Americans on the right have long argued for the “devolution” of power from the federal government to the states. With President Trump in office, Americans on the left should consider taking that idea further: devolving power to cities.
“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.
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.
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.
The nation-state has become dysfunctional
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.
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.
Mutual coexistence in a divided nation
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. As my NYU and MPI colleague Jonathan Haidt told Vox:
We have to recognize that we’re in a crisis, and that the left-right divide is probably unbridgeable. And if it is, we’ll have to give up on doing big things in Washington, and do as little as we possibly can at the national level. We’re going to have to return as much as we can to states and localities, and hope that innovative solutions spring from technology or private industry.
He’s absolutely right. The geographic divides that separate cities, suburbs, and rural places may well be too deep for us to form a national consensus around urban issues.
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.
A big tent
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.
From the left, it is pushed for and supported by Bruce Katz of Brookings and Benjamin Barber, author of If Mayors Ruled the World. “The road to prosperity, no less than the road to global democracy, runs not through states but through cities,” Barber wrote. “Cities are now the guardians of the future, the bastions of diversity.” In an interview with New York Magazine, Barber proposed that the tax dollars generated in cities should serve the municipality rather than being sent to Washington, given that cities create 80 percent of American GDP and tax revenue. That article succinctly described Barber’s view: Cities are labor, government is capital. [Editor’s note: As we were preparing this piece, CityLab learned that Benjamin Barber had passed away on Monday after a long illness; we’ll have more on his life and work soon.]
That sounds similar to what Yuval Levin of the National Review has been arguing. In his book, The Fractured Republic, Levin outlines the need for “subsidiarity,” or the devolution of power to its lowest level (something Jane Jacobs also long argued for). He sees local empowerment as enabling a synthesis between two seemingly opposed but actually mutually reinforcing elements of American economic and political life.
The country would benefit from the familial, social, cultural, and economic stability made possible by that unity and order, while also benefiting from the dynamism made possible by greater individualism, diversity, and competition. It was an unstable mix, but it allowed the nation, for a time, to enjoy the best of both worlds.
Devolution and local empowerment is the issue that also brought Joel Kotkin and I together. Kotkin sees localism as a way to end America’s “new feudalism,” where the federal government lost the people’s trust. Most Americans however, still trust their local government. As my colleague James Fallows has pointed out, cities work even when Washington doesn’t.
The way forward
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.
This is an area where mayors and local officials can lead. 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.
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.
The present moment affords a real opportunity to recast urban governance in a way that aligns the underlying nature of economic activity and the challenges it brings with the level of governing authority. Transit and transportation investments, for example, could be overseen by the networks of cities and suburbs that make up metropolitan areas, or even the groups of metropolitan areas that make up megaregions.
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.