[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.