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[David Schleicher, guest-blogging, December 9, 2008 at 6:40am] Trackbacks
The Lack of Partisan Competition in City Council Elections? The Problematic Current Explanations:

As I noted in my last post, the absence of partisan competition in city council elections in big cities at the seat-by-seat level or for control of overall local legislatures poses a substantial challenge to our understanding of what parties do. Although under-studied, people have attempted to explain why there is no such competition before.

These explanations come in two flavors, one focusing on the types of issues in local politics and the other focusing on the voters who make up the local electorate. As I explain in my paper, I don't think either of them provides an adequate explanation for the lack of competition in these elections -- but let's take each of them in turn. (I'll handle the first in this post and the next in a subsequent post).

Explanation 1: "There is No Democratic or Republican Way to Pick Up Garbage."

The quote is attributed to Fiorella LaGuardia, but the sentiment is common -- local issues are somehow inherently non-political. Economist Paul Peterson formalized this intuition in his influential book City Limits. He argued that the threat of exit meant that cities can't redistribute wealth -- you can't tax Peter to spend on Paul because Peter will just leave town. The result was that local government policy is limited to providing universally-desired public services and goods and allocating them among the citizenry, like funding a public park and putting it a neighborhood. Debate over these "developmental" and "allocational" policies, though, can't give rise to political party divisions, as "developmental" policies do not inspire disagreement, and allocational policies only inspire neighborhood vs. neighborhood conflict, or ethnic group conflict and not the ideological conflict that is necessary for political party competition.

The theory is neat, but it has a problem: there is no reason to believe it's true.

First, although the threat of exit limits redistributionary policies, exit is less of check on local policies the denser and bigger cities get. The reason is what economists call "agglomeration economies," (i.e. the attraction to living to close to other in terms of reduced transportation costs for goods, access to large labor markets and knowledge spillovers), which mobile residents balance against "congestion costs" (e.g. the cost of housing, the increased incidence of crime in dense areas). In a place like New York or Chicago, while public policies still effect whether people leave the city, the benefits of urbanity and the costs of congestion make up a big part of the decision about where to locate -- bigger at least than a citizen choosing between two suburbs. (Studies of the Tiebout model -- based on similar intuition -- show that there is more capitaliztion of policies into home prices in the suburbs than in dense urban areas). This means that, particularly when combined with transaction costs of moving, big cities have more policy slack than Peterson acknowledges.

However, that's not the big problem with Peterson's theory. Even accepting Peterson's premise, there is no reason to believe that "developmental" policies -- the provision of public and club goods -- can't give rise to partisan politics. At the national level, there are partisan debates about the provision of public goods all the time. National defense is a public good, but differing views of it are, quite naturally, part of the division between the two major national parties.

Put a bit more formally, there is no reason there cannot be partisan debates about how a given public good or service can best be provided and whether something is, in fact, a useful public good. There are certainly such debates between scholars and between cities (and no evidence of sorting based on preferences for means of providing these goods). For instance, there is a long-running debate about whether broken windows policing reduces crimes more or less than community policing or other police strategies. Or take the question of what produces local economic growth: Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin have continuously argued for more than a decade about (and advised cities on) what types of policies are likely to create a conducive atmosphere for business and entrepreneurship, giving entirely opposite prescriptions. People disagree about which policy is most likely to produce a desired end -- low crime, a good local business climate. This could be the subject of partisan debate, and hence generate policy competition between the parties, but it just doesn't.

Similarly, there are all sorts of urban policy debates about what is a useful developmental policy. Should local schools be used to promote civic responsibility? Are orderly, organized cities along the City Beautiful ideal better or worse than the seemingly-disorganized "sidewalk ballet" Jane Jacobs noticed in her West Village neighborhood? Is it nicer to live in a city with a major sports team, and hence fund a stadium with local taxes, or to live in a city without one? Debate on both of these types of questions rage among scholars and activists, between cities, and even occasionally in big-time Mayoral races, and there is no reason why political parties couldn't line up on one side of these issues or another. But they do not.

The absence of partisan competition in local elections can't be explained solely by the types of issues at stake in local elections -- there needs to be another explanation.

PersonFromPorlock:
Well, there are the Democrats, and there are the Republicans, and that's it. And the Republicans are hopeless at the city level. Where's the competition to come from, if there's only one 'competitor'?
12.9.2008 7:25am
PLW:
Seems like there is not much evidence for partisanship in mayoral elections, either:

See, "Do Political Parties Matter? Evidence from U.S. Cities", Fernando V. Ferreira and Joseph Gyourko


The evidence at the state-level is mixed, although partisanship does seem to play some limited role:

See, & "State Parties and State Policies: A Double Regression Discontinuity Approach" , Patrick L. Warren

The evidence at the national level seems pretty clear.
12.9.2008 8:51am
PLW:
Just to be clear, I think the above papers suggest that the two major parties don't pursue very different policies at the local level, and perhaps even at the state level. I mean them as a response to the claim that

"The theory is neat, but it has a problem: there is no reason to believe it's true. "
12.9.2008 9:45am
PatHMV (mail) (www):
There are certainly different factions in our community regarding these types of developmental issues. The problem is that the community divides on such issues do not mirror the divides on larger state and national issues. In our community, the "smart growth" faction includes significant numbers of both Republicans and Democrats, an amalgam of "Crunchy Cons," certain businesses, and liberal environmentalist types. The more status quo faction includes some religious leaders in both the white and black communities, developers (who want a free hand in development on the outside of town), and other traditionalists. All those folks in each faction would tend to radically disagree with each other on state and national issues, but agree on local ones.

There's no natural, philosophically consistent dividing line which the national parties could adopt on local issues which would cause folks to sort out along the existing partisan divides. And no local political parties are going to start up just for local issues, because that would offer no upward movement for ambitious local politicians.

Also, perhaps folks realize that on these local issues, they have to live much closer with their neighbors than on national and state issues. If the middle class Republican and the middle class Democrat live next door to each other, the last thing they really want to do is have to start fighting with each other over a partisan garbage collection issue.
12.9.2008 10:03am
Awesome-O:
Explanation 1: "There is No Democratic or Republican Way to Pick Up Garbage."

Sure there is.

Republican way: privatize collection, and award a no-bid contract to a company run by the brother-in-law of an influential City Council member who the other council members owe a favor.

Democratic way: keep collection public and give the Santition Workers Union (Local 251 run by the brother-in-law of an influential City Council member who the other council members owe a favor) a sweetheart contract.
12.9.2008 10:09am
Melancton Smith:
Then you have the Chicago way (Land of Incarcerated Governors).

We recently attempted to unseat our incumbent Alderman in the non-partisan elections. He passed out 'sample Democrat ballots' to voters on the way in with his name marked as 'Democrat'.

Nice trick.
12.9.2008 10:38am
Spitzer:
David,

You seem to focus on redistributionist policies at the personal income tax level, but I think you may have missed a few strong arguments in your blog post. First, big cities in many states have local income taxes, and at least some of them can use that to tax commuters. One can argue that this is a good thing (prevents commuters from externalizing the costs of the infrastructure - police, transportation, etc - that makes their employment possible) or a bad thing (it creates an incentive in cities to raise taxes because local residents/voters do not bear the full brunt of those taxes and, moreover, it reduces the incentive of local politicians to enact and enforce policies - e.g. better police protection - designed to convince mobile taxpayers/voters from exiting the city, with the occasional result that the middle class - those whose livelihoods are most affected by local taxes and poor policies - are driven out of the cities), but I think that one must accept that the availability of commuter income taxes in some cities does make redistributionist policies possible and, in at least some instances, more likely to be enacted.


A counter-example that helps to prove the point is DC, which has long complained about its inability to tax commuters, which was able nevertheless to enact redistributionist policies (in tandem with marvelous government corruption and inefficiency) to drive out the middle class in the 70s and 80s.
12.9.2008 10:47am
Paul B:
LaGuardia's garbage line was not to extol the joys of non-partisanship, but rather to downplay his Republican affiliation in a city that was overwhelmingly Democratic, something it had been since the arrival of the Irish in the 1850s.
12.9.2008 10:54am
deathsinger:
There is No Democratic or Republican Way to Pick Up Garbage.


I beg to differ. Where I live, in the city, the city taxes the residents and picks up their garbage. In the county, the people must dispose of the waste by taking it to the "convenience center" or contracting someone to pick up the waste.

A second example here is firefighting. The city taxes the residents and has a fire department. The county has volunteer fire departments in some areas and a private (for profit) provider in others. The citizens must contract the for profit company on their own.
12.9.2008 10:55am
trad and anon (mail):
Awesome-O: it's only funny because it's true.
12.9.2008 11:15am
CJColucci:
Sure there "could" be partisan differences over garbage pick-up and policing strategies, but are there?
12.9.2008 11:20am
ohwilleke:
There are multiple species of animals out there pretending to be cities.

Most of modern suburbia was carefully, consciously, and deliberately designed to be unincoporated, with special purpose special districts and home owner's associations established to meet all the main purposes of a city (like garabage collection) without creating an opportunity for someone to elect a general purpose elected official like a city council member.

Why? So there would be no one with zoning power to oppose the developer who had won approval from existing county officials who often have weaker zoning control powers and who were easier to appease. A dramatic decline in new municipal incorporations closely coincides with the advent of zoning authority for municipalities.

Two of Colorado's largest cities by population, Centennial and Lakewood, were incorporated for essentially the sole purpose of avoiding annexation by larger neighboring cities. Centennial, moreover, outsources almost all of the minimal municipal services it provides, and it provides only the bare minimum.

One of the few consistently Republican and conservative big (by population) cities in the United States, is Columbus, Ohio. It has that character because Ohio law made it possible for Columbus to annex what would be defensively incorporated suburban cities or unincorporated areas served mostly by special districts in other states.

Also, some governments that are formally non-partisan, where there are strong policy differences, in practice show all the characteristic of formal political parties except a name and a logo.

The non-partisan board of the school district I grew up in (the largest geographically in all of Ohio as a result of prior consolidations) was fiercely divided, between "the square mile" residents from the local college town, and residents of the "outlying areas" who remained bitter at the closure of local schools for economic reasons when the district consolidated and at programs tailored to their "social betters." School bond and mill levy elections always broke along these lines, as did school board elections, as surely as Vermont is Democratic and Utah is Republican. Anyone who lived in the area for any length of time need only look at the address of a candidate to know how he or she almost surely stood on the policy issues facing the district. There was little middle ground. A formal schism of the district was even proposed and studies, but ulitmately abandoned.

My school district was an extreme example, but the general tendency holds widely. Housing patterns that separate people by income, race and land uses relevant to municipal issues, mean that in local government elections that someone's address is very often as good a proxy for their stances on policy issues as their political party affiliation. But, since many local governments large enough to have these kinds of non-homogenities also have geographical districts from which representatives are elected, de facto proportional representation of the different factions results.

Single member districts within a larger municipality are typically particularly homogeneous. If there were partisan races with existing national parties, the primary would decide the winner. And, since policy differences at this minute level are typically few, candidates do and should run on their personal stength of character and competence, rather than on their policy preferences.

Non-partisan elections were developed and function primarily to allow members of a minority political party (who a typically moderates within their own party) some prayer of being elected to local office in places where the other political party is dominant. Formal non-partisanship may mask underlying partisan biases, but the policy preferences of those elected are often similar to what would be present if elections were formally partisan.
12.12.2008 6:54pm

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