Political theorist Benjamin Barber

Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

The City University of New York senior research scholar unpacks his latest text, If Mayors Ruled the World.

Benjamin Barber is a renowned political theorist who consults regularly with institutions and leaders in the U.S. and Europe. He's a senior research scholar at the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at the City University of New York's Graduate Center and president-founder of CivWorld and the Interdependence Movement. A best-selling author of 17 books, including Jihad vs. McWorld, Barber also co-wrote the prize-winning PBS/BBC series, The Struggle for Democracy and was a founding editor of the international journal, Political Theory. In his latest text, If Mayors Ruled the World, he asserts that cities offer the best new forces of good governance.


Tavis: The argument that cities function far better than countries, and that local government is far less partisan than its national counterpart is laid out in a well-reasoned tome called “If Mayors Rule the World,” written by City University of New York senior research scholar Benjamin Barber.

Ben Barber, good to have you back on this program.

Dr. Benjamin Barber: Tavis, so nice to be here.

Tavis: There was a big story in all the papers the other day; President Obama had a meeting with newly elected mayors. The mayor of this city was in that meeting, Eric Garcetti; the mayor of New York, where you live, Bill de Blasio, was in that meeting; so a big meeting with mayors.

Mayors oftentimes feel like they’re getting the short shrift of what happens vis-a-vis the federal government and these mandates they often send down to states that cities end up bearing the burden of.

Have you heard anything about what happened in that meeting that the president had with some of these mayors?

Barber: I’ve read about it and I’ve talked with Mayor Garcetti and I’ve talked with Mayor De Blasio. Here’s the interesting thing: Thirty years ago, cities were chasing Washington to help them out, and you remember that famous headline in “The New York Post,” “Drop Dead, New York,” from Washington.

Nowadays, and this was part of what happened in this meeting, it wasn’t just about cities going to President Obama and asking for help. I think it was about President Obama looking to leading American cities to help him solve some of the national problems of unemployment, inequality, social justice, immigration, that’s very tough to solve by yourself up in Washington.

In other words, things have been reversed. Cities are now helping Washington solve problems, whereas 30 years ago, cities were looking for Washington to solve their problems.

Tavis: So let’s address the big “if.” If mayors rule the world, then what?

Barber: Well first of all, the old title, the subtitle right now is “Dysfunctional Nations; Rising Cities.” The old title was “If Mayors Rule the World: Why They Should, and How They Already Do.”

The “How They Already Do” is important, because there are dozens of intercity associations around the world where mayors are already cooperating with one another in things like the C40 climate change cities that are working on climate change, in organizations like United Cities and Local Governments, the most important institution nobody has ever heard of, but in fact an organization of 3,000 cities that work together globally.

So mayors are already cooperating across borders, across nations, to work together. But also, they are proving themselves capable of solving locally problems that are also global problems.

Here in Los Angeles, Mayor Villaraigosa greened up the port, which provided about 40 percent of the emissions, the toxic emissions. He took care of that. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg got rid of a lot of the poor insulation in old buildings that was letting a lot of energy escape.

In Bogotá, Columbia, they did a surface transportation system that saves energy. These are mayors solving global climate change problems with local solutions. So mayors are really not just governing their own cities, but governing in a way that promises solutions for global problems as well.

Tavis: Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, made some news the other day when he accused – maybe accused is the wrong word, but essentially said that poverty – I’m paraphrasing – that poverty is greatest in America’s cities and that most of these cities are run by Democratic mayors.

The politics notwithstanding, what do you make of the notion that if mayors are doing such a good job, that poverty, while it is spreading to suburbs, is so concentrated in cities?

Barber: As always with Mr. Gingrich, Newt Gingrich knows how to tell untruths with great eloquence, and (laughter) this was another –

Tavis: That was very eloquent. (Laughter)

Barber: This was another example. Because one of the great myths in America is that a lot of lazy people of color in cities are spending all the hard-earned tax money from the rural counties.

It’s exactly the opposite. Cities produce 80 percent of gross national product in the United States. They provide the great majority of tax revenues, and a lot of those tax revenues go out to rural counties for corn subsidies and for rural welfare.

Sixty-five percent of the counties where the Tea Party has the biggest votes are the biggest welfare counties in America. So it’s simply a lie to say that cities are somehow stealing money from the countryside. It’s just the opposite.

Cities are centers of creativity, of productivity, and the reason they have – and by the way, Democratic mayors isn’t fair. Mayors in America are increasingly saying we’re independent, because it’s not about partisan politics.

They don’t stand on principle and freeze the government. They do their work. A couple months ago, tragically, the federal government of the United States closed down.

Imagine closing L.A. or New York? You can’t close a city. You can’t close the schools, the sewers, the police, the fire, the hospitals, the subways, the buses. Cities can’t be closed. They never have, because it’s where we live, where we’re educated, where our jobs are.

Mayors know it. Mayors got to get things done, solve problems. So they’re not Democrats, they’re not Republicans, they’re pragmatists and they’re problem-solvers, and that’s what they’re doing, and that’s where Newt Gingrich really has got it wrong.

Tavis: No matter who the mayor is, Republican or Democrat, give me some sense of how it is that cities are going to survive if what I’m reading is correct, which is that the federal government is sending less money to the states, which means that the states are sending less money to the cities.

Exhibit A, Detroit in Michigan. How do cities survive if they’re getting less support for the programs of everyday people?

Barber: Really important question. Very straightforward answer. Nearly 80 percent of Americans live in cities, including 52 percent of people in Kansas, a red state, Republican state.

They live in cities. They’re small cities in Kansas, but they live in cities. City dwellers, city residents, have to start voting their urban interests. Never mind Republican, never mind Democrat.

What are the interests of cities, because the interest of cities, the interest of nations, if urban citizens vote their interests, the national government will be giving them back the resources they’ve taken away from cities.

It’s only because the American government is in the hands of a minority right now, in effect, that the urban majority is not being well-served. But worldwide, the majority are in cities.

If we follow democratic practices, in time, that means national governments will be controlled by urban majorities, and the national government will work with, not against, cities to get the job done.

Tavis: I mentioned Detroit a moment ago in this conversation, and I’ll let you go wherever you want to go with Detroit, now that we know that the bankruptcy is official. But there are other cities that are teetering on being Detroits – Chicago –

Barber: Stockton.

Tavis: Stockton.

Barber: Already.

Tavis: There are big cities and small cities who may be the next Detroits. They’ve got to figure this out, as I said, and Chicago comes to mind immediately. But give me some sense of what happened in Detroit and how we keep other cities from going the same route.

Barber: Again, that’s a very important example, because the bankruptcy of cities locally in the face of national problems is a spreading problem, as you say, for every, every big city.

I talked with Mayor Garcetti yesterday, and he knows that a great productive city like L.A. nonetheless follows the track of other cities that have been bankrupt in the sense that it’s faced with big urban contracts and unions, and has to deal with those.

But let’s take Detroit, because that’s the supreme example. Detroit’s boundaries were drawn in the 19th century, and downtown Detroit is really drawn with boundaries from 150 years ago.

Detroit, since 1960, has gone from two million to 700,000 people. Two-thirds of its population gone, half its parks closed, a lot of its schools gone, police departments reduced, a lot of abandoned things. So Detroit looks like a disaster area.

But what people don’t know is downtown Detroit isn’t Detroit. The greater Detroit metropolitan region, which is what I mean by Detroit, includes 10 counties around Detroit. Those 10 counties, during the same period when Detroit went from two million to 700,000, has gone from three million to five million population.

Much of the industry that left downtown Detroit resettled in the counties around Detroit. The result is today that if you look at the five top economic, new economy sectors in America, the 10 counties around Detroit are among the top five.

So greater Detroit is flourishing. It’s just that old Detroit from the 19th century bound by these ancient, antiquarian, and observed boundaries is screwed. So what we have to do is readjust.

We have to talk about cities in terms of metropolitan regions. We have to redefine our cities in terms of the demographics and economics of the 21st century. When we do that, cities will be in very good shape, and that too is a political battle.

Tavis: So Michael Bloomberg is going out as mayor after three terms as mayor of New York City; Bill de Blasio is in, and there is a great expectation. You live there; I don’t need to tell you this.

There’s great expectation in New York City that de Blasio will do something about those not just quality of life issues that Bloomberg did a pretty good job on, I think, by and large, but on the issues of poverty and disenfranchisement and class.

Give me some sense of what you think he might be able to do there, and is what he can accomplish there replicable around the country.

Barber: You have been helping America focus for years now on issues of poverty, and in your poverty tour you went to a lot of different places. But the fact is, poverty remains particularly dangerous and insidious in our cities.

Because the inequalities of wealth reappear in cities in a drastic form, and New York’s wealth and productivity in the last years, 12 years, under Bloomberg is remarkable.

But with that has come a new inequality that’s really, really dangerous. Affordable housing – the mayor, under Bloomberg, the mayor did a good job of doing all kinds of new real estate development, but not enough affordable housing.

There are 40 or 50,000 families living in homeless shelters that are supposed to be temporary because there’s no affordable housing for them, there’s no subsidized housing.

You watch – I bet Mr. De Blasio is going to spend some time thinking about how do we get that affordable housing. How do we tell the real estate industry you can build your skyscrapers, you can build your corporate headquarters, but to do that, a condition will be you’ve got to build us some affordable housing.

Tavis: Eighty percent of us live in cities in this country, and the new book from Benjamin Barber, author of “Jihad vs. McWorld,” classic text. The new one, though, is called “If Mayors Rule the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities.”

They say all politics is local, and this is the new one from Ben Barber. Ben Barber, good to see you, man. Congratulations.

Barber: Thank you, Tavis. Really nice to be here.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

[Walmart sponsor ad.]

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: January 10, 2014 at 5:28 pm