The Political Economy of City Power

43 Pages Posted: 28 Apr 2017

See all articles by Richard Schragger

Richard Schragger

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: 2017


Despite the urban resurgence of the last few decades, American cities are still remarkably weak in relation to both markets and the centralizing state. Two features of the U.S. political economy account for this weakness. The first is the practice of treating cities as competitors in a global marketplace for capital and labor, which requires cities to “compete” for investment. The second is the practice of state-based federalism, which increases the number of political competitors who seek to influence or control city policymaking.

This Article considers past efforts to address these weaknesses through home rule reforms, national urban policy, and regionalism and explains why those institutional efforts have failed to produce empowered cities. The Article then discusses three aspirational approaches to city power, each of which seeks to remake the existing legal and economic order by emphasizing the city’s central role in political and economic life. Finally, the Article discusses the desirability of city power and the possibility of achieving it within the constraints of existing institutions.

The conflict between President Trump and so-called “sanctuary cities” highlights the increasing political and economic divide between urban centers and rural and exurban parts of the country, as does the aggressiveness with which state legislatures have preempted municipal labor, anti-discrimination, health and safety, and environmental laws. American cities are politically and economically vulnerable. This Article describes why that is so and what might be done to remedy that vulnerability.

Keywords: cities, sanctuary cities, federalism, municipal bankruptcy, municipal receivership, the “right to the city”, regionalism, home rule, state-local relations, urban resurgence, municipal minimum wage

Suggested Citation

Schragger, Richard, The Political Economy of City Power (2017). Forthcoming 44 Fordham Urban Law Journal ___ (2017), Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2017-21, Virginia Law and Economics Research Paper No. 2017-09, Available at SSRN:

Richard Schragger (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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