Secession: New York City as Polis
by Sandy Ikeda
Secession's in the air again:
Emboldened by Mayor Bloomberg's testimony in Albany this week that the city's taxpayers pay the state $11 billion a year more than they get back, a City Council member is offering legislation that would begin the process of having New York City secede from New York State.
Peter Vallone Jr., a Democrat who represents Queens, is pushing the idea, and the Council plans to hold a hearing on the possibility of making New York City the 51st state.You can read the complete Sun article here.
I believe New York City has been a net fiscal loser for a long time, and it's one reason why I like the idea of New York becoming a "polis," as the ancient Greeks called their self-governing city-states. Naturally, working out the details will be a challenge, but some of the conceptual groundwork has already been done. Which gives me a convenient excuse to mention a policy study that my colleague Peter Gordon and I did last year on New Orleans that takes the idea of secession a step beyond the city — to the neighborhood level.
Starting from economist Robert Nelson's concept of "private neighborhood," our paper, "Power to the Neighborhoods: The Devolution of Authority in Post-Katrina New Orleans," argues that neighborhood secession may be both feasible in the aftermath of such a disaster but also a way of overcoming New Orleans's history of corruption and mismanagement. The idea is to inject true competition, not merely so-called citizen participation, into local governance by fostering a greater range and number of choices within a given urban area.
We argue that
while the current interest in neighborhood "citizen participation" may sound positive, it falls far short of the openness to innovation required for the rebuilding process of New Orleans. One way to encourage innovation is devolution. Many devolution options are possible — including a credible threat of neighborhood secession. Private neighborhood associations, the main option for devolution, could perform the functions of municipalities in many existing neighborhoods. This would inject competition and increase innovation in the stagnant environment of city governmentYou can find that study here and a shorter version that appeared in Forbes here.
Each neighborhood decides land uses independently of municipal government and competes for residents and businesses on a for-profit basis. It's a bit like today's mixed-use mall developments or homeowners' associations, only more so. Local government stays out for the most part and functions primarily to help coordinate networking among the various private neighborhood associations (PNA).
Government is not the same thing as governance.
In this way "voting with your feet" becomes a more effective constraint on ineffective governance than is now the case. If you don't like the combination of fees and services in your PNA or PNA network, it's less costly to move to another. And if people do vote with their feet, it needn't depopulate the city (as had been happening in New Orleans long before Katrina).
No one can say exactly what this would look like in New York — perhaps like a bunch of community associations and apartment co-ops on steroids. And while we seem to have had more than our share of major crises lately, it may take another one before we'd be ready to embrace the idea of PNAs. Becoming a polis, though, would be a good start.
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