Live from TEDGlobal

Benjamin Barber on Rob Ford, Michael Bloomberg and the role of mayors in global society

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Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia leads the pack on Bike to Work Day 2013. Photo courtesy Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

What would the world be like if it were run by city mayors? Benjamin Barber will pose this question as part of Session 8 at TEDGlobal, themed “State of the Nations.” The quirky yet powerful figure of the local mayor — cycling to work while battling civic corruption — inspires Barber in his upcoming book, If Mayors Ruled the World, and in his work as a senior research scholar at The Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at CUNY. We talked with him last week in the run-up to TEDGlobal. An edited version of our conversation follows.

So how are preparations going for your presentation at TEDGlobal?

Well, the great thing about thinking about global cities is that every day there are horrendous and exciting news stories that suggest just how relevant cities are to the modern world. Just this morning there was a story about the mayor of Moscow falling out with President Putin. Quite literally we see around the world the way in which cities and the politics of cities are seizing the headlines. I’m suggesting it’s time to change the subject from nations to cities. And the thing is, the subject has already changed.

Mayors sure are getting an awful lot of press at the moment. Up in Toronto, Rob Ford is getting a lot of attention he’s likely not enjoying much. Any thoughts on what’s going on up there?

I don’t want to comment on particular mayors, but let’s just say it’s a fact that the mayoralty is transparent. When mayors get in trouble, you know about it right away. There’s a good deal of corruption in cities, but we learn about it immediately, it’s out there and those responsible have to deal with it. Whereas corruption in higher offices, by presidents and prime ministers, goes unseen for years and only comes out later. Mayors are home boys, they’re locals in their own neighborhood, and their sins stand out like the sins of a difficult uncle. Mr. Ford is encountering some of that now.

Why do you think the sins and corruption of national politicians are easier to conceal?

I make a contrast between the immediacy, transparency and availability of mayors versus the isolation of prime ministers and presidents and the PR and security silos they control. The White House is a kind of prison, where Presidents lose touch with the country and the country with them. All we know about Presidents is what the presidential staff is willing to tell us. But [former New York mayor] Ed Koch was on the streets every day; Boris Johnson bikes to work in London so we see he lost weight or he seems tired out. Knowing the strengths and virtues of mayors also means that we tend to know about it right away when corruption happens.

I don’t know if you saw, but a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal recently went ballistic over the introduction of Citibikes to New York City. Her critique was particularly noteworthy because she seemed so vitriolic and antagonistic towards Mayor Bloomberg. She really seemed to be taking things very personally. Any thoughts?

I don’t think I saw that particular piece, but I’ve seen plenty like it. The critique is of Bloomberg as a head of some kind of nanny state, banning sodas in 16-ounce containers, introducing the bike-share program and so on. I’m of two minds on it. On the one hand, almost everything he has pushed hard for has been I think a good idea, in the public interest. The fact is that bike-sharing, bike lanes and pedestrian zones are good for cities. And many New York children are obese, as they are throughout America. There’s so much sugar in diets, and god knows the cola companies aren’t going to do anything about it. So these are very good ideas. On the other hand, part of what it takes to be an effective mayor is not just to do what’s right but to get public consent to do what’s right. This mayor comes out of business and has not been good at getting public consent for good and virtuous ideas. You need both. You can’t say you don’t give a damn; it takes patience and buy-in. And with Bloomberg, many of his very good ideas get shot down in courts or through the political process because he has not gotten that buy-in. The mayor’s office has to be a very democratic office. You have to have public support for what you’re doing. So The Wall Street Journal couldn’t be more wrong in attacking the ideas themselves, but they’re right in implicitly saying that the mayor tends to push ideas down people’s throats.

Harks back to that idea that ideas themselves aren’t enough… you’ve got to figure out how to execute and implement them, too.

Exactly. Good ideas aren’t enough. At least, they might be if you live in an authoritarian state. China has done great things in regard to pollution, but entirely by fiat. In a democracy we hope to persuade people of the good of an idea.

What impact do you hope to have with your TED Talk?

The ultimate aim of my work in recent years is to change the subject from nations to cities, to signal a shift from top-down to bottom-up decisionmaking. I hope I can explain why it’s important we do that. But this isn’t just suggesting a change of subject. When you read the headlines, you can see that cities and mayors are already on the front page, because that’s where the action is. More and more we see cities and citizens taking the lead in solving global problems. My hope is to get people to see that this ought to be happening, it is happening, and through the support of this democratic, global movement, some of the worst global problems are finally being addressed.