Two news stories from US cities over the last week are worthy of notice. New York City announced that it would require sex-education in both middle schools and high schools, in an effort to reduce both teeange pregnancies and STD rates. And Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced that his city would no longer participate in the Federal government's so-called "Secure Communities" program, arguing that this program (which ostensibly targets undocumented persons who commit crimes) has "negatively impacting public safety."
These are just two data points, but together they suggest that it is our cities -- far more than either the Federal or state goverments -- that are a source of informed and responsible public policy-making in the United States at this moment. Other examples one might cite include the impressive long-term planning that has been started by Chicago to deal with the impact of climate change and the slow-but-steady expansion of public transportation in the Los Angeles metropolitan area over the last two decades (specifically the building of the Metrolink and Metro systems).
All of these initiatives fall short of progressive ideals: the Metrolink and Metro systems are neither sufficiently extensive or sufficiently subsidized to provide a practical way for most working-class persons to commute between homes and jobs, for example. But without question, the building of the Metrolink and Metro lines is a fruitful beginning, and what is more, because these rail lines are now in place, and because they are being used by the middling classes, there is at least a possibility that they can be made more socially useful over time.
The case of NY City example is particularly revealing, given its often egregious Mayor. As an individual, Mayor Bloomberg is anti-democratic and imperious, and in many cases, he has proven to be a person of extremely bad judgment (his public school initiatives have a track record of steady failure, for instance). Yet despite his considerable flaws, he has often pushed for responsible transportation policies, in addition to this new and worthwhile initiative to have the public schools be honest with teeangers about sex.
A full analysis of why our cities are emerging as a more responsible loci of policy-making than other levels of government would require more than a blog entry (even more than a slow blog entry). But one point is almost certainly relevant: in our cities, the dominant classes are not entirely isolated from the working classes and the under-employed poor: Central Park has not been privatized, and it is pretty hard to get to a Broadway show, or to a performanc at Lincoln Center, without having some exposure to the city as a shared space. For the rich of NY to isolate themselves in the way, say, that Dick Cheney does in Wyoming, they would have to give up many of the pleasures that lead many of them to want to live in New York in the first place.
As a useful point of comparison with the policy-making that is emerging from NY City, consider the single best policy initiative to emerge from NY state since Andrew Cuomo was elected governor. Cuomo's one genuinely progressive accomplishment (and it took real political skill on his part) has been overturning the NY state law that had kept lesbian and gay couples from marrying. This merits celebration, but it is worth noting that this involves the removal of a legal barrier to the pursuit of happiness, not a positive use of the government to improve lives.
One does not need to overstate the virtues of policy-making in our large municipalities to conclude that, for all their flaws, these governments are doing better than either the states or the Federal government in trying to grapple with contemporary social problems -- and even to conclude that city governments provide some glimmers of hope in our time.