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A ‘city kid’ in the White House? Seeing a stimulus package through metropolitan eyes

President Bush and President-elect Obama meet Nov. 10 in the Oval Office.
REUTERS/White House photo by Eric Draper
President Bush and President-elect Obama meet Nov. 10 in the Oval Office.

Who was the last “city kid” to occupy the White House?

It’s not an easy question; there have been so few. Maybe it was John Kennedy, if you consider him an authentic creature of Boston, or Teddy Roosevelt, if you think his Manhattan upbringing outweighed his enthusiasm for the western wilderness.

The point is that Barack Obama, despite his far-flung childhood, put down adult roots in Chicago. When he flies home, he flies home to Chicago. When he’s president and needs a weekend away from the White House, he’s likely to retreat to Chicago. The president-elect got plenty of votes in rural places, but you get the impression that his heart lies in the bustle of metropolitan America.

In a speech last June to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Obama said that the nation must begin to see cities less as a problem than a solution. He redefined “cities” to mean whole metropolitan areas — central cities and suburbs. Together, they form the heart of the nation, he said, a “new metropolitan reality.”

Indeed, most Americans live in metro areas, he pointed out. The 100 largest metros generate two-thirds of U.S. jobs and 80 percent of patents. Forty-two U.S. metros rank among the world’s top 100 economies, he said, adding, “It’s time City Hall had someone in the White House you could count on.”

Likely focus: rebuilding infrastructure
Now, with the nation falling headlong into recession and a president-elect plotting a massive stimulus to jump-start the economy, cities seem likely to reemerge as a national priority. Rebuilding the infrastructure — especially the transportation system — with an eye toward green jobs, environmental progress and energy independence seems a likely focus. Most of that work would take place in metropolitan America.

Obama’s view on these topics clearly reflects the work of Bruce Katz, head of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, the venerable center-left Washington think tank. Katz has been at the forefront of new thinking about the hyper-value that metropolitan places bring to the nation’s well-being. “To prosper,” Katz has said, “nations must leverage four key assets — innovation, human capital, infrastructure and quality places — which concentrate at an unprecedented level in metropolitan areas.”

Katz, along with economist Richard Florida, have emphasized the idea that metro areas, not states, are the key units of global economic competition, and that Washington ought to consider policies that bypass states to connect directly to metro areas.

An office of urban policy
Obama, during his campaign, said he would establish an office of urban policy in the White House. Katz is expected to be the leading candidate for director. Presumably, he would bring with him Brookings’ “Blueprint for American Prosperity,” (PDF) a body of research that sees the nation’s recovery through a metropolitan lens. (See, June 20, 2008)

“Retrofit” is a key idea. The task ahead, the blueprint suggests, is to transform a country designed for the maximum burning of fossil fuel into a country that drives less, operates more efficiently, lives more compactly, wastes less, pollutes less, learns more, invests more and competes better. In planning terms, it means turning away from sprawl and retrofitting suburbia for less auto dependence. It means giving metro areas more flexibility to shift transportation money from roads to mass transit. It means seeding green industries. And it means a sharper focus on human capital to ensure that disadvantaged children become educated, productive citizens.

“Metros are not part of the national economy; they are the national economy,” the blueprint says. The top 100 metro areas occupy only 12 percent of the land. But they generate 75 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. These top 100 places contain two-thirds of the nation’s people, three-quarters of its college grads, three-quarters of its knowledge jobs, and 92 percent of its venture capital, according to the report.

Productive, inclusive, sustainable growth
The overall aim should be to focus on economic growth that is productive, inclusive and sustainable, the report says.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, an early Obama supporter and co-chair of his Minnesota campaign, made a similar point at this week’s Regional Council of Mayors meeting. Acting together, the Twin Cities region should seek more opportunities to work directly with Washington, he said, mentioning the Urban Partnership Agreement that’s now rebuilding Interstate Hwy. 35W through south Minneapolis, Richfield and Bloomington, while adding bus rapid transit to Lakeville and Apple Valley.

A stimulus package should include those kinds of transportation projects as well as major investments in green jobs, he said. As an example he mentioned the University of Minnesota’s emerging bioscience campus as a key to the prosperity of the state and region. “Instead of just a stimulus that sends $100 to everybody, I’d much rather see help for venture funds to launch green industries,” he said.

Bob Hume, spokesman for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who’s traveling in China, said the mayor favors a big infrastructure program that ensures light-rail expansion and high-speed rail to Chicago, as well as more money for police, education and roads.

Aid could offset rising social-service burdens
Jan Callison, newly elected Hennepin County commissioner and retiring Minnetonka mayor, said she’d welcome additional federal aid to make up for the county’s expected rise in social-service burdens and to decrease the pressure on local governments to raise taxes.

Bloomington Mayor Gene Winsted mentioned help with housing and a more direct Washington-to-metro link on some public investments.

Edina Mayor Jim Hovland hopes for a flexible federal fund (Obama has talked about a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank) that would help local governments borrow money at cheaper rates for local projects that would put people to work, keep property taxes low and stimulate consumer spending.

Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz agreed that infrastructure is a top priority. “We need to retrofit our cities for a green future,” she said.

Suburban support was crucial in Minnesota, elsewhere
Obama’s strong showing in suburbia was key not only to his victory in Minnesota, but in swing states like Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, where voters around the edges of Denver, Washington, Raleigh-Durham and Tampa-St. Petersburg provided an important shift from red to blue.

If, as expected, Obama launches a major stimulus effort, it’s important not just to spend but to spend on projects that the country really needs. Martin Feldstein, the Harvard economist, interviewed on PBS’ “NewsHour,” pointed out that a tax rebate didn’t work because people just saved the money or used it to pay off debt. He proposed a major spending initiative of the scope that prepared the nation for World War II and, in so doing, lifted it out of the Great Depression.

Alan Blinder, the Princeton economist, mentioned infrastructure as the likely focus because it could deliver jobs and a boost in the economy within nine to 12 months. Focusing on needed projects is important, he added. “Bridges to nowhere are never a good idea, not even in a recession.”

Steve Berg reports on a variety of topics for MinnPost, including urban design, transportation, national politics and world affairs. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Dan Hoxworth on 11/13/2008 - 05:02 pm.

    So refreshing to hear of policies that see urban and metropolitan areas as economic engines and not liabilities. One has to reach almost back to the 1960’s to see such thinking.

    The key in this is how to make the infrastructure investments that are needed for the future and not just simply retrofit items no longer needed. Let’s apply this to the current discussion of the automotive bailout. The automotive industry in the United States is a dinosaur and has not been responsive to changes in external environment (energy prices) or consumer demand (hybrids and high mpg cars. Rather than spend billion of dollars investing in these sluggish, antiquated corporations, let’s encourage new industry to compete in the development of new technology. Our government can provide seed funding for the hydrogen car, innovative high speed rail and other alternative technologies and even have a venture capitalist investment in these efforts. Then the physical plants of the automotive industry can be purchased for a penny on the dollar to be retrofitted by these new companies to create vital technologies that will be in demand across the globe. In the meantime, we can invest in the human capital that used to build cars preparing these individuals for new technology. That way the stockholders and bond holders of the automotive industry will bear the brunt (rightly so) of their poor foresight and decisions.

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