Thursday, May 19th, 2011
You hear tons of complaints out there about the dysfunctional political dynamic between the two parties in Washington. Toxic politics are indeed a problem, but it seems to me that there’s a more serious issue around the lack of a moderate ground substantively and a lack of commitment to the actual business of government.
If you’ll indulge me in an overly broad generalization, we seem to have a Democratic party that thinks more spending is the answer to all our problems, regardless of how well it is spent or how big the deficit is. I’ve got news for them, financial doomsday approaches. And there seems to be much more interest in recycling tax dollars into the hands of favored interest groups rather than actual results.
On the other hand Republicans today seem all about just “cut, cut, cut.” The political beauty for them in saying that government is the problem and is inherently poor at whatever it does is that it relieves them of any actual responsibility for having to operate the ship. Why bother even trying when it’s hopeless? So too many of them don’t. In fact, some Republicans are actually invested in the failure of government, because if it succeeded at something that would undermine their whole argument.
Though again I exaggerate for effect, I think Americans have a right to be fed up.
I think there’s room for a broad range of policy choices that span the political spectrum. While national policy requires some level of national uniformity, no one approach is going to be right for everywhere. And so there’s plenty of room for different strategies at the state and local level. The more diversity of places we have, the better in my opinion.
But whatever your choice, what we desperately need to have is leadership in both taking political stands on tough choices, and also focusing on the blocking and tackling of actually delivering the public services. This goes beyond just spending money to actual execution. Government has to be more than just a fiscal machine where the only argument is over what setting it is on.
There are some great examples out there of people doing this. Gov. Mitch “The Blade” Daniels of Indiana has laid out a conservative vision for his state that involves fairly minimalistic government. And he’s focused on getting there, as he’s cut the number of state employees to the lowest levels since the 70’s. But he also believes government needs to do some things, and the things it does it needs to do well.
Building infrastructure is one of them. Daniels privatized the Indiana Toll Road and took the nearly $4 billion and pumped it right back into roads. What’s more, INDOT has really accelerated a lot of its normal schedules to try to get these projects done more quickly, and do a lot to reduce the cost of projects without compromising too much on quality. He also installed a new computer system at the BMV that reduced wait times dramatically and resulted in major customer satisfaction improvements. He’s also been relentless at looking for fat to cut, including even such mundane items as scrutinizing the vehicle fleet. Though it seems odd to others, one of his most daring moves was standing firm that Indiana should observe daylight saving time, something lots of governors took a run at but failed. He implemented an extremely ambitious property tax reform scheme that saw that state take over 100% of operational funding for education. So this was not only a good tax move for localities, it put Indiana on the forefront of progressivism on this issue. Daniels also undertook a bold privatization of the state’s welfare system that didn’t work out. But after giving it a try, he decided to pull the plug on it. While that didn’t work out, my philosophy is that if don’t fail at something, your agenda was probably nowhere near ambitious enough. These are only a sample of the things he’s done or is trying hard to do before he leaves office.
Meanwhile, over in New York, Mike Bloomberg has been taking his job similarly seriously. He was elected as a nominal Republican but is clearly a moderate Democrat at heart. He took heat in some quarters for saying New York was a “luxury city.” But this is simply a clear-eyed businessman taking a look at the strategic situation and figuring out what his city’s niche is in the marketplace. And he responded accordingly.
He hired Janette Sadik-Khan as transportation commissioner and gave her the political air cover she needed to implement America’s boldest urban transportation agenda. (See here, here, here, and here). He put in place the PlaNYC comprehensive plan aiming to make New York “the greatest, greenest city in the world.” He brought in former Indianapolis mayor and Harvard government school prof Steve Goldsmith as deputy mayor. Goldsmith is a moderate Republican that is a serious wonk on policy, but also similarly relentless in execution as he proved in his own stint as mayor. He’s already bringing tons of efficiency ideas to the table, such as his recent plan to jettison tons of excess city real estate. Bloomberg seized control of the public schools, significantly boosted funding, and has been strongly pushing reform. Again showing leadership, he went to bat for new schools chief to replace Joel Klein, but when that person didn’t work out, he wasn’t afraid to take the heat and change horses. He’s pushed to put needed policies in place like congestion tolling, despite an obstinate Albany. He implemented a local tax increase pro-actively before a fiscal maelstrom hit the city, which was unpopular at the time but has enabled New York to manage its budget in these tight times without draconian cuts. Again, the list goes on.
I’ll be very clear that for me I think all this has created a more inspiring urban environment, and one where the urbanist future is happening today. That’s a big part of why I personally am going to move there.
Daniels and Bloomberg are extremely different in their points of view. So this isn’t intended to endorse any particular policy. But it illustrates how when you make a serious policy choice not rooted in some reflexive partisan dogma, then focus on executing it through courageous leadership and hard work coupled with pragmatism, you can really move the needle and differentiate your state or city.
Both Indiana and New York City have done far, far better than their peers during this recession. And this type of quality leadership is a big reason why. I could cite many other examples from around the country. I don’t want to suggest these are the only people doing it, but unfortunately this model has proven the exception rather than the rule. If we really want to renew our cities and restore real prosperity to America, we need a lot more like it and soon.