Our technocratic-progressive mayor is all about efficiency

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Anne Linehan ran across this AP story by Wendy Benjaminson on Mayor White.

Here’s a telling excerpt:

While White gets high marks for efficiency, city officials and advocates for the poor have begun to question whether speed is the only factor in running a government.

“It’s efficient the way he gets things done, but we have an obligation as elected officials to oversee what’s happening,” said City Councilman Gordon Quan. “We’re kind of an afterthought sometimes.”

The downtown park deal, Quan said, required $10 million of city money for the $58 million project. Quan said he and other council members wanted to know more about the park’s design, who it was intended to serve – children or tourists – where visitors would park and other issues before they approved it.

But, he said, the mayor pushed the vote through and told Quan and other questioning members he’d get them the answers they needed. Quan said he’s still waiting.

“I guess I was spoiled by democracy” in the administration of Lee Brown, who as mayor for the six years before White was elected oversaw a traditional bureaucracy and worked more closely with council, Quan said.


And while White talks about a bloated bureaucracy that slows down his projects, the size of the city government has barely changed under his administration – down only 311 people in a workforce of almost 22,000 since he took office in January 2004.

And, no studies have been done on whether the use of the private sector has actually saved any city money.

White said efficiency is all that matters.

“I start by articulating the policy and goal that the brightest, the most qualified and experienced should make the decision. Nobody successfully argues against that,” White said.

Give him points for dropping the “aww shucks” nonsense and being honest about his elitism.

Because of the city’s strong-mayor form of government, a majority of Council generally has to be united to present any sort of argument to Mayor White’s various initiatives. That rarely happens.

In various places, I’ve referred to Mayor White’s political philosophy broadly as technocratic-progressivism. Despite the image he is crafting to run for higher political office, Mayor White is hardly an enemy of bureaucracy or of the size of government generally (indeed, declines in the city workforce have tended to come at an already undermanned Houston Police Department). He does seem to believe in convincing the private sector to “pitch in” on municipal affairs when it’s in their interest to do so, as the story makes clear. He is certainly left of center on some issues, which the story does not make clear. But the story really nails Mayor White on what seems to be his belief in rule by “experts” — sometimes to the detriment of more democratic rule, as Councilmember Quan only belatedly seems to have discovered. That’s the main reason I describe Mayor White’s political philosophy as technocratic-progressivism.

In the edited collection The Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science: Transforming the American Regime, Thomas G. West writes the following:

The complete picture of modern government is hard to see, because its scope is so big. But the basic principle is clear. The administration state is animated by a pervasive distrust of private associations (family , church, business, fraternities, clubs, political parties, and lobbyists) and a corresponding confidence in the capacity of public officials to direct the lives of the people. Government responds to the alleged or real deficiencies of private institutions by setting up agencies, staffed by what it claims to be scientifically trained neutral experts, to oversee the details of one or another of the vast areas of American life that used to be handled by local government or private choice. [Emphasis supplied]

Professor West is criticizing the transformation of the national government in his essay, but the bulk of his critique applies just as well to Mayor White’s view of himself and local government. Whether it’s the creation of an unneeded municipal parking authority that will be unaccountable to voters or consumers, or the creation of a draconian freeway towing program that is controlled by politicians and not motorists, or the deployment of limited police resources to harass and ticket downtown pedestrians just trying to get around and make a living, or the effective substitution of a less stringent revenue-limitation proposal for a popular referendum that limited-government activists had been working on for some time, or the substitution of a real-estate developer’s desires for METRO rail routes and bus services as opposed to the actual plan approved by voters, or the installation of intrusive red-light cameras that presume the owner of a car is guilty if the camera snaps its license plate and that may cause as many problems as they allegedly alleviate, Mayor White is all about deploying the power of local government to solve “problems” as he perceives them, efficiently, without regard for pesky little matters of popular consent/control or concerns over the proper scope of government. As he frequently says, he was elected to solve problems after all!

For the most part, council has been willing to go along with the technocratic-progressive mayor on most of these issues, and the mayor has been very good at winning support from those who call themselves conservatives (albeit not limited-government conservatives). Like the mayor says in the story, it’s hard to argue against “the brightest, the most qualified and experienced.”

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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX