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Bloomberg Challenge Shows What America's Mayors Are Doing Right...And Wrong


New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at the annual Transforming Transportation conference at the World Bank in Washington,DC on January 18, 2013. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s private foundation has announced the winners of its competition for mayors to develop innovative ideas “to solve major challenges and improve city life.”  Hundreds of cities applied and twenty finalists were asked to submit applications in writing, and, smartly, asked to include a video that could be crowd-judged on the internet. Houston not only won a $1 million prize for its idea of “one bin for all” (a smart unified recycling idea), it also won “fan favorite” for its video presentation.

Hats should be off to Mayor Bloomberg for trying to shift the dialog in cities. His judges chose a mix of two older and, to my mind failing, cities (Providence – the grand prize, $5 million, winner and Philadelphia), as well as two younger cities with bright futures (Santa Monica and Houston). Chicago, a city that is steadily losing population which is the simplest measure of a city’s economic and civic health, won for its idea of an open data platform so that analysts could foresee problems in city services in order to respond at a faster rate. Certainly this is an interesting technological idea – one that IBM has been advancing for nearly a decade as part of its “Smarter Cities” initiative.

There is a reason why Providence won. Its idea is at the forefront of needed reforms for schools. The plan is all about increasing the number of words routinely used by Providence’s school-aged population. For decades schools have been running away from curricula where ideas build upon ideas, and in the course of cumulative learning students’ vocabularies are continuously expanding. Why is this important?  The number of words in a student’s vocabulary is the single best indicator of subsequent success in college and in careers.

Simply stated, without more words you cannot think as well.

Educators have been simplifying curricula for years by substituting learning facts with teaching “ways to learn.” The outcome is that students have become less and less creative. Without larger vocabularies they cannot do the synthesis of facts and ideas that is the way innovative problem solving happens. All Americans pay an economic price for this lazy form of teaching because our students are not as ready for the world economy as a result. Turns out my Latin teacher was right when if we didn’t know our vocabulary she would intone in an exasperated way “Child of God, you can’t paint a barn with a dry brush.”

Philadelphia decided to attend to a non-problem. Under its initiative, non-profit vendors to the city will find it easier to procure government contracts.  This idea is wrapped in the au courant words “social entrepreneurship.”  The main thing that a city in trouble needs to think about is how to encourage economic entrepreneurs, people like Mayor Bloomberg himself, to start profit-making businesses that employ lots of people. More non-profits seeking public contracts will not a new economy make in Philadelphia or elsewhere.

Santa Monica’s idea is hard to judge as being accretive to the city’s welfare as advertised, or just another brainstorm that gathers attention for its novelty. Its mayor backed a plan for measuring the “well-being” of Santa Monica’s population including some indexes that would raise eyebrows in other cities in the country where murder rates are out of control, and pure water isn’t such a sure thing. The city will develop a “sophisticated index focused on economic vitality, social relationships, health, education/care, and local environment.”  To the mayors of Buffalo, Cleveland or Toledo it must surely sound like the familiar narcissism for which affluent California beach towns are famous.

Santa Monica’s median home price is $862,000. Its population grew by almost eight percent in the last ten years.  Its cost of living is 129 percent above the nation’s average.  It suffers one murder a year.  Ninety percent of its high school students graduate. Its rate of reported domestic violence among school-aged children is .02 percent. Only 8.8 percent of its live births are underweight (While slightly higher than the national average it is considerably below that of cities with big scale problems).  We know all this because the town seems to be obsessed with self-monitoring. Most of these data are from its already existing “report card.” If there is one indicator that is alarming it’s the city’s 11.5 percent unemployment rate. Not to be sly, but is Santa Monica so rich that lots of people don’t work?

What will other cities learn from Santa Monica’s “Wellbeing Project?”  To a city bleeding residents, think Detroit, wellbeing is a concern somewhere out in a parallel universe!  The average price of a home in Detroit is $56,000!  Its unemployment rate is at least 30 percent; and Detroit’s mayor believes it’s more like 50 percent. Perhaps as many as 14 percent of Detroit’s newborns are underweight. Wellbeing to many in Detroit means getting through the day without being shot dead. Last year 411 people did not.

Apart from the choices of Philadelphia and Santa Monica, the Bloomberg projects may bring to light new ways to help revitalize civic culture. But, in examining all the proposals one cannot help but think that perhaps Bloomberg has identified an emerging culture where people are trying too hard to make city governments work better, instead of making cities themselves better places to work.  With proposals for innovations to solve transportation, education and data needs, one has to ask what have mayors been doing, anyways? Or are we expecting too much from city government? After all, much that is wrong in many cities is the result of horrific policy choices in the past. To imagine city governments taking on more tasks when they have less money hints that some policy makers might see America adopting a culture where we see city government as an omnipotent parent. Political philosophy is increasingly moving in this direction. Cass Sunstein’s theory advances just this notion.

Not long ago I was in a conversation regarding the potential of hydrofracking in New York State.  It was interesting to hear one argument advanced as to why the state should go ahead with a potential technology that would bring an enormous economic boom to a part of the state in dire economic stress (one indicator of the “unwellness” of New York is its enormous state government deficit).  It was argued that the State should permit “fracking” because it would be a whole new source of tax revenue to finance – you guessed it – state government.  Since when do citizens think that the economy of a state should be driven to ensure that its government’s need for revenue can be satisfied?  Has it occrred to those searching for more state revenues that past spending and the taxes required to maintain it has loomed large in said state’s economic troubles?

Perhaps one of the other cities would have won if it had offered a real program for building an economy that could create jobs for its poor. Or, perhaps an analytic plan by a city that offered a realistic way to increase its population, reversing decades of decline, by increasing its friendliness to business could have grabbed the judges attention.  Alas, no such proposals emerged from the contestant cities.

Is economic growth so unfashionable amongst the policy elite that not one of over 300 cities made such a case?  Mayor Bloomberg is a legendary entrepreneur.  He has helped New York City grow its economy in remarkable and measurable ways.  Maybe his best philanthropic effort would be to set up a college for mayors where they learned from him the basics that old time mayors all knew, namely, how to help the economies of their cities make private sector jobs sufficient to keep their populations growing. Why else would someone want to be mayor?

A version of the column first appeared on Forbes.com

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