Sh*t Mayors Do

In my ongoing obsession with cities as alternative or intermediate sources of quasi-sovereignty, useful buffers between the individual and the state, and in general institutions that can promote human thriving, I was fascinated to read this article on Benjamin “Jihad/McWorld” Barber’s upcoming book, If Mayors Ruled the World.

My own mayor, Mike Bloomberg, digs this way of thinking bigtime: I can’t find the reference, but I remember hearing early in his first term that he’d had a little mutual self-congratulation moment with London Mayor Boris Johnson, in which he celebrated the two cities’ special relationship, and compared the two men– himself and Johnson– essentially to Medicis, rulers of Renaissance city states.  Intriguingly creepy.

The idea– the part that appeals to me– is that, because cities are smaller than nations, with more compact borders and clearer interests, it makes more sense for a single person to have significant authority over decisions of public import.  Political power in a city is not the same proposition as political power in a batch of United States, in other words.

Which is why I was doubly fascinated to run into the fact that it was Yury Luzhkov, mayor of Moscow from 1992 to 2010 (when he was fired by a decree from Medvedev for, it was alleged, insulting Medvedev in a letter), who had been behind the revival of Peter the Great’s Table of Ranks as a way of reforming the bloated Russian civil service system.

I’ve been reading Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Love Them.  She wrote, in an offhand reference, that

Moscow in 1998 was like Paris during the Restoration.  The Caspian oil pipeline had drawn the largest foreign investment in Russian history.  The city was overrun by speculators.  Mayor Luzhkov resurrected Peter the Great’s Table of Ranks and plotted the construction of an underground city in the suburbs…

What??  Ok, we’ll leave the underground city aside for the moment.  I did a little research, and indeed, Helena Goscilo, in an article in a compilation called Celebrity and Glamour in Contemporary Russia: Shocking Chic, writes disapprovingly that Luzhkov is one of those in modern Russia who

adhere[s] to national traditions in their professional spheres, eschewing genuinely modernist aesthetics… they… share with countless government functionaries a yearning to resuscitate aspects of the aristocratic past, including …the reintroduction of a Table of Ranks to formalize a hierarchy not only within the administrative bureaucracy, but also within other professional areas…

Well, I suppose if you’re going to have a bloated hierarchy, it’s more fun to have one that includes a history of shiny medals and elaborate mustaches… perhaps Mike Bloomberg will take a leaf from Luzhkov’s page, and we’ll have David Greenfield dressed in some kind of wonderful sky-blue hussar-like number at city council meetings.  He already has a start on the requisite facial hair.

That’d be pretty cool.


16 responses to “Sh*t Mayors Do

  1. You can combine this with Jane Jacobs observation that cities are the proper units of the economy. A “national” economy is just a summation of all the activities that take place in cities.

  2. Mayor Bloomberg is an unfortunate choice to argue that a Mayor is a useful buffer between the individual and the state. The man is a petty tyrant personified and frankly our only hope reining him in is that the nation electing a conservative national government.

  3. Now Dianna and I know about the Table of Ranks. It sounded like a huge step in an egalitarian direction, compared to serfdom. However, Dianna pointed out that it didn’t prevent the Revolution. Still, it would be nice if they had uniforms. If our mayor had been wearing a maroon coat with mauve lining, epaulettes, and silver frogging, which I’d recommend for his rank, he’d not have to get into unseemly fights with parking attendants.

    I don’t know about big cities, but in smaller cities, if you really want to run the city, you don’t become the Mayor. You get on the Zoning Board. I suppose that’s because the City administration is fueled by contractor contributions. No matter how broke the city, buildings will happen.

  4. John– Exactly! Next up on my Jane Jacobs Reading List is The Economy of Cities. Her ideas have to be balanced, though, by a healthy agrarianism, one that recognizes that without a rural foodshed all the urban innovation in the universe will get you no bread on your table.

    Rick– Hah! No worries; a couple of months ago I ranted on this blog about El Bloombito being an Andrew Jacksonesque tyrant in his dealings with OWS.

    Still, far far better a petty tyrant than a grande tyrant, so to speak! And Rick, I cannot think of anything less productive than hoping for a “conservative” (by which I assume you mean libertarian) national government to appear and rein in MB. I mean, what would that even look like? The FEDERAL government interferes with the authority of someone who holds his power through the sovereignty of the STATE of New York, and that’s somehow gonna be libertarian??? Dude, I hate to break it to you, but the constitution/Bill of Rights has to do with federal law, and does NOT apply to New York City ordinances. If Bloomberg wants to ban large sodas in movie theaters, there is NOTHING in the government designed by the Founding Fathers to prevent him from doing so.

    Ron– I dunno: the table of ranks may have done some good, in a way (although generally I think that aiming at a meritocracy is a bad idea) but it also served centralization… It’s really the concept of uniforms in NYC City Council meetings that does it for me; you put your finger on it in the Facebook post: Napoleon of Notting Hill all the way!

  5. Importing a comment from RS’s Facebook:

    Banning sodas isn’t unconstitutional, but it is an abuse of authority. Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, and I don’t think anyone ever consented to give the Mayor of New York the power to say what we can and cannot eat. I don’t think this abuse can reasonably be addressed at the local level. Bloomburg controls the council that says if this is ok or not and he’s even managed ro run roughshod over the term limits rules. New Yorkers are so stuck in groupthink mode that I don’t think there is any realistic hope of a true conservative government challenging him in the elections. What then is the realistic hope that someone would call him to account for his abuse of authoriy, if not action at the federal level? Certainly I want the Federal Government to tell State and Local Governments what to do if those local Governments try to restrict the rights of the citizens. Local Governments do not have the right to establish slavery, restrict freedom of speach etc. I support LIMITED Government with checks and balances against the abuse of authority. I don’t have your prejudice against big organizations.

    To which I respond:

    Rick: what are your reasons for believing that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed? Also, what reasons do you have for believing that you have something called a “right” to “freedom of speech?”

  6. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created
    equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

  7. First Amendment – Establishment Clause, Free Exercise Clause; freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly; right to petition
    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

  8. <> Ergo the right of Freedom of Speach exists both under Federal AND State and local law in the United States.

  9. ? The stuff in disapeared. reprinting here: The “modern view,” as reflected in cases such as Duncan vs Louisiana (1968) is that provisions of the Bill of Rights “fundamental to the American scheme of justice” (such as the right to trial by jury in a serious criminal case) were made applicable to the states by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment whereas other provisions (such as the right to a jury trial in a civil case involving more than $20) were not made applicable.

  10. And by the way I would describe myself as a Conservative with Libertarian leanings rather than a Libertarian.

  11. Yes, Richard, these are quotes from documents, which were written under the strong influence of the Enlightenment philosophes. What makes you think that they are reflections of reality? What are your REASONS?

  12. I guess you missed the part in the Declaration of Independence where it says “We hold these truths to be SELF EVIDENT” i.e. “containing its own evidence or proof without need of further demonstration.” If you want to argue that the Declaration of Independence is wrong I respectfully submit that you have the burden of proof.

  13. I might point out that the Declaration of Independence has no legal standing whatsoever.

  14. Incorrect. The Declaration of Independence is part of the Organic laws of the United States of America and is found in volume one of the United States Code. Granted the specific legal effect is usually very limited in practice, but we aren’t discussing the specific legality of the Mayor’s actions under legal codes. I’m citing Bloomburgs actions as examples of tyranical actions of a local authoriy and in this context the organic laws of the United States are supremely relevant. As a general principal of law Governments only have the claim of justice and authority in acting on the powers granted to them by their citizens. Anything else is an usrpation of power. No one ever gave the goverment authority to regulate what people eat or drink, so the Mayor’s actions in prefering orange juice to soda are tyranical. The Federal Government, if run by a conservative Government, might take action to strike down these laws as an usrpation of power. (continued)

  15. I don’t expect action in this case but there are plenty of examples of the US Federal Government taking action to oppose tyrany at the state and local level. The most obvious is the civil war and the resulting end of slavery. (before bringing up any nonsense about the war being not about slavery, please read the articles of secession, and in any case the result of the war was the end of slavery in the United States). But there are other examples e.g. where the courts have blocked some school from depriving a student of their civil rights.
    But to get back to the real topic, I just see no evidence that Mayors are any less tyranical than Govenors or Presidents.

  16. Deeply enjoying this, guys… OK, so in my role as agent provoceteuse, Rick, from what I can tell, your reasoning goes like: There was this document written by a philandering Virginian who, when he sat down with his Bible, brought a sharp pair of scissors. The document says that what it is about to say is self-evidently true, and clearly those things that it says are true feel emotionally true to you. So you say to yourself, yeah, I guess these things are self-evidently true.

    What does self-evidence mean? I mean, I could just as easily (for argument’s sake) write a statement that says “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, and that among these are the right to a living wage, the right to be governed by a magistrate who shares their religious beliefs, and the right to be taught a trade.”

    You might say, those are not self-evident rights. To which I would reply, yes they are. And we’d be at a deadlock. “Self-evident” is a term in 18th century philosophy based on, from what I know, the commonsense tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment represented by Thomas Reid. It is not an argument.

    And this business about government getting its just powers from the consent of the governed… there are just too many loopholes, not to mention the fact that the Bible doesn’t seem to make that claim in the slightest. I mean, the fact of the matter is that I am loyal to the United States, and obey its laws, including ones that were made before I was born, because I was born here and this is who I am, and that is fine.

    There is no such thing as a social contract. I was never part of a referendum in which I gave up some of my personal sovereignty (whatever that is) or bequeathed to “the government” the right to tell me what age I could vote at, for example. Or the right to tell me that I can’t murder. Or the right to tell me that I can’t tear down a historic building even if I own it. I’m not saying that the government shouldn’t tell me these things, or that I am not morally obligated to obey them. It should and I am. I’m saying that the government did not get the right to tell me those things from ME.

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