As our name implies, we’re very focused on cities. We think cities are the key to solving many of the nation’s most challenging problems, from economic opportunity and social justice, to environmental sustainability. And we’re not alone: more and more, activists are looking to cities to take the lead on critical policy issues.

Cities should be fearless innovators. But at the same time, we have to recognize that there are some things that cities can’t do, there are some problems that transcend municipal boundaries in ways that defy effective or rational solution on a city-by-city basis. For some policy issues—including ones that play out in cities—there is simply no substitute for getting national policies right.

Help, please. Credit: Rob Crawley, Flickr
Help, please. Credit: Rob Crawley, Flickr


In a recent New York Times article, “Liberals turn to cities to Pass Laws and Spread Ideas,” Claire Cain Miller explained that progressives find a more receptive audience in the nation’s bluest political regions. It’s easier to try out controversial new policy ideas like paid parental leave in cities like San Francisco; and if a policy innovation can be shown to work at a smaller scale, it might lead to momentum to spread the policy nationally.

Viva la (Reagan) Revolution?

Progressives have increasingly turned to cities and states because of the seeming futility of engineering major changes in federal policy. If, prior to 1980, you had the expectation that the federal government was going to ride to the rescue in any major domestic policy arena, President Reagan sought to disabuse you of that notion. Three decades later, its apparent that many progressives have internalized this worldview.

With little hope or expectation that a federal government, hamstrung by chronic fiscal problems and paralyzed by deep partisan divisions would take any action, local activists have pushed cities and states governments to step forward to tackle problems, rather than waiting for a federal response that would never come. The shift to local, rather than national policy-making is, in effect, a concession to the Reaganite view of federalism.

With one notable exception—and we’ll return to this in a moment—federal domestic policy has consisted mostly of tokenism and misdirection. Token efforts that were too small to make any serious dent in a policy problem (like “Promise Zones”), or misdirection—the recently abandoned (or retooled if you like) “No Child Left Behind” act, that essentially imposed an overlay of federal regulation for states and local schools without providing new resources for K-12 education.

The single notable exception to the atrophy of national domestic policy is the Affordable Care Act, in which the federal government has re-written the rules for the health care sector, and put in place what seems to be (sorry skeptics) an irreversible move toward nearly universal health care coverage.

But with a nearly complete policy vacuum at the federal level in other policy areas, states and especially cities have upped their policy making game, on subjects as diverse as climate change, housing affordability, economic development and innovation.

New York mayor Bill De Blasio has been expected to deal with a housing crisis in his city with little federal help. Credit: Kevin Case, Flickr
New York mayor Bill De Blasio has been expected to deal with a housing crisis in his city with little federal help. Credit: Kevin Case, Flickr


Cities are clearly attractive arenas for policy innovation for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, there’s a political consensus. Most big cities are a deep, dark blue, so there’s little question of the political viability of some ideas—few push back in San Francisco or Boston if you fret about global warming or inequality.

To be sure, there are some issues of personal and individual rights and freedoms and local public health where cities are well-qualified and capable of implementing meaningful reforms, playing their fabled role as laboratories of democracy that test out solutions that can be emulated nationally. States and cities have taken important leadership roles in decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana, extending gay rights and marriage equality, limiting smoking in public places, and successful local policies pioneered in leading cities have lead to increasing policy adoption elsewhere.

Where better national policy is desperately needed

But even with best of intentions, there are some things that cities simply can’t do. Top of the list, the environment and the economy. Despite the noble efforts of cities and some states to push forward with greenhouse reduction goals and renewable portfolio standards, some form of carbon pricing (auctioning permits or taxing carbon) can only effectively be implemented at a federal level. Having Texas or Wyoming opt out of carbon limits would pretty much negate their impact, and puts a real brake on policies that meaningfully push costs on polluters. At some point, the learning and examples from local experimentation have to be rolled up to a national scale if we are to actually solve these problems.

Cities and states are increasingly concerned with promoting economic opportunity and raising wages. Many have devised useful programs to train workers, to provide better access to jobs for those cut off from them, and to legislate increases to minimum wages. But the success of all of these initiatives ultimately depends directly on the state of the national economy: the task of every city has been made harder by the stagnant economic growth which is a product of a contractionary federal fiscal policy, and which threatens to be pushed into recession at any time by a Federal Reserve Board that is still obsessed with fighting the imaginary inflation demons of the 1970s.

In many cases, changes to federal policy are essential simply to enable local experimentation. Some policies that seem to be amenable to local action have incentives that are so deeply embedded in federal law and regulation that it’s almost impossible to change. For example, the federal government dictates (and operates) the key features of the nation’s housing finance system from the term of mortgages and guarantees thereon, to a series of tax policies that prod families into homeownership. It also heavily subsidizes car and truck travel and highway expansion from general funds, and allocates money to local entities that are strongly oriented toward more road building.

Credit: Brian Imagawa, Flickr
Credit: Brian Imagawa, Flickr


Perhaps most fundamentally, local governments find it nearly impossible to directly tackle income inequality. Local governments that attempt income redistribution just impel the wealthy to secede to other jurisdictions; and our income inequality and segregation are actively worsened by exclusionary cities that use their police power to exclude the poor.

As well-intended and pragmatic as the shift to more favorable local venues seems, we think it is a mistake not to pursue strong national advocacy for specific federal policies that would help cities—even if there’s little chance of short-term adoption. What we need, in many cases is the policy framework that considers the root causes and scale of the problem, and which contributes to a dialog about what the nation as a whole needs to do—rather than relying solely on the courageous, but inherently limited efforts of individual cities. We’ve sketched out the case, for example, for shifting federal housing subsidies into vouchers or tax credits that would reach more of the nation’s rent burdened households. The ambivalence or latent hostility of existing federal policies is often a major headwind to local efforts to remedy these problems.

While it seems prudent in today’s political environment to “think globally and act locally,” we are quickly approaching the limits of what cities can do on their own to tackle big problems of inequality, housing affordability, environmental sustainability, and economic progress. Successful federalism hinges on a strong partnership, with a clear division of labor between the important roles to be played by both national and local governments. Increasingly, if cities are to continue to be crucibles of change, we’ll need new national policies that provide the frameworks, incentives and in some cases resources that are needed to realize the potential of solving major national problems by building more diverse, inclusive cities. As it turns out, 2016 is a presidential election year: Maybe now we should start having this conversation?