“In a time of national dysfunction and, frankly, gloom, our best hope for our society lies in our cities and metropolitan areas. That’s the message of the newly released book The New Localism, by Bruce Katz, the noted urbanist at the Brookings Institution, and Jeremy Nowak . . .”
In one of the oddest of imaginable odd couples, Florida co-authored a Daily Beast op-ed with perennial sparring partner Joel Kotkin that called for the U.S. to “liberate cities to govern themselves.” The article effectively concedes that the divisions between the blue places and the red ones are irreconcilable, and each ought to be free to go its own way.
With control of the national government in the hands of a president of debatable competence and a Republican party seemingly intent on dismantling the federal government, it’s not surprising that many people are looking for reassuring alternatives. Hoping cities can save the day is, in many respects, an effort to make a virtue of necessity. Katz and Nowak relate a litany of instances of mayors and other civic leaders working above or across partisan and sectoral divides to tackle important problems their cities face. Their approaches are refreshingly innovative, direct, and often productive.
There’s an understandable impulse in the face of growing national divisions and what for many was the shocking and unpleasant outcome of the 2016 national elections to retreat to a comforting cocoon of the like-minded. Blue cities will do all the things that a solidly Republican national government won’t do: respect LGBTQ rights, provide sanctuary for immigrants, denounce climate change, and tax themselves to pay for needed investments and public services. But withdrawing to the safety of agreeable blue localities cedes the important national battle at just the time when it needs to be contested.
It is well and good to celebrate the successes that mayors and local leaders are having. But transforming these heartening but small successes into a sweeping call for a new localism is misplaced when the fundamental functions of the national government are being steadily undermined. None of this works in a world in which the federal government is not simply rending holes in the safety net but knocking down its foundations.
Bravo for mayoral pledges to adhere to the Paris accords, but there’s precious little substance and sufficient scale. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio can sue the oil companies but is an ardent opponent of congestion pricing, a tangible, effective market-oriented step that would reduce the number one source of greenhouse gases. It’s almost impossible to imagine that we’ll take effective action to address climate change unless it’s done at a national level in cooperation with the rest of the world. Without a federally imposed carbon tax or cap and trade, localized efforts are likely simply to relocate the dirtiest pollution to the most permissive states.
Assume we have a can opener
“… the devolution of power and problem solving to local levels is not an argument against the importance of federal and state governments… The federal government must do things that only it can do, including safeguarding national security, providing a stronger social safety net than it presently does, providing guarantees of constitutional protections and civil rights, making smart national infrastructure investments, protecting natural resources, protecting the integrity of markets and funding scientific research, innovation, and postsecondary education to keep the nation competitive.” (Katz & Nowak, page 10).
Oh, is that all? This caveat swallows the book’s premise. Localism will work brilliantly–provided we have an extraordinarily competent, generous, fair, and functional federal government.
One more point should be made: Many of the innovative city strategies celebrated in this book are directly dependent on the ability of mayors and city institutions to tap into federal largesse. Take Pittsburgh, heralded as an exemplar of local innovation. Katz and Nowak acknowledge that Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh receive more than $1 billion in federal research funding annually (page 75). Cities looking to exploit an “eds and meds” strategy can’t do it without huge federal support in the form of research grants, student aid, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act. A federal government that defunds these programs—as seems likely because of the new tax law—will make it all but impossible for cities to innovate.
Laboratories, not factories
Katz and Nowak marshal an impressive list of inspiring local innovations from cities, such as Indianapolis, Chattanooga, Oklahoma City, and St. Louis. Mayors and civic leaders in these places are generally pragmatic and entrepreneurial and are developing solutions that cut across partisan and ideological lines. Cities are, as the saying goes, the laboratories of democracy. But for the most part, they are the small-scale, bench-test laboratories for incubating ideas and showing that they can work at a municipal scale. Implementing these ideas at a national scale is essential to their success.
Like Localism? Time to fight for an effective national government
If you care about cities and believe local initiative can lead to solutions, you need to be marching on Washington and fighting for a federal government that does its job well. The hollowing out of the federal government now underway is the clearest threat to creative, effective localism. Ultimately, the magic of our federal system is that both national and local government have important and complementary roles to play. It’s not either/or. It is both/and. Innovative cities require a supportive federal government.
Rather than turning their backs on the federal government and national debates, cities and civic leaders ought to be pooling their energy and efforts to kindle a new dialog about how we appropriately divide responsibilities between national and local governments. We must insist that the national government do its job well and that it provide the room and in some cases some of the resources to help cities tackle problems at a more local level. We need a 21st century federalism that envisions strong and mutually supporting actions at both the national and local levels, not a retreat to homogenous but balkanized localities.
This article originally appeared on CityObservatory.