Tense Commandments

Tense Commandments: Federal Prescriptions and City Problems

Pietro S. Nivola
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 184
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  • Book Info
    Tense Commandments
    Book Description:

    During the past decade, dozens of large cities lost population as jobs and people kept moving to the suburbs. Despite widespread urban revitalization and renewal, one fact remains unmistakable: when choosing where to live and work, Americans prefer the suburbs to the cities. Many underlying causes of the urban predicament are familiar: disproportionate poverty, stiff city tax rates, and certain unsatisfactory municipal services (most notably, public schools). Less recognized is the distinct possibility that sometimes the regulatory policies of the federal government -the rules and rulings imposed by its judges, bureaucrats, and lawmakers -further disadvantage the cities, ultimately burdening their ability to attract residents and businesses. In Tense Commandments, Pietro S. Nivola encourages renewed reflection on the suitable balance between national and local domains. He examines an array of directive or supervisory methods by which federal policymakers narrow local autonomy and complicate the work urban governments are supposed to do. Urban taxpayers finance many costly projects that are prescribed by federal law. A handful of national rules bore down on local governments before 1965. Today these governments labor under hundreds of so-called unfunded mandates. Federal aid to large cities has lagged behind a profusion of mandated expenditures, at times straining municipal budgets. Apart from their fiscal impacts, Nivola argues, various federal prescriptions impinge on local administration of routine services, tying the hands of managers and complicating city improvements. Nivola includes case studies of six cities: Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. He describes the "politics of paternalism," the political pressures that federal regulations place on governance. Then he offers comparisons with various political systems abroad, including Germany, the U.K., France, and Italy. As the nation and its cities brace for a long and arduous effort to combat terrorism, Nivola recommends that federal mandates be evaluated with a standard question: are they socially beneficial, or do they deprive localities of discretion, distort legitimate local priorities, and perhaps misallocate resources? In today's intricate federal system, the unencumbered capacity of governments at all levels to define their roles and concentrate on their core functions and responsibilities seems urgent.

    eISBN: 978-0-8157-9888-0
    Subjects: Business, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  3. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Each year the U.S. government publishes a report calledThe State of the Cities. The final year of the twentieth century was a very good one. Thanks to “the Clinton-Gore economic policies and effective empowerment agenda,” the end-of-the-millennium edition proclaimed, “most cities are showing clear signs of revitalization and renewal.”¹ Yet, the authors conceded, even in that time of great prosperity the nation’s central cities still faced “challenges.”

    Challenges? During the 1990s dozens of large cities—including such major centers as Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.—continued to shed inhabitants. Sprawling suburban subdivisions still...

  4. 2 Problems
    (pp. 15-48)

    It would be nice if America’s local governments had a consistent history of good conduct. In reality much has gone wrong—at times so wrong any fair observer would have welcomed or at least understood an extensive federal usurpation of local powers. Think about the following episodes from various cities.

    On the evening of May 31, 1921, a lynch mob in Tulsa, Oklahoma, descended on the municipal courthouse in search of a black man who had been charged with (and later acquitted of) raping a white woman.¹ After an altercation at the courthouse the mob invaded the city’s black neighborhood,...

  5. 3 Tales from Six Cities
    (pp. 49-92)

    To see how federal rules encumber some cities it is helpful to examine them at closer range. A handful of sites was selected for this purpose: Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. This selection does not pretend to be representative, let alone scientific. (This is not a fatal flaw. Is anyone really sure what a suitable cross-section of American cities should comprise?) Nevertheless the half-dozen cities meet several salient criteria. They are all big, with half-a-million or more inhabitants, and include the nation’s three largest urban centers. They are also reasonably diverse, situated in at least...

  6. 4 The Politics of Paternalism
    (pp. 93-119)

    How did the U.S. government become so steeped in what had once been the separate competences of the nation’s municipalities? And in what ways has the enlarged federal role in this country come to differ from the relationship between central and city governments in some other Western democracies? To put these inquiries in proper context this chapter sketches various sources of centralization in American federalism as a whole. Chapter 5 then draws comparisons with foreign experience.

    Before the New Deal, federal arrogation of state and local prerogatives had been held rather firmly in check, not least by a defiant Supreme...

  7. 5 Comparative Politics
    (pp. 120-136)

    The picture of central authorities meddling in the administration of municipalities might seem more descriptive of the politics of foreign countries than of the United States. Certainly European welfare states, a number of which already had put down firm foundations in the nineteenth century, grew more imposing amid the worst crises of the twentieth—the Great Depression and the two world wars.¹ In his 1944 state of the union message Franklin D. Roosevelt had urged a “second Bill of Rights” that would have entitled citizens in every community to a decent home, adequate medical care, recreational facilities, and so forth.²...

  8. 6 Conclusions
    (pp. 137-160)

    After decades of decline the prospects of many American cities had brightened in the late years of the twentieth century, only to be dimmed again by the cataclysmic events of September 11, 2001. Even before that fateful day, however, there were signs of difficulties ahead. Between 1988 and 1997 the general revenues of cities had been increasing only about half as rapidly as the tax receipts of the federal government.¹ A national economy that began to stall three years later portended a return of old vulnerabilities for the financial health of local governments and for the well-being of many city...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 161-208)
  10. Index
    (pp. 209-218)