The Politics of Taking Out the Garbage

There’s a quote bouncing around urbanist media, attributed to Fiorello LaGuardia, that there is no Republican or Democratic way of taking out the garbage; see for examples CityLab and Governing. The idea of this quote is, there is no ideology in urban governance, only pragmatism. In this framework, important questions about how to govern a city are assumed away, as is any conflict between different class-based, ethnic, or industry-based interests.

The object-level political questions

There are key political questions about how to provide city services as delegated to the local government by the state. Berlin is a city as well as a state of Germany and thus has especially high levels of autonomy, with lively political debate about housing, education, and transportation. But even cities with less autonomy, like Paris, still have debates regarding land use, public housing, and street usage. These can be any of the following:

  • Is this service worth spending more money on, or should the city prioritize other services?
  • Should this service be provided directly by the city government, or by the private sector? If the latter, what kind of regulations are appropriate, if any?
  • Where should the city prioritize service? For example, in education, should the city prioritize class integration or build segregated schools (“Gymnasien”)? In garbage, which neighborhoods should the city make sure to prioritize in collection?
  • Should the workers be unionized? Should the city side more with the unions or with management in industrial disputes?
  • How should the service be run? For example, in education, what should the curriculum focus on, how should assessment work, what is the priority for investment, and how big should schools be? In policing, which crimes should get the most resources, should the city side with the police more or with civil rights activists, and which theories of policing should be implemented (broken windows, community policing, etc.)?

The earlier questions on the above list tend to be the same regardless of service, and generally people who like privatizing one service also like privatizing others. But shouldn’t this be an open ideological debate? A multiparty governing coalition might compromise on which services should be municipal and which private, and political parties would have to put their ideas to the test by either crafting a workable privatization contract or competently running service publicly.

The later questions on the list depend more on the service in question, and usually the biggest ideological load is on bigger issues than sanitation, like education or policing, the former of which especially animates the New Right in Germany and white flighters in the United States. However, even with sanitation, there are questions of priorities like what frequency to collect, how much to prioritize low-income neighborhoods, and how much space to make for dumpsters on the streets. New York infamously has open trash on the sidewalks because dumpsters would have to take up space that is currently devoted to street parking, which the most powerful mass groups of voters in the city consider sacrosanct.

The meta questions

Beyond questions of how to run various services, there are even broader questions about what is appropriate to be decided at what level. For examples:

  • How big should the city be? That is, should it annex its suburbs for a greater regional government, as in London, Berlin, and Toronto, or remain more local, as in Paris and most American cities? Should local governments outside the city be very fractionalized as in France and the Northeastern United States, or should there be amalgamations of regional municipalities as in most of non-France Europe?
  • Which issues are appropriate to be decided at what level? Should local governments have taxing power at all, or should they only have to make do with the budgets given to them by state taxes? Should education, policing, sanitation, transport, parks, electricity, and water be responsibilities of the state, a regional government, or the city?
  • What role, if any, should referendums have in budgetary and other political questions?
  • Regardless of what services are provided at what level, how should the bodies providing them be overseen? Should there be an elected board, a ministerial appointment, a civil service, or any combination of those three?

These questions sometimes do and sometimes don’t carry ideological load, but even when they don’t, they deserve to be debated and voted on in the open. In France, Sweden, and Japan, questions regarding zoning and housing production are decided at the national level, so in the 2014 election campaign, political parties in Sweden had posters all over Stockholm promising to build more housing to alleviate the country’s severe shortage. In the United States and in Germany these decisions are more local, but it’s completely legitimate for a political movement to demand that decisions be transferred upward to the state level, and to a large extent the YIMBY movement in California argues openly for state-level mandates and against local control.

This is especially important when there is consistent ideological load. Questions of annexation and boundaries between local or regional governments frequently intersect with inequality. In Israel, there are revenue-generating industrial zones in non-urban regional councils adjacent to low-income cities, where local interests agitate for the right to annex these zones to enhance those cities’ tax bases; conversely, the kibbutzes within those regional councils agitate for keeping borders as they are, and have so far succeeded in forestalling any change.

Interaction between different questions

The various object-level and meta questions about how to run city government – or whether to even have much local empowerment in the first place – interact in ways that make the answers to some questions depend on others.

The issue of pragmatism and apolitical government is especially instructive, because if the idea is to reduce the role of ideology in answering object-level questions, then certain meta elements follow. Specifically, if there is no ideological conflict, then there is no need for elected government. Consensus can be formed entirely at the elite civil service level, and in particular the number of political appointments should be kept to a minimum, ideally zero except for the minister.

The analog here is the military, which is depoliticized in every democracy, to the point that a politicized military generally means a country is not fully democratic. The military appoints its own officers, and even when the elected government must sign off on officer commissions, it is a pure rubber stamp, as the decisions are made internally. Only at the highest levels do politicians decide on appointment to provide civilian oversight, such as the IDF chief of staff. The role of the political system is to make decisions on war and peace and allocate the budget, and even then the military gets considerable latitude in internal allocation of funding. What is more, this arrangement is not a cloak-and-dagger affair – the public fully knows what is going on and is supportive, because the public has high levels of trust in the military as an institution, even in times and places with low public support for war.

Pragmatism and excuses

In practice, self-identified pragmatism in politics tends to mean treating certain positions as so obvious that they do not require any further defense. But then the question of what is obvious depends on time and place; for example, in the late 20th century through today, English-speaking governments have assumed that public-private partnerships with multi-decade contracts are obviously the superior way to provide services, whereas the Nordic countries prefer regionwide governance with more ubiquitous but shorter-term contracting and France and Germany keep most services in the public sector.

Most people do not stop to ask whether a foreign way works better. This has nothing to do with pragmatism – people who identify differently do it just as much. However, the lack of political pluralism means that it is not possible for an opposition movement to point out that other places do things differently and use this to come up with concrete proposals for change. This problem occurs often where there is no regular change in government; multiparty elections can ameliorate it by giving people the option of voting for a different coalition members, for example voting Green in Berlin within the dominant red-red-green coalition to express a wish to stop building highways, but even that works less well than the threat of the opposition actually taking over. In cities with no real ideological choice, it becomes completely impossible to adopt new practices, and this should be viewed as a primary reason why local governance in the United States is so bad by European standards.

Democratic consensus as mediation

In contrast with the idea of a leader who stands about mere politics, democratic consensus governance permits debate on different urban questions, including meta-discussions of which questions are most important. The key here is multiparty elections that force coalition governments. This has three benefits.

  • It reduces the ability of an executive to engage in an authoritarian takeover, since junior coalition members in nearly all cases have an incentive to defect – if the opposition is destroyed, they are next on the chopping block.
  • It widens the space of permissible ideas, since niche groups can take over smaller parties; environmentalism made the jump from street protests to serious politics through green parties in multiparty states. In cases of extremism it’s still possible to form a cordon sanitaire against unwanted parties like AfD, and this puts pressure on parties to behave in socially acceptable ways to avoid being treated as illegitimate.
  • It allows junior members to advocate on a specific issue and get the relevant ministerial portfolio to make changes that can succeed or fail in the real world.

This is a set of answers to meta-questions, much more so than to object-level questions. As always, there is interaction between answers: if political parties are the vessel that mediates between individual voters and the state, then the polity size must be large enough to maintain ideological vote and ideological diversity, which argues in favor of more extensive annexation and against very small, homogeneous municipalities like Eastern and Midwestern American suburbs.

There is extensive room for pragmatism here, since this is a governance method that lives on political compromise, denying any single faction a majority. But it’s a pragmatism layered on ideological questions, because different parties will have different ideas about how to run the police, provide sanitation, allocate street space, etc., and this is fine. Different parties will have different ideas about whether to side with workers or management more, and this too is fine. And different parties will have different ideas about how to prioritize the budget and which services to provide in the first place, and that, like the previous points of contention, is also fine.


  1. michaelrjames

    FYI, in Australia (and I assume Westminster from whom we probably borrowed it) the phrase “taking out the garbage” refers to politicians making public announcements, usually via press release, about things they don’t want much publicity, late on Fridays. Not only too late to make the evening news bulletins but unlikely to generate much media coverage over the weekend, and by Monday they hope some other story has buried it. Days leading up to Xmas or other major long weekend holidays are favourites too. Not so effective in this 24/7 digital age but still takes heat out of some stories.

    • Herbert

      In Germany you have the government doing dumb shit during soccer world cups, especially if Germany is doing well…

  2. Car(e)-Free LA

    You bring up some very good points here, and I think in the American context, the issue of local partisanship also should be discussed. Somewhat uniquely, a lot of local elected positions in the USA are nonpartisan and there is little to no involvement in local races by state or national parties. What this means is that even if these sorts of debates you mention are occurring, there aren’t slates of candidates organized along coherent ideological lines and people are voting for unaligned individuals in each seat. This encourages personality-based politics and makes it very hard for coherent blocs to form within city councils. Most parties have no specific plans regarding local issues (they might broadly support more transportation funding, but don’t have a plan for a subway on x boulevard and a tram on y avenue) and I think this leads to poor governance and gives very small interest groups too much power. Might be interesting to look into more.

    • Herbert

      I think something along the Canadian model where provincial parties aren’t necessarily the same thing as national parties could a) help and is b) beginning to develop in some cities.

      Some cities now have an official DSA caucus. Now it’s too early to tell how this’ll shake out, but it could be that more and more cities get “coupon elections” where some candidates are DSA endorsed and some are DNC endorsed…

      • Sarapen

        Canadian municipalities could use some more actual parties at the local level. Only a few cities have them – Montreal and Vancouver are the two major ones – and it’s hard otherwise for people to tell what they’re voting for without the shorthand of party affiliation. You need to be a news junkie to tell that this councillor is a socialist or that one is a racist who thinks his constituents are cockroaches (I’m using examples from Toronto). It’s already hard enough for immigrants and other newcomers to get up to speed on the local political landscape and this change would really ease barriers to participation.

        • Alon Levy

          In Vancouver it’s still kind of weird, although in BC the provincial parties work in the sense that the voters have a clear choice between a racist, pro-fracking party (the BC Liberals) and a racist, kinda okay on climate party (the NDP). A non-racist option would be nice, but there’s only so much you can do when just about the entirety of white British Columbia is in full yellow peril mode.

          • Herbert

            In Germany you have loads of parties which basically only exist at the local level.

            Especially in rural areas where people wouldn’t be caught dead voting “left” but hate the fact that the CDU/CSU is insanely corrupt (years of being in power do that to any party) there are often “citizens for x” or some such which are the same shit in different bags as the conservatives in hopes that they might be less corrupt…

            The Austrian Communists are basically only still a thing because they had that one councilor in Graz who knew what’s what…

          • Alon Levy

            Freie Wähler is essentially CSU but without the CSU brand, right?

            But yeah, the lack of political competition in Bavaria is a huge problem, and I worry that Berlin will end up in a similar situation with an all-left coalition forever, even if people can vote for different partners within the coalition (hopefully Müller gets replaced with a Green next time).

          • Herbert

            In essence, yes. Tho FW is even more rural based.

            And not everything that is subsumed under “FW” is a member in the state party of that same name.

            At any rate, I do not think Berlin has a structural left majority “locked in” – before the last election they had a Grand Coalition (in part because the Greens would not compromise on the A100, which yeah, I wouldn’t have either) and some of Berlin’s longest serving mayors – Richard von Weizsäcker, Eberhardt Diepgen – have been CDU.

            The Berlin we know and love today, “arm aber sexy” with an utterly dysfunctional CDU is largely a product of the 1990s with the banking scandal which bankrupted Berlin and discredited the CDU…

            Of course retrograde “but we want highways” isn’t gonna bring the CDU back, but they’ll realize that after losing enough elections…

          • Sascha Claus

            Diepgen’s first and von Weizsäcker’s only time were before the 1990s, wich means in the Frontstadt West-Berlin. Politics might have been different at that time, since the eastern part of the city wasn’t voting at that time, only folding.

          • Herbert

            Neither East Berlin nor East Germany generally has fixed party identities among the vast majority of voters.

            Otherwise the Linkspartei could never have lost half their votes to the AfD…

            At any rate – in Germany at least – the days of party identities being fixed from birth to death is largely over…

          • Sarapen

            I’m in Ontario, so I don’t know Vancouver too well, but that would certainly explain why there have been so many more reports of anti-Asian hate crimes there lately as compared to Toronto. I had thought it might just be an issue of more reporting but I checked the latest stats I could find and as of 2018, Vancouver’s rate of hate crimes reported to police per 100,000 population was at 7.1 versus Toronto at 6.4, which certainly paints a suggestive picture.


        • BD

          Toronto could use partisan competition, and probably Ottawa or Winnipeg or the Alberta cities, but for cities smaller than 400,000 or so probably wouldn’t see much benefit. This is a guesstimate, based on the fact that Surrey BC (580,000 inhabitants) has meaningful partisan competition and Burnaby, the next largest city (250,000) has a long record of one-party rule by the league of tribal pro-union retirees who don’t like property taxes.

          Smaller suburban municipalities should probably just be consolidated

          • Sarapen

            Fair point to consider, and this ties into Alon’s earlier post about bigger cities being better.

      • Car(e)-Free LA

        Well, I wouldn’t take anything the DSA does or says seriously, but I see your point.

  3. Herbert

    By German standards Berlin is not an example of wide municipal boundaries. Its last significant suburb annexation dates to 1920. True, that amalgamation included several places of 100 000+ people and it created one of the largest cities by area in the world at the time, but since then Berlin hasn’t been able to amex suburbs.

    Of course the question of suburb annexation is linked to political outcomes. The current mayor of Dresden (center right wing) got clobbered in central neighborhoods with dense housing like Neustadt but ultimately won by winning in the suburbs, some of them only annexed in the 1990s.

    Munich is one of Germany’s densest cities and it has several suburbs like Garching (even served by the U-Bahn) which would’ve been annexed long ago in other cases. But this in part enabled the last election to produce a very progressive coalition.

    Lastly, botched amalgamations decreed from the state level can have dire consequences for the parties that botched it. The attempt to merge the Hessian cities of Gießen and Wetzlar into “Lahn” led to landslide losses for the governing SPD in the following local elections. As desirable as a tighter integration between Gießen and Wetzlar might be – the voters hated the thought of amalgamation and it was undone after only a few years…

    • Lee Ratner

      Cites form identifies and the denizens of cities with strong identities, particularly if the city is very old, tend to get rather pissed when this identity is threatened. Amalgamation might make administrative sense in many cases but people aren’t purely rational when dealing with this. I’d say that amalgamation should be done when the suburbs being absorbed are relatively dense and built up and merging is necessary for efficient administration.

      • Herbert

        Wuppertal is a result of an amalgamation. The fact that the suspension railway (and the tram, but that doesn’t exist any more) served both Barmen and Elberfeld before the merge certainly helped.

        I think before a new attempt to merge Gießen and Wetzlar is made, they should build a tram serving both.

        But Germany hasn’t built a single tram after the war that wasn’t an extension of an existing network…

  4. Barry Cotter

    > In cases of extremism it’s still possible to form a cordon sanitaire against unwanted parties like AfD, and this puts pressure on parties to behave in socially acceptable ways to avoid being treated as illegitimate.

    This doesn’t seem to work very well. Sweden Democrats, Front Nationale and Sinn Féin have all been increasing their vote share for decades despite every other party refusing to go into coalition with them. The Christian Democrats in Sweden seem poised to go into government with SD eventually and Sinn Féin might be the first party since the 60s to form a government without needing coalition partners if the next Irish election continues the trend of the last one.

    • Alon Levy

      R-Haine’s vote share fluctuates, it’s not consistently going up (e.g. it went down after 2002). SD’s share increased in the 2000s and 2010s and then plateaued starting around 2018; KD wants to work with them but this isn’t popular in the broad public, which was sufficiently anti-SD that the Center and Liberals broke the center-right alliance and backed a center-left government subject to budgetary austerity concessions. And then in Germany AfD’s vote share is decreasing as of late, and when FDP made the lightest, least enforceable alliance with AfD in Thuringia, the backlash was fierce and between the Thuringian crisis and the virus, the left-wing parties’ combined support in the polls gave them a majority.

      • Herbert

        In Spain the right wing parties have absolutely no qualms getting into bed with VOX, tho…

  5. Martin Kolk

    Just a minor comment on Sweden. In fact, urban planning is not national at all in Sweden. It is very strongly at the municipality level, there is not even zoning, as the local government has to approve every single new building (including family houses), and have a complete veto. As they often also own very much land, the monopoly is even stronger. In denser urban areas, there is a national-level agency that additionally can veto new buildings if they are nationally sensitive (but this is interpreted extremely broadly, and for example includes any tall building in Stockholm). But this is mostly a negative rights option, the national government is almost completely powerless to suggest new housing. I think this kind of system is common in the Nordics, but most extreme in Sweden.

    Regarding regional annexation of adjacent municipalities in Sweden, that was common in Sweden until the 1970s and Stockholm grow a lot through that, and also until the 1970s the national government could reorganize the local boundaries as they saw fit. However, since the 1970s any municipal border change basically means that you need the approval of both municipalities, as well as a referendum for the specific population affected by the border change. In practice, this means that since 1970 it is nearly de-facto impossible to change borders, though there have been a few cases of a smaller sub-section of a municipality setting up their own one.

    The status quo is that a municipality builds exactly as much as they want, with no national agency having any meaningful influence. Predictably, outside very large municipalities (and often in the large ones also) this means a constant under-supply of housing (as under-supply is popular at the local level), and all municipalities focus on new housing that brings in high-income residents (and tax-payers). However, new housing is getting so expensive, so municipalities are virtually sure that there will be only high-income residents moving in, which helps quite a bit.

    • Reedman Bassoon

      Until recently, Tennessee allowed cities to forcible annex their neighbors. When Elvis bought Graceland, it was in Whitehaven (save your comments ….), but it is now in Memphis. This was one reason that Olive Branch, Mississippi and West Memphis, Arkansas grew so quickly — you could buy a home with a modest commute to Memphis, but be guaranteed to not be drug into Memphis politics, services, and taxation.

        • Alon Levy

          In theory, yes. In practice, I don’t think it is ever done. American municipalities (sometimes counties, but not in the Northeast) have very high levels of autonomy, almost to the point of being federal units within the state just as the states are within the US as a whole.

          • john

            As my State & Local Government professor at university told us, many moons ago, “Local governments are creatures of the state”, meaning that their powers and authority are defined in the state constitution, whose contents depend very much on state-level politics, and what blocs/coalitions have enough power to push amendments through the legislature and advertise their preferred outcome prior to the referenda such amendments require. So local autonomy varies a great deal between states and over time.

            Generally, autonomy is both much higher and more secure in the Northeast north of Maryland (which inherited a more Southern pattern, of state agencies and county governments dominating local affairs, from its Southern past, before it evolved into the Northeastern state with slowly-fading Southern flavor it has been for at least a few generations now.) In the South and interior West (and Indiana in the Midwest) local autonomy is generally lower, and more often altered by state government based on racial/gender/sexuality/religious/cultural bias, anti-urban/pro-rural bias, and political expediency. Witness North Carolina’s Republican legislature a few years ago stripping local governments of the power to pass non-discrimination ordinances (in an open attack on trans/queer rights); Republican legislatures in Tennessee and Indiana restricting local governments’ power to repurpose existing car lanes for transit a few years before that (TN said no reserved-lane transit w/o state approval, IN just straight up banned light rail in Indianapolis); and Indiana “relieving” local governments of the burden of funding public schools over a decade ago, so that schools now have 100% guaranteed full funding from the state–at the low level decided by the conservative-dominated state legislature, with no ability for local governments to add to that.

          • Herbert

            IIRC one of the famously racist southern states has a state constitution that basically makes it impossible for local referenda to pass if the state doesn’t want it. This in practice makes public transit extremely difficult to fund.

            For whatever the ills or benefits of the Gemeindeverkehrsfinanzierungsgesetz (GVFG) in Germany and its weird way of calculating “benefits” and “costs” – it at least serves as a semi-objective means of assigning federal funds for public transit…

        • john

          I’ve never heard of a merger forced by state government, mostly states regulate local governments’ ability to annex smaller smaller nearby communities. If the land targeted for annexation is “unincorporated”, meaning it is not in the territory of any municipality or other government lower than the county level (true of most rural land and many post-WW2 suburbs in the South and West), most states either allow the municipality to just annex by fiat (like Memphis) or require some sort of petition and referendum process. If the targeted land is in another existing municipality, there is always some sort of petition and referendum process with plenty of opportunities to challenge annexation, on paper.

          Rules also vary widely on whether a community can secede from a municipality and form a town/city of its own

          In practice, some states are more tolerant of aggressive annexations/secessions than others, especially when the proposed annexer/seceder is whiter and wealthier than the community being annexed or dismembered. The most egregious case I’ve heard of lately is the 2018 case of Eagle’s Landing (rich, white unincorporated gated “community”) vs the small city of Stockbridge (larger than Eagle’s Landing, mix of rich & middle class & working class, just over half black and which had just elected its first black mayor and majority-black city council). Fortunately, the attempt to dismember Stockbridge failed at referendum, despite E.L.’s efforts to manipulate the annexation process to gerrymander who could vote in it, but it’s worth noting that both the Georgia legislature and state courts had ruled that the things E.L did were legal.

          • john

            Just double-checked the article–the legislature actually explicitly authorized the attempted dismemberment, as long as voters approved it in referendum, which the legislature also expelicitly authorized.

          • Herbert

            In Germany all the land not explicitly belonging to any “Gemeinde” (commune) except two pieces of Lower Saxony that form a maneuver area for the military contains less than twenty people. It is deemed supremely undemocratic that a place not have local government if it has local residents…

          • Chris

            The “Gemeindefreies Gebiet” Harz ist not a maneuver area, but a big forrest. The forestry office thus assumes duties of the county.

        • Anthony

          Rules are all over the place. In California, for cities to merge, they must be in the same county, and a majority of each must vote to accept the merger. Annexing unincorporated land only requires a majority vote in the annexed area, and maybe not even that. Each county has a Local Agency Formation Commission which sets rules for municipal and special district expansion.

          Up through the 1960s, I think the City Councils of both cities were required to approve a merger/annexation for incorporated cities. Through the 1960s, LA managed to persuade a bunch of cities to be borgified because they could only get access to LA water by being annexed into LA.

        • Matthew M. Robare

          It depends on the state. I think it’s possible under most state constitutions, but it would be unlikely to happen without at least a referrendum. The 1854 merger of Philadelphia with Philadelphia County seems to have been done without the involvement of the other municipalities in the county (and was signed by the governor in the middle of the night to prevent them from taking on new debt). I have also heard of states forcibly dissolving municipalities, for debt or depopulation.
          Pennsylvania’s forced incorporation of Allegheny into Pittsburgh resulted in Dillon’s Rule's_Rule

    • Alon Levy

      I was bringing up the national aspect because in 2014 parties had posters promising how many housing units they’d add nationally – the Greens had this platform line to close Bromma and build housing there, the Center was saying some things about building taller buildings in cities, etc.

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