THE NEXT MAYOR’S BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Creating Prosperity by Lifting the Basement Instead of Raising the Roof

When bank-robber Willie Sutton was asked why he held up banks, he supposedly quipped, “Because that’s where the money is.”  Cities, like every level of government, also have to go where the money is.   In this country, government’s aren’t usually able to set up state-owned firms able feed revenue back into the general budget.  So paying for social services and the huge variety of regulatory tasks needed to keep a complex society smoothly functioning requires our governments to collect taxes.  And healthy tax collection requires a healthy economy, which requires successful private businesses.

The big question for the people running for Boston mayor, and next year for Massachusetts’ governor, is what do we mean by a “healthy economy” and what strategies should we pursue to achieve it?

The current standard wisdom – in academia, the media, and government – is that business success comes from investment, and that only comes from the rich.   From this conservative (or “neo-liberal) perspective, it doesn’t matter if the well-off get insanely richer than ever before in history, eventually the goodies will flow down to the rest of us.  In these post-Regan years of free-market ideological dominance, greed is good.   Allowing the 1% to do whatever they want is the best strategy for solving nearly every problem.  Pulling the roof higher will supposedly drag the rest up the building upwards as well.

Even though, as the increasing amount of inequality and objective poverty in this country (and around the globe) makes it clear that this strategy seldom works as advertised, today’s political dynamics makes it hard to propose any other approach.  So it is probably a really good thing for Boston that Mayor Menino has never articulated a “grand strategy” for the city.  Ironically, Menino’s lack of an articulated development strategy has allowed him to develop a wonderfully varied set of piecemeal programs that actually pay attention to local Main Streets as well as sky-scraper developments, to public health as well as elite pursuits.  He’s shown its actually possible to pay attention to the neighborhoods as well as downtown – something we should demand of the candidates to replace him as well.



In the early 1900s, Progressives like Republican Teddy Roosevelt showed that government was an essential agent for dealing with domestic well-being.  During the1930s the Progressive vision shifted to the Democratic Party as Franklin Roosevelt groped for a response to disastrous collapse of employment caused by Wall Street’s frantic pursuit of speculative profits.  The New Deal strategy for prosperity was to both regulate financial institutions while also directly bolstering working class stability.  Refusing to continue the government’s traditional attacks on unions and the creation of a broad range of public institutions and social services laid the basis for a new strategy for a healthy economy and a business recover.    Instead of pulling the government back or reducing taxes,  the approach sought to use government programs to make sure that ordinary people had enough money and security to buy what they needed (and even what they wanted), while business (particularly the financial sector) would be prevented from blowing it all on short-term bubbles.    Prosperity would come from the bottom-up.

The New Deal’s innovation came from accepting the reality that trickle-down profits only followed the easiest and narrowest of channels.  Like water on a hill, the money flowing from business profits gather in pre-existing stream beds, differentially helping those already best positioned to secure the benefits but, short of flood conditions, not providing enough nourishment for the rest of the social landscape.  Making the rich richer mostly enriches those already well-off or well established – which is why those with power always prefer this approach.  However, the Great Depression (and, one would have hoped, our recent series of bursting dot-com and financial speculation bubbles) showed the failure of top-down strategies to solve basic malfunctioning.   Although he was no revolutionary, FDR saw that he could build a successful electoral coalition based on saving capitalism through using public programs to rebalance the power of various population sectors.


The New Deal is gone.  The political coalition that promoted it was torn into shreds by the recist push-back against civil rights, the war on Vietnam, lack of funds, and the demands of business to lower costs (especially labor costs) in a global market.  The rhetoric is libertarian – pushing for laissez-faire freedom of action for business and, among many GOP leaders, for the rejection of nearly every public program created since the Progressive era began. But the actually practice is more authoritarian than libertarian, more pro-business than compasionate, using the government to enforce conservative values and hierarchies.

Fortunately, at the city level, mayors are more aware of the inescapable need in contemporary society to use government as a tool for local well-being.   Of course, even activist mayors can share the top-down vision – as most graphically demonstrated by New York’s Mayor Bloomberg.   In fact, the contrast between Menino and Bloomberg is a vivid demonstration of both Menino’s accomplishment and the challenge faced by his successors.

In New York, Bloomberg has aggressively favored the needs of the financial, real estate, media, and high tech businesses while using his power to create a city attractive to those who work in those high-flying sectors.  He has improved public safety, enacted public health and environmental sustainability measures, promoted radical approaches to ending mid-town traffic gridlock (including aggressive promotion of bicycle facilities!), and run a relatively well-managed and corruption-free administration.  As the Nation magazine’s editor’s point out, “Bloomberg’s is a vision of the city forged primarily around the care and feeding of thought leaders, professionals, and strivers – with little concern, and sometimes active contempt, for the ones who do the care and feeding….This is a fundamentally two-tier style of urbanism, one in which a cool, creative and well-managed metropolis glitters like something lovely, its radiance drawing attention away from the dimmed surroundings…. New York in 2013: a city of dazzling resurrection and official neglect, remarkable wealth and even more remarkable inequality….” Contributor Joshua Freeman adds, “…for hundreds of thousands of working-class families with unsteady work, low wages, unaffordable housing, crummy schools, and no union representation, New York City has failed miserably.”


The hot leaders of Boston’s economy — the “Ed, Med, and Tech” sectors and their spin-offs – are a key component of any conceivable prosperous future.  Their needs, and the needs of those who lead their creative efforts, must be addressed.  But there are other possible components of a vibrant city and a healthy economy, and the cool, hip, young, and active aren’t the only members of our population.

Mayor Menino has started programs that address many of the key issues – the next mayor needs to not merely continue them but to make them his/her own by massively increasing their scope and impact as well as addressing the missing gaps.   Housing:  Reclaiming foreclosed or abandoned houses in ways that preserve their long-term affordability by low-to-mid-income families.  Business Development:  incubators for small service and manufacturing start-ups in Dorchester neighborhoods full of immigrants with currently untapped skills and aspirations.   Wage Levels:  raising the minimum wage, enacting a higher Living Wage, expanding Union apprenticeships.   Schools: Expanding in-school tutorial and enrichment programs as well as afterschool sports and skills activities.  Open Space: Upgrading our non-famous parks and playgrounds, as well as the sidewalks and street furniture that makes nearby stores and residences attractive.  Transportation:  Improving bus service and creating a city-wide network of non-motorized paths to allow people to get to jobs without cars and families to play safely together.  And more, and more.

We do need lots of specific ideas from the candidates.  But even more, we need a believable commitment to improving our economy in ways that lift all boats, a convincing promise that the city will be an active agent for a democratic range of interests, a credible program that sees the long-term success of the rich and rising as based on the well-being of those who make the city’s everyday operations possible.   Thomas Menino stepped up to city-wide leadership from his Main Streets efforts; on what will the next mayor stand?


Some related previous posts:

GUNS, TAXES, TRANSPORTATION, AND THE MEANING OF LIFE: Why Government Is A Precondition for Livability

IMPROVING LIVABILITY, CONTROLING DISPLACEMENT: Can You Upgrade a Neighborhood Without Destroying it’s Community?

QUICK, VISIBLE, REMOVABLE: Improving City Life By Unleashing Citizen Creativity Through Government Initiative

PUBLIC PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS The Priority Must Be Enhancing Public Value

BUS SYSTEM IMPROVEMENT IS KEY TO TRANSIT: Local, Improved, Express, and Bus Rapid Transit

NON-MOTORIZED HIGHWAYS: A Regional Green Routes System To Connect Municipal Bike Networks, Sidewalks, and Parks





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