The election of Donald Trump has understandably rattled urbanists. Beyond the obvious factor that urban regions overwhelmingly voted for his opponent in the election, the actual policies of the Trump administration are undoubtedly going to strip away federal resources to cities and metropolitan regions. Housing and development grants, infrastructure spending, transit funding, institutional support programs; it’s all on the chopping block. Cities are increasingly having to go it alone to maintain the services their citizens rely on.
There are some urbanists, however, who seem to think that this could be a positive development. Grant more power to the cities, they say, and they will lead us to prosperity. This was the premise behind ‘The Case for a National Metropolitan Party‘, an editorial published by CityLab a couple of weeks ago which was dizzyingly disconnected from any sense of how politics actually functions in the United States. Last week, our old friend Dick Florida joined the chorus with his editorial, ‘The Case for Devolution‘, casting his long and ever-present shadow over this conversation.
So without further ado, let’s see what he has to say.
“Saturday Night Live” captured it best in its skit, “The Bubble.” The satirical planned city-state promises progressive Americans a place (other than Canada) to get away from the unthinkable election of Trump. Billed as a “like-minded community for free thinkers—and no one else,” the sketch skewers the idea of urban space as an echo chamber full of affluent young creatives.
Harsh as this portrait may be in its critique of the naiveté of the post-Trump cocoon, for many urbanists, cities really are the bubble—the last refuge for opposition and resistance to Trumpism. (Lucky me, I get to live in Toronto, an urban bubble nested inside the bigger bubble of Canada.)
True, cities may be the best safeguard against Trump and Trumpism, but there are more numerous and better reasons to press for the devolution of power away from the nation-state and the shifting of greater authority to cities, metro areas, and other forms of local control.
It’s bad enough that you’re going to start off by citing popular comedy just to demonstrate that you’re somehow a savvy guy who’s “with it”, but it’s unforgivable to cite said comedy and then proceed to completely ignore the actual point it was trying to make.
Also, I love how after saying that many urbanists see cities as the last refuge for opposition to Trump, he then states “True, cities may be the best safeguard against Trump” as if this was somehow factually proven between paragraphs.
Localism = innovation
Urbanists have long argued that the local level is more innovative. Years ago, when many American analysts were extolling the virtues of Japanese and Korean economic and industrial policy, one of my students from South Korea remarked at the time: “That sort of industrial policy works great when you make the right call, but when you don’t, it fails. In the U.S., you have the ability to have hundreds if not thousands of local economic policies.” Our states and cities have long been the so-called laboratories of democracy, where new initiatives and approaches are tried out and honed.
The local level is not only more innovative, it is a more effective form of governance. Economist Alice Rivlin long ago said that economic policy aimed at innovation and productivity works best at the local level and should be decentralized to local leaders and organizations who have the best handle on their economies. Corporations long ago realized that huge productivity gains can come from decentralizing decision-making to work groups on the factory floor. A massive amount of research from the OECD shows that decentralized local government is more effective and efficient than centralized control.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’ll start by noting this: it’s telling that all of Dick’s examples have to do with economic policy, even while he’s saying that leaders at the local level are just more innovative, period. Of course, neoliberals like Richard Florida have a habit of elevating economic policy above all other considerations. What exactly does the OECD mean by “more effective and efficient”? Beats me, but I’m guessing it has more to do with an economist’s concerns than those of an ordinary citizen.
I agree that there are plenty of policies—including a fair amount of economic policy—that is best handled at the local level. But translating that into the blanket statement that cities are more innovative is misleading at best. Yes, it’s comforting for urbanists to believe that they’re just inherently more innovative, and the most progressive policies have indeed been coming out of the local level lately. But I’d argue it’s not because cities are inherently inclined to be more innovative; rather, it’s because cities have been forced to adapt to an increasingly indifferent federal government. In this case, necessity has been the mother of invention.
And this isn’t a phenomenon that began with Trump, by the way. This is part of a larger trend in the United States that goes all the back to the 1970s (“Ford to City: Drop Dead“). While Democrats have tended to be more generous to urban areas than their Republican counterparts, the overall trend has definitely been towards less federal assistance. This is exactly why local option sales taxes have become such a common means of funding infrastructural improvements, social programs, and transportation maintenance on the local level; the uncertainty of relying on federal dollars has gotten to the point that cities would rather ask voters to raise their own taxes in order to fix potholes. This is hardly an ideal situation for local governments, yet it evidently fits into Richard Florida’s view of how things should be run.
Local governance is also more democratic and gives citizens more choice. Decades ago, the economist Charles Tiebout argued that we vote with our feet, essentially selecting the community which best serves our wants and needs. Single people may prefer lower taxes. Families want better schools. But the diversity at the local level recognizes our differences and allows us to choose the kind of community that best fits us.
Local governance is more democratic, eh? Interesting. I’d love to hear you tell that to the residents of Ferguson, Missouri. Or the South Side of Chicago. Or the Bronx. Or any number of rural communities that sit downstream from horribly polluting industries. When it works well, local governance does tend to be more accessible; after all, there are fewer participants, so it’s often easier to make your voice heard. But local governance can also be corrupted by a local elite who will shut out (or simply ignore) other voices in the community, or be run by a majority who will shift their burdens onto a minority. This is hardly abstract speculation; it happens quite regularly in our country. In many (but certainly not all) cases, recourse is only possible at the state or federal level. Many a victory for civil rights and environmental protection in the U.S. has come by appealing to a higher power.
But not only does Dick overlook this, he also tries to feed us the absurd notion that the answer to one’s concerns is to move to whatever community suits you, as if moving is a simple act that everyone has the resources to do. Even ignoring basic factors like an individual’s emotional or familial connections to a specific place, we live in an era where the most desirable cities to live are also the most unaffordable. Even in the coldest of pragmatic terms, suggesting that the answer is for you to move to whatever community matches your politics is ludicrous.
It’s also strange that Dick cites “the diversity at the local level”. The local level is literally where you’re the least likely to experience diversity! In racial, economic, or political terms, we have a very well-documented tendency to self-segregate, even in large cities. Cities may be more diverse than rural areas, but suburbs and small towns count as the “local level” too, and I doubt you would consider many of those to be particularly diverse. After all, any of our overwhelmingly white suburbs were designed to be that way; what is redlining if not a local practice?
One reason we are so scared of Trump is that he has taken control of the most powerful office on earth; the fear he instills is a product of the vast over-concentration of power in the nation-state and the imperial presidency. It’s high time we take steps to limit and counter-balance that power by shifting more of it to states and localities. In Canada, for example, the federal government has far less power and the provinces have far more.
I am in absolute agreement that the American presidency holds far too much power. But you are aware that there are also two other branches of the federal government that power can be shifted to, right?
Not only do the American presidency and nation-state have too much power, it is increasingly an economic anachronism—out of sync with an economy powered by cities and metro areas. The uber-powerful nation-state may have made sense in the era of economically concentrated industrial capitalism, but it’s extremely ill-suited to the demands of geographically concentrated, clustered and spiky knowledge capitalism.
Our economy is in the midst of two powerful nested transformations. The first is the shift from natural resources and physical power/labor to knowledge—where the mind has become the means of production. The second shift is toward clustering as the source of innovation and economic advantage, massively concentrating talent and economic assets in a handful of superstar cities and tech hubs.
Trumpism represents a backlash not just against women, immigrants and minorities, but against this very basic and fundamental and disruptive economic force. As the world becomes spikier and spikier—across nations, across regions, and within cities—the clustering of talent and economic assets makes the city and metro the new economic and social organizing unit.
One of the more common (and annoying) traits of neoliberals is to describe our current economic system not as the result of a complex series of societal, economic and political factors and deliberate decisions that led us to this point, but as an inevitability. For many neoliberals, this is a convenient excuse for justifying the power they hold. But for Richard Florida, I think there’s a simpler reason: he lacks the imagination to picture a world different than the one he inhabits.
Dick is absolutely right that economic activity is becoming increasingly concentrated in cities, and that Trumpism is in part a backlash to this trend. But he never stops to ask if that’s how it should be; he simply accepts it as is. The irony is that the same powerful nation-state he critiques is a big part of the reason why our cities attract as much economic activity as they do. The flows of capital operate on a global level, and cities are the conduits—but the trade they engage in is negotiated on the national level. Being part of the most powerful nation on Earth has its economic advantages, after all.
Right after the election, a smart reporter asked me a good question: What do we do to overcome America’s stark red-blue divide? Without even thinking, I shot back immediately: It’s not possible.
Our divides are not just about politics and political difference; they reflect a fundamental economic and geographic fissure that is baked in the deep structures of the knowledge economy. The biggest challenge facing America right now is not Trump; it’s the underlying divides that produced him. It’s time to recognize that those divides are unbridgeable, that we are in effect a divided nation.
And we’re going to have to learn to live with our differences. We need a mutual coexistence strategy that acknowledges the gap between our two distinct and separate nations.
Again, Dick illustrates his lack of imagination here. Now, I don’t want to sound naive here: obviously there are intractable political differences within our country. I’m not going to pretend that liberals and conservatives would be able to get along if only we could get them into a room and have them hash out their differences. There are going to be many bitterly-fought battles in the years to come.
But with Dick, I get the sense that he doesn’t speak of this inability to bridge gaps from experience or pragmatism, but because he couldn’t be bothered to try in the first place. There are plenty of areas where Americans will never see eye-to-eye with each other, but when it comes to economics, there actually is a whole lot we could be doing to deconcentrate capital and spread our wealth around.
No top-down, one-size-fits-all strategy can address the very different needs and desires of those who live in the dense, expensive blue-state cities and urban areas and those who live in more sprawling, car-oriented red-state suburbs and exurbs. Every place has its own set of unique needs, and these are very different kinds of places. Dense regions need transit, spread-out ones need better roads and bridges. Just as the minimum wage should be geographically indexed to local costs and conditions, urban policies are best tailored to local conditions and local needs. Empowering cities, suburbs, and communities respects both our differences in values and our very different needs.
I agree on the basic point that cities and rural areas have different needs, but the examples Dick offers are a little odd. Cities rely on good roads and bridges just as much as rural areas, and rural areas deserve—even if they don’t have—transit. That transit will take different forms than it does in cities, but alternatives to automobiles should be more widely available everywhere. There are certain policies that should absolutely be tailored to local conditions and needs, but stating that as a blanket rule for greater local power is putting a bit too much faith in local actors.
A few years ago, devolution and local empowerment may have seemed like a pipe-dream, but several forces (not the least of which is Trump) have conspired to bring a wide range of strange bedfellows from the left and right together on this issue. Localism is a big tent—one that actually looks politically feasible.
Yes, the left has begun to jump on board for devolution. But this is an incredibly risky strategy that stands to lose them the country at large. The stakes are huge: in the past, liberals won significant victories for Americans at large—protections for poor and minority communities in urban and rural areas alike—that Republicans are threatening to strip away. Liberals have already retreated to the bubbles of urban areas, and in embracing devolution of power to the local level, they would be asking to be relieved of any responsibility of improving the well-being of rural Americans. If they somehow got their way, this would essentially ensure that their power will never extend beyond cities again.
The GOP has long argued for smaller government, for shrinking federal control and shifting power to the states and local governments. It is time to hold them to their word. Devolution not only fits the fear of Trump on the left, it fits the GOP’s professed desire to shrink the national government.
I can’t tell if Dick is actually this naive or not, but this needs some addressing. The GOP has only argued for smaller government when it suits their desires. But the small government rhetoric has always been a farce: the GOP would be perfectly happy to wield a powerful federal government for certain uses: denying the right to an abortion, enabling massive corporate power over individuals, and maintaining a needlessly huge military. Republicans don’t actually believe in shrinking the power of the federal government, and taking them at their word on that is the height of foolishness. Arguing that we ought to “hold them to their word” on that is downright absurd.
A broad bipartisan movement of mayors calling for devolving and shifting power toward greater local control might well find many allies in Washington, on both sides of the aisle. America has a huge institutional advantage in its historically flexible system of federalism, which can balance and rebalance power among the federal government, states, and cities. During the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt forged a new kind of partnership between the federal government and the cities. It’s time to do so again, this time putting more resources, power, and control in the hands of local government.
FDR also did more than any other president in modern times to establish a partnership between the federal government and rural areas. The effects of the Great Depression were particularly harsh in rural communities, and the New Deal included many programs to not only aid rural areas, but connect them with the rest of the world. Agricultural assistance to recover from the Dust Bowl, road building programs, modernization of the national parks system that created new tourist economies, and rural electrification. That last one is a huge deal: right now, all but the very most remote communities in our nation can take the availability of electricity for granted, and it’s thanks to that program.
The New Deal years were part of a federalism that went much further than anything before (and much since) in creating a truly United States of America. If you think we’re divided now, consider the view from 1920s America.
Instead of using the arbitrary political boundaries, the nature of federalism has to change to a more dynamic federalism, as Jenna Bednar described, where political power mirrors the economic power that cities provide.
Where do you think the resources that keep our cities running come from? Where do you think the electricity that keeps the lights on is generated? Where do you think the water Los Angeles and San Francisco depend on is stored? Where do you think the food city dwellers eat is grown?
If mayors and local leaders seize the initiative and push hard for greater autonomy, they will be in an even stronger position when the pendulum swings back in the other direction and our nation is once again ready to re-invest to rebuild our cities and suburbs. Maybe a 21st century economic strategy cannot be central or national, but it can be local.
Why in the world would that be the case? If you devolve power and responsibility down to the local level, why would cities be in a better position to ask for things from the federal government down the road? You’ve transferred resources from the feds to cities, right? So what resources are going to be left at the federal level to re-invest in local communities? It took decades to build the various federal programs and apparatuses that invest money into local efforts, and if we strip it away it will take ages to build it up again.
This 21st economic strategy sounds more akin to recreating the Italian merchant city-states of the 15th century. Then again, neoliberals have never had a problem with the concept of the city-state; Singapore’s economic freedoms have long been praised by neoliberals, who conveniently downplayed the city’s more authoritarian elements.
To close off, here’s the unfortunate thing: American cities have increasingly had to fend for themselves and, with the way things are looking, they’re going to have to do so even more in the years to come. But to say that this is a good thing is foolhardy and reckless. In an age of Trump, it’s comforting for liberals to retreat to the cities, but to turn our backs on our fellow Americans would be selfish and invite disaster. It’s oddly telling that Richard Florida began this piece by citing a comedy skit about cities that have enclosed themselves in bubbles. The joke is lost on him: that is exactly what he wants.