It’s hard not to feel sorry for Mayor Greg Ballard. Not just because he’s being hit with criticism from all sides, but because he was so clearly unprepared for the realities he faces.
The most basic question of politics—the question every mayor must confront—is “what is government’s job?” The answers fall into a spectrum between “you’re on your own” and “we’re all in this together.” It should be noted that these aren’t partisan categories; Steve Goldsmith and Bill Hudnut, both Republicans, had very different visions of government’s responsibilities. (I used to describe the differences between them by suggesting that, if a poll showed lack of public support for transportation planning, Hudnut would explain to people why such planning was essential, while Goldsmith would stop planning.)
Most of us agree in the abstract that government should do only those things that must be done collectively, and should leave other tasks to the private sector. The problem comes when we try to apply that principle to specific tasks. Let’s take garbage collection as an example. There are private scavenger companies that will pick up your garbage for a fee—why not leave that responsibility with homeowners? The short answer is that some people will be irresponsible or unable to pay for the service, and uncollected garbage is a threat to the health of all of us.
We don’t hire private security firms to provide public policing, not just because we have made a collective judgment that the use of force should be controlled by those who are accountable to the public, but also because we have learned that providing public safety is a broader, more complex task than policing alone.
We support transportation planning because failure to do so creates traffic nightmares and costs a fortune when gridlock forces us to add more concrete to our already bloated highways. (We are paying dearly today for prior mayors’ decisions to “save” money by cutting back on planning.)
We support the arts, public parks and public transportation (however inadequately) because we have learned that successful economic development depends upon the quality of life in a community—and economic development is critical if we are to maintain a tax base that allows us to collect garbage, pay police and pave streets.
It’s impossible to construct a city budget without first deciding what it is that government must do. People of good will can differ on the answer to that question, but those differences must be based upon an appreciation of how cities actually work. Money saved by refusing to pick up garbage will eventually be offset by increased costs of public health. Money saved by selling off parks will add to the costs of public safety and make it much more difficult to attract new employers.
Greg Ballard seems like a very nice man, but it is increasingly clear that he is in over his head. And while he’s learning that running a city is complicated, all of us are paying his tuition.