of unilaterally. And so maybe that’s the quality that does not transfer very well.
DUBNER: OK, so to be fair, if I would force you to answer the question, would you prefer that the system works the way that it does which is that mayors are fairly autocratic and the higher you go the less you become so because that’s the way our governing system was built, or would you say, “You know, it would be kind of great if as Benjamin Barber argues, mayors should rule the world, because these are the people who are trained and experienced in executing and getting stuff done and balancing different likes and dislikes and constituencies.” Is it necessarily a good thing that the president, for instance, is a figure of compromise or do you think, from your perch as a political observer, that it would be kind of great if the mayoral autocracy could be imported a little bit into the White House?
SMITH: Yeah, it would be great if it were an autocrat I agreed with. Yes, certainly the blocking and tackling of government, the ability to make bureaucracies work is a quality that you would love to see taken from a city hall to the White House. Ideally, I guess, if you could come up with a bunch of cabinet officials who had those mayoral qualities while you had a president who was a consensus builder who enabled those people to do their jobs, that would be the ideal setup.
So, what is the “ideal” setup? Ed Glaeser is an economist at Harvard. We’ve talked to him before on this program. He is a great talker – full paragraphs just leap from his mouth, fully formed, enunciated like a 19th-century debating champion. He’s also the author of a book called Triumph of the City. Notably, the title of the book is not Triumph of the Nation-State.
GLAESER: The remarkable thing about city leadership is that the problems are very, very tangible. The scope of powers tends to be fairly limited, and it’s limited both by law and by the ability of firms and people to leave, by the small geographic size of these areas. And that means running a city is very different from running a country. On top of that, mayors tend to be very constrained as to what they can do. They don’t set their own tax rates. Not even with the aid of city council. Cities are — always and everywhere in the U.S. — creatures ultimately of state government. And in some cases the feds exercise some form of oversight.
DUBNER: So you say that, and we understand this, that the powers and duties of the mayor are constrained, especially compared to someone like the president. But that would seemingly confer its own set of advantages as well as disadvantages. And I understand that comparing even five mayors to one president is entirely an apples to oranges comparison. But the argument that we want to discuss today is whether a mayor by nature of his or her job description and limits is in some way in a position to govern better, more efficiently, more rationally, than the head of state or federal governments.
GLAESER: You know, I certainly consider myself friendly to that proposition. But I think as far as actually thinking about what we mean in terms of transforming a president to be more mayor like, we would essentially mean that we would be foregoing all those contentious things that Barack Obama and the Republicans in the House are arguing over, right? I mean, we would be foregoing the possibility of the President trying to act on the minimum wage, or foregoing the possibility of the President trying to create radical new healthcare legislation. All of those things would be impossible if we suddenly said that we wanted our presidents to be like mayors. There is, however, of course, a beauty to what mayors do. They have very clear deliverables like clear snow, like clean streets, like public safety. And they have a clear set of tools for achieving those goals. That means they are relatively easy to grade at the end of the day, relative to a president, and they can stay focused on making sure that commutes into work are human. So I think one piece of evidence which I think is a very nice one that corroborates this view is the work of Fernando Carrera and Joe Gyourko at the University of Pennsylvania who find that it really doesn’t matter, this was a paper that I edited when I was still at the Quarterly Journal of Economics, it really doesn’t matter whether or not a Republican or a Democrat is elected mayor, they seem to do more or less the same thing. And this is of course done with a regression discontinuity approach, which just means we’re basically comparing cities where 51 percent of the voters voted Republican with cities in which 51 percent of the voters voted for Democrats, so they are otherwise were pretty identical. And having a Republican or Democrat in office makes very little difference at the local level whereas of course it does at the state level and even more so at the federal government level. And that’s precisely because there’s no Democratic or Republican way to clean the streets, as the old saying goes.
DUBNER: So the book that Benjamin Barber’s written,If Mayors Ruled the World, I don’t know how familiar you are with the book, or at least its thesis.
GLAESER: A bit, certainly, I’ve read some excerpts of it certainly.
DUBNER: So I think the attraction of this idea that mayors should “rule the world,” whether we mean that metaphorically or in some tiny way literally, is you know, the idea that mayors have to be responsible to voters if for no other reason than that their potential losses are so much more tangible than a federal or state official. So I get that, and I think that resonates with anyone. We all want the people that we elect or, you know, choose, hire even, to be accountable, so if that’s the case, why is there such a disconnect between the municipal, and state and federal levels? Is it just the way the system was built a few hundred years ago and it’s evolved kind of stochastically and we just have to deal with it? Or, is there some, you know, is there some greater or lesser reason for why we need this real accountability and satisfaction on the local level and yet we don’t on the federal or state level?
GLAESER: Right, so if we think about the history of this the local governments really came first, the local and state governments. But even though they are politically beholden to the states, the rise of large-scale municipal spending preceded the rise of large-scale state spending, which in both preceded the rise of large-scale federal spending. One fact that I’ve repeated often is that at the start of the 20th century cities and towns were spending as much on water as the federal government was spending on anything except for the post office and the army. So this was just water expenditures at the city and town level, which tells you just how big city governments were. And they were big, and taxpayers signed off on their size precisely because they were delivering something that was very, very tangible. Then you have the rise of the federal government. We can say this is 1900-1960, which is associated with at least two things, one of which is the increased role of the U.S. in the world, two World Wars and the Cold War, both of which were large-scale increases in the size of the federal government. And then the second of which was first under Teddy Roosevelt and then under Woodrow Wilson, and then under FDR, this increasing role the federal government played in being an against recession and an agent for fairness at the national level, an agent of fighting inequality, an agent of trying to create a social security system. So if you think of those two things as being the fundamental reasons why the feds came about, and perhaps to a lesser extent doing a little bit around transportation in the Eisenhower years. But really the big things were this sort of redistribution, anti-recessionary thing, and the wars and diplomacy thing. Both of those things, while they can be unbelievably expensive and potentially incredibly important, they’re just not amenable to the same degree of precise accounting that we have for these things which came first, for these absolutely necessary things that cities do. So I guess I have trouble imagining how you’re ever going to put either diplomacy or debates over redistribution, debates of Social Security, debates over Medicare in the same league as you can in terms of cities.
Benjamin Barber, in his book, If Mayors Ruled the World, argues we should create a “global parliament of mayors” to help solve problems that national governments aren’t so good at solving. Ed Glaeser isn’t so enthusiastic.
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, you know, wonderfully focused executives into parliamentarians. But the spirit of having more discussions across cities, particularly to share ideas about how to improve the basics of city government is certainly a good one.
In a way, though, this global parliament of mayors is already happening. As Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti tells us, mayors already get together regularly to swap ideas. Garcetti, like Ed Glaeser, sees cities leading the way — and he thinks that Washington sees that too. Garcetti recently visited the White House with 16 other new mayors.
GARCETTI: I was one of the few that had been sworn in, but the incoming mayors from Boston, New York, Minneapolis, Seattle and so on and so forth, and I said to the president then, you know, “We’re looking for a partnership, if this was the ’70s and ’60s and the urban centers of America were burning, we probably would have come to Washington and said, ‘Washington please save America’s cities.’ Today we come as America’s cities seeking to save Washington because things are so broken at the national level.” We can’t afford to be partisan at the local level. People want their snow plowed, their trash picked up, their streets safe, they want to have a chance at a job, a decent place to live, and it’s not 3,000 miles away or a few hundred miles away at the state capital, it’s here, it’s now. So in that sense mayors have to rule the world, they have to make that change. If not, you’ll get tossed out of office, and at the end of the day it’s more about being a chief executive than kind of a commander in chief.