“Many U.S. cities are, in essence, a fact-free zone when it comes to public assets. They have little knowledge of the assets they own and the market value of those assets, either under current or altered zoning regimes. Ironically, U.S. cities know what they owe (such as pension liabilities) but not what they own. Rectifying that disconnect is the first step toward sane and sensible public finance,” write Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak in their book The New Localism.
Katz and Nowak highlight the ways that local and regional governments in cities and metropolitan areas are establishing new networks to develop innovative solutions to global problems that have vexed state and national governments since the early 2000’s. Cities are reinventing ideas of governance and finding ways to adjust to the challenges they face in a way that larger governments seem to be unable to do. One area that is holding most city governments back, however, is financing.
Local government financing does well when the economy is strong and when people are moving to the area to create and fill jobs. However, when the economy is weak and people are moving away, local governments cannot keep up. Cycles of strong and weak economies have lead to the situation that Katz and Nowak described in the quote I used to open this post. Cities focus on their liabilities and worry about the costs and expenses that pile up and become major obstacles whenever the economy turns south. The authors argue that these pressures can become a singular focus for local government officials, preventing them from thinking clearly about the opportunities they face while limiting their creativity to adjust to new economic conditions and develop innovative solutions.
I don’t find it too surprising that city governments are more worried about what they owe than what they own. I am currently reading Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow and his descriptions about the way people respond to potential losses seems to be right in line with the behavior that Katz and Nowak describe for our city governments. We feel a loss of $100 as equal in terms of pain as we feel joy from a gain of $200. That means our losses are twice as painful as a gain is joyous. Mayors, city managers, and elected officials have their jobs on the line and can be held responsible for economic forces that are far beyond their control. This is likely a big part of what leads to this risk aversion among our local governments, and why so many of them are focused on what they owe and what could go wrong in a downturn. The narrow focus that this creates for governments, however, is likely to exacerbate any economic shocks that they do experience. By failing to plan and think big, city governments are failing to get the most out of the assets they do have, and are failing to build a buffer of protection for themselves and their residents if an economic shock occurs.
The solution that Katz and Nowak provide is a structure of new networked governance, where governments are able to provide the authority and base funding for projects and ideas, but private organizations can manage public assets and capitalize on charitable and foundation giving for more risky projects. This opens an avenue for bold movement that risk averse elected officials and public agencies could not approach. It allows cities to maximize their assets, rather than forget about them altogether.