Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Regionalist Temptation

The urbanist Richard Florida has been lighting up Twitter since the election with his advocacy of city-level political leadership.  I’m concerned that the implications are darker than he intimates.

Florida has made his bones by noting that economically and culturally, the world isn’t “flat”: it’s spiky.  A few major cities are pulling away from the rest so quickly that the gaps are straining the political structures -- nation-states, most conspicuously -- that hold them together.  Places with bright futures and Florida’s “3 t’s” -- technology, talent, and tolerance -- have relatively little in common with places whose brightest economic days are behind them.  Imagine the contrast between the stereotyped metrosexual millennial and the stereotyped rural Trump voter, and you get the idea.  Florida suggests that the red/blue divide holds more at the level of the city than of the state, and that the divide is getting too pronounced to sustain.  Instead, we should start looking to metros for political leadership.  

Florida is savvy enough to know that it wouldn’t be as simple as encouraging audacious local leaders.  The electoral college, for example, overvalues rural votes at the expense of urban votes; that’s why it has diverged from the popular vote twice in the last 16 years, both times in the same direction.  It’s an American version of the “rotten borough” problem that used to plague England.  Political power and economic/cultural power are so far apart at this point that unity is hard to sustain.

Yet, speaking as someone who works at a community college, and in the suburban orbit of a major metro, I have reservations.

At a really basic level, many local institutions rely on federal funding.  Community colleges may derive most of their operating subsidies from local (and sometimes state) sources, but the financial aid underlying their tuition is mostly federal.  That means, among other things, that the policies underlying them are mostly federal.  And that can be a very good thing.

Because if the forward-looking metros secede, either officially or effectively, they would leave the rest of us abandoned.  That means no counterweights to local majorities, to the expense of local minorities.  Anyone familiar with America’s racial history knows the role that “states’ rights” arguments have played, and the side they’ve served.  And that’s not just ancient history, either; when the Supreme Court declared “never mind!” about the Voting Rights Act, several states passed racially-based voting restrictions within weeks.  If the blue archipelago decides that it has had enough and turns its back on the red areas, those red areas are in for a rough time.

In other words, if the antidote to polarization is to double down on polarization, everyone outside the elite places -- which is most Americans -- will suffer.  To the extent that the separation spurs even greater migration to the major metros, it will place real strains on the already-high housing costs in those metros, to the detriment of most of the people who live there.  Manhattan and Boston are lovely and lively, but they’re not cheap.  At some point, if you price out the young, you eat your economic seed corn.

As someone who grew up in an out-of-the-way metro, the prospect of abandonment is scary.  When the “spiky” places are still somehow within reach -- still part of the relevant world -- they provide hope.  If they were to separate, they would stop providing that hope.  Hope matters.  Community colleges’ single greatest asset is that they institutionalize hope.  They provide second chances.  If we lose sight of the value of second chances as a society, well, that doesn’t lead anywhere good.

None of this is to defend the electoral college, which I’ve mentioned repeatedly and in public is absurd and needs to go.  But that doesn’t necessarily require retreating to what Christopher Lasch once called the secession of the successful.  

Yes, there’s an increasing and disturbing gap between metros and everywhere else.  But that isn’t an argument for separation.  It’s an argument for focusing again the value of each to the other.  

After all, winds shift; economic fortunes change quickly.  We’re all in this together; the sooner we lose sight of that, the worse off we’ll be.