« PreviousContinue »
Chicago, Buffalo, Baltimore, and Louisville, and in fact nearly all cities of any importance, have their bath-houses open all the year round. This municipal function has not been developed in the United States to the same extent, however, as in Europe, but this is largely due to the fact that the sanitary arrangements of our tenements and private houses are more advanced.
These various experiments in municipal reform, valuable as they undoubtedly are, by no means solve the most fundamental problems of modern urban life; but these problems are connected with the larger questions of poverty, industry, transportation, agriculture, and the development of our natural resources — questions which fall within the domain of economics rather than of government strictly speaking. Nevertheless, it would give an entirely mistaken notion of the nature and scope of government to pass over without notice some of the more purely municipal issues.
At the outset there is the grave problem of overcrowding, which has reached such an alarming condition, that in New York City the death rate, 16.5 per thousand in 1908, was higher than in Berlin or London, where it was 15.4 and 13.8 per thousand respectively. It is now well established that the death and sickness rates fluctuate with the wages and home conditions of the people. It is authoritatively stated that the "annual economic waste from preventable diseases in New York City ranges from $37,000,000 to $40,000,000,” and this is largely due to overcrowding. Furthermore "the density of population increases with the decrease of wages and overcrowding is greatest where wages are lowest."
The land question of the city takes, therefore, first rank at the present time. It is a well-known fact that the value of ground in our large cities increases with astonishing rapidity -- not through the effort of the owners or of any single private individual, through the growth of industry and population. The following figures, showing the appreciation in the value of the land alone in certain New York City blocks, illustrate this statement in a concrete way; and it must be noted that these blocks are not within the very heart of the city where the pressure of the population is greatest:
Rowntree, Poverty (London, 1901), and Hunter, Poverty (New York, 1904.)
The recognition of the fact that an enormous annual tribute of “unearned increment” is paid to the owners of city lands without any service in return on their part has led a group of reformers, known as the "single taxers," to advocate the diversion of this money to the public treasury by way of taxation. Mr. Henry George, who was the founder of this movement in America, declared that this single tax absorbing all unearned increment in land values would "raise wages, increase the earnings of capital, extirpate pauperism, abolish poverty, give remunerative employment to whoever wishes it, afford free scope to human powers, lessen crimes, elevate morals and taste and intelligence, purify government, and carry civilization to yet nobler heights." Without sharing this generous hope or examining the several objections which may be brought against the rigid application of the single tax doctrine, one may certainly conclude, with Professor Seager, that a gradual increase in the proportion of the municipal taxation that falls on land, as distinguished from improvements and different forms of personal property, is much to
1 H. B. Woolston, A Study of the Population of Manhatlanville (Columbia University Studies), p. 155; the table is based on the official assessors' lists.
2 Seager, Economics : Briefer Course, p. 434.
be desired. “There is reason to think," continues Professor Seager, “that especially in large cities absentee landlordism is becoming more and more the rule for the simple reason that more and more people are coming to live in tenement and apartment houses. If this is the case there may be good ground for the contention that the system of private property in land is ceasing to serve any useful purpose in cities which the system of public ownership would not serve as well, and that the time is ripe for a gradual transition to the latter." 2
The land question is involved in another fundamental problem, - how to plan a city with a view to its future growth, the health, comfort, employment, and standard of life of all of the inhabitants. The use of a little foresight, the adoption of a sound public policy, and a greater disregard for that clamor which would transform every public utility into private property would have saved the lives of countless thousands of city dwellers in the United States and would have made the living conditions to those who survived infinitely more tolerable. Every day that social control over city planning is delayed makes more difficult the problem of securing to the people the social values created by the growth of cities, and of providing proper air, light, and sunshine for the city dwellers — in a word, the great problem of making the city a place where the standard of physical efficiency, upon which in the long run the very existence of the nation itself de
* Table showing the percentage of inhabitants of great cities owning their own homes. CITIES
27.9 per cent.
20.5 per cent Boston. Buffalo.
13.9 Detroit.. Indianapolis
33.7 New Orleans.
19.1 New York City.
12.1 Manhattan and Bronx.
.12.1 San Francisco.
.16 Goodnow, City Government in the United States, p. 15. 2 Economics : Briefer Course, p. 434. • Goodnow, Municipal Government, p. 332 ff.
pends, may be maintained at the highest point. There is no room here to dwell at length upon this important and technical branch of public economy. Whoever doubts the part that will be played in the future by scientific city planning may compare the broad avenues and streets of Washington with the narrow, dark, dismal, and crooked lanes of the older parts of Boston and New York.?
Municipal Ownership In connection with the extension of the activities of the municipality, has arisen the question of how far these functions should be given over to private companies and contractors and how far they should be conducted by municipal authorities themselves. Street railways, gas, electric light and water plants, and many other municipal utilities are in the nature of things monopolies, so that competition seldom enters as a factor in regulating prices and services. For example, it is clear that there can only be one street car line on any street and the company which owns any such line, if free from public control, may fix any charge which the “traffic will bear."
In the beginning of our municipal history the nature of municipal monopolies was not understood by state legislators, or, if understood, it did not deter them from bestowing almost priceless public privileges, without restrictions, upon private interests. The story of these franchises and the corruption connected with them makes one of the most sordid pages in the history of our country; but fortunately within the last decade there has come a gradual awakening of public sentiment on the question, and the day of free and uncontrolled exploitation of municipal monopolies seems to be about past.
An examination of the present methods of conducting municipal utilities reveals three general modes: (1) Private ownership under public regulation; (2) public ownership with private operation; and (3) public ownership and operation.
1 See B. C. Marsh, An Introduction to City Planning, and H. I. Triggs, Town Planning. (London, 1909.)
2 There is now on foot in Boston a “1915 Movement,” designed to enlist widespread conscious effort in improving the city. It is described as “A city movement organizing the coöperation of all agencies which want to do things for industrial and civic improvement; a city plan coördinating the proposals of all agencies which want things done into a programme which the public can understand and carry out; a city calendar setting dates ahead when parts of the programme can and ought to be carried out.”
Where municipal utilities are in private hands they are operated under franchises granted by some municipal or state authority." On the whole there is a marked tendency in the direction of making the grant of important franchises dependent upon popular vote. This is the system which prevails where the initiative and referendum are in force. There is also a tendency to limit the term of all franchises, issued to private companies, to short periods of years, varying according to the importance of the utility. In general, the term of twenty-five years seems to be the most popular. It has become customary, furthermore, in the granting of franchises, to place the private company under some close restrictions as regards charges and the character of the service rendered; and it is now the common practice for the municipality to require some kind of compensation either in services, cash payment, or annual rental. Even the most conservative students of municipal government are agreed that the old policy of non-interference is obsolete.
Wherever public ownership is combined with private operation, the municipality leases its plant to some corporation, and stipulates certain standards as to services and charges. This is quite common in cases where the undertakings are so large and returns on the investment so uncertain that private capitalists are unwilling to finance the enterprise at all or except under onerous conditions. Examples of this method of dealing with municipal monopolies are afforded by the waterworks system of Denver and the subways of Boston and New York.
The third method of dealing with municipal utilities — public ownership and operation - is far more frequently employed in Europe than in the United States. If we leave out of account the
1 Several of the states have forbidden the state legislature to grant franchises in cities.
2 Above, p. 597
3 The recent Cleveland street railway settlement which limits the company to a net earning of 6 per cent on the capital and at the same time gives the city strict control over service, extensions, and increase of capital is an interesting example of public regulation.
* Readings, p. 548.