Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

The New Provincials by Jason Tinkey

America has never been a very curious nation. Sure, we’ve produced great inventors and entrepreneurs, but you could probably count the great “American philosophers” on one hand (at least one of whom, de Tocqueville, wasn’t even American). Americans are not prone to world travel, evidenced by the fact that only 37% of us own a passport. A lack of curiosity is not the sole blame, obviously it costs us far more to travel abroad than it does for Europeans, with flights so cheap they make Southwest look like a legacy carrier. But in the wake of the 9/11 security changes, lack of a passport means 2/3 of Americans aren’t even flying to Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean, destinations which are often cheaper than, say, Florida.

I have long posited that we are victims of our own geography. The vastness and relative emptiness of the North American continent gave the young nation room to grow and flourish, while leaving it free from foreign influence. Immigrants were generally eager to assimilate, as the threat of repeated bodily harm at the hands of nativists would entice you to try and blend in. Europe consisted mainly of poor, oppressive backwaters in those days, so most didn’t see much point in holding onto the old ways in a land that gave them an opportunity to reinvent their identities.

Last month, I attended the Global Metro Summit here in Chicago. One of the panelists, Barcelona Deputy Mayor Jordi William Carnes, made the observation that “America is important to the rest of world, but spends too much time looking inward”. I would agree, but even within the United States, infighting and provincialism rule the day. As Richard Longworth has written extensively, the states compete against one another for finite resources, whether in the form of federal transportation dollars, or in wooing corporations to set up shop. This is a losing battle, since state borders are completely arbitrary lines which have no real effect on the life of metro areas, other than to unnecessarily complicate things. Eight of the twenty-five largest metros in the US span state lines that were established two centuries ago. In effect, we govern ourselves under a system that was designed for the 1820s.

This provincial attitude reared its tiny head again this past week, when Wisconsin Governor Scott K. Walker (that “K” is crucial to avoid denigrating the proper Scott Walker) slammed Illinois for it’s tax hike and invited businesses to relocate to his state. As James Warren wrote, this shows a lack of a broader vision on Walker’s part. He’s playing for votes within his own little fiefdom, seemingly oblivious to the fact that if Chicago’s economy were to fail, Wisconsin’s would go down right beside it. As much as I love our neighbors to the north, Milwaukee does not have the transportation infrastructure necessary to link it to a global marketplace. This is the same guy, mind you, who basically ran for office on his opposition to high-speed rail, which would be one of the best possible assets in building a regional economy.

So allow me to state for the record my philosophy of how the future is aligned: neighborhood – city – region – planet. Note that “county”, “state” and “nation” do not exist. These are eighteenth-century constructs that serve little useful purpose in a connected, digital global economy. The hard question is asking what it will take to achieve this in these “United” States. No politician has ever voted themselves out of a job, and yet a thorough realignment of local and federal governance is necessary. Industrialized Europe had to be more or less leveled in World War II for the stakeholders to recognize the value of cross-border cooperation and a free exchange of people and ideas. I certainly hope we don’t need such a serious jolt.

Wisconsin and Illinois, despite their football-based loathing, have too many issues which demand cooperation. And you can add Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario to that mix, as well. In coming decades, stewardship of the Great Lakes will become crucial to the region and to the world. Transportation linkages already radiate from Chicago like an octopus, in a common region with common concerns, these absolutely must be brought up to speed with the rest of the developed world. There is really no other option.

This post originally appeared in The Planner’s Dream Gone Wrong on January 17, 2011. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Topics: Economic Development, Globalization, Public Policy, Regionalism
Cities: Chicago, Milwaukee

10 Responses to “The New Provincials by Jason Tinkey”

  1. the urban politician says:

    Agree, agree, agree!

    Great post.

  2. Derek says:

    First, America has produced plenty of great philosophers, not that Tocqueville was one anyway.

    Second, the basic issue here is that, in our federal system, regionalism doesn’t pay. That’s a big part of the issue that we saw with high-speed rail. At the federal level, politicians wanted to spread the money around as much as possible to re-pay favors and boost their popularity among fickle electorates. At the state level, governors either didn’t want anything to do with tainted money or wanted instead to prioritize in-state projects that would maximize their own political boost from the money.

    Sure, the Great Lakes states have had some success with the Great Lakes Compact, but, without any more explicit integration between states that comes with a credible threat (i.e. secession or some other attempt to take power back from the federal government), we’ll continue running into the same issues. If you look to Europe, that’s how Catalonia and Northern Italy got their autonomy. Provincialism, not regionalism, pays when the system is dominated by the national government. If the Midwest dislikes that dynamic, then we have to do something to change it, all while knowing full well that the national government has no interest in devolving any power to enable regional alliances.

  3. Jarrett says:

    The problem of obsolete political units (esp states and counties, but also some city limits, like those of Los Angeles, that are basically maps of long-ago power wars) is a major source of distortion in many national studies on urban and transit issues. See here for the scenic explanation:


  4. Alon Levy says:

    I want to blame federalism for this, but there’s enough cooperation to enable a one-ticket regional rail network in Greater Basel, which includes territory in Switzerland, Germany, and France. You don’t get less centralized than this – one of the three is not even an EU member. I’d increasingly blame the Anglo-American preference for majoritarianism over consensus instead; it makes long-term planning difficult, and especially (but not only) in its American federal form gives undue power to politicians who control little fiefs.

  5. Chris Barnett says:

    Let’s consider a car-based case: Interstate 69, aka “The NAFTA Highway”.

    This would be a shining example of US mid-continent federal-regional cooperation: a partly new-terrain major infrastructure investment (new bridges over Ohio and Mississippi Rivers) built in response to changing international trade conditions.

    The American system still does allow state interests to align at the federal level to provide regional goods. While this highway is not necessarily one favored by urbanists, environmentalists, and progressives, it demonstrates the principle of superregional cooperation in the US, as does the Great Lakes Compact.

    I’d agree with Alon: majoritarianism is built into the US system, though I’d hardly agree that consensus rules the EU. The US bailed out its busted states with far less continuing difficulty and fanfare than the EU’s bailouts of the PIGS.

  6. stlplanr says:

    Sadly, the only reason Chicago-St. Louis is advancing as a higher speed rail project is that it falls entirely inside one state. It’s the same case with Raleigh-Charlotte or Fresno-Bakersfield. So ironically, inward-thinking can sometimes benefit progressive transportation. But I believe the key to this success, given the current states makeup, is whether that state has enough metropolitan population or if that share of metro-pop is growing much faster than its rural population.

    That’s why, due to rural-populist governors, inward-thinking failed for Milwaukee-Madison, 3-C’s, and Tampa-Orlando. These states actually have a rural-vs-urban, or technically micropolitan/exurban-vs-metropolitan/urbanized area, problem that is even worse than the state-vs-state problem.

    Still, there is hope for mega regions, since each mega-region has multiple states with some being more urban-minded. Thanks to Illinois and Michigan, the Great Lakes region can start with Chicago links to St. Louis and Detroit. Even the Southeast Piedmont, which is largely not urban-minded, has a glimmer of hope with Charlotte-Raleigh, and Raleigh-Richmond-DC. Indeed, if Georgia and/or South Carolina stay anti-rail at the state level, the NC-portion of the Piedmont may have more economic future linking to the Northeast via Richmond-DC than towards Atlanta.

    Of course, Atlanta is relatively urban by itself. It’s just burdened with rural-minded state boundaries. North Carolina, on the other hand, has been trending more urban in recent decades, having multiple, mid-size, high-growth metropolitan regions. That doesn’t mean North Carolina is free from urban-vs-rural politics. But having multiple metros of growing new voters, does help diffuse the rhetoric in a state with the largest rural population.

    So while the Federal system may be flawed, its dispersal of metros across a variety of states will enable a grand democratic experiment. Time will tell, if Milwaukee or Atlanta, still want to pass up the benefits of linking to their mega-region economics, once other cities see the benefits.

  7. Jason Tinkey says:

    I’ve felt for some time that the EU should have slowed the pace of Eurozone expansion, that sped-up process of EU membership and then Euro adoption in Greece and other states is a big source of the current troubles. That said, despite the bailouts, the core economies of Europe are doing pretty well.

    If you look at a region like Limburg in southeastern Netherlands, they have experienced tremendous growth by playing up their connections across borders with Germany & Belgium. The same could hold true for communities in Northwest Indiana, for example. On a local level, municipalities do work together across state lines every day, and NW Indiana & the south Chicago suburbs have gotten some good regional projects like done. But when you amplify it to the macro level, the embedded policies of the states of Indiana and Illinois are to compete with one another rather than cooperate. This supersedes any local progresses by continuing to foster a false sense accomplishment over small short-term gains.

  8. Alon Levy says:

    I’m not trying to imply anything positive about the EU’s governance, other than that it’s a successful free trade zone. The example I gave of successful cooperation does not involve such a centralized bureaucracy: it involves one non-EU member, and two members that are cooperating without any EU directives. When the EU required open access on rail, the French response was to try to charge for tracks in a way that maximally benefited SNCF and maximally screwed DB.

    I-69 is a decent example of international and interstate cooperation, yes. But it’s federally funded, and the states still have other priorities. It’s not like with Northeast Corridor grants, where the states cannibalize high-speed rail funds for projects of at best local significance and at worst no benefit.

  9. Greg says:

    I completely agree with this article. Buffalo is at a great crossroads but finds a way to continuously shoot itself in the foot.

    New York state government is quite often ignorant of upstate, let alone Buffalo. They want us to have high-speed rail to NYC, but has anyone ever thought of the shorter and cheaper distance to Toronto? The layers of municipalities hinder any concrete progress toward being a competitive city, contributing to a global city such as Toronto.

    It’s truly frustrating living here because the state government ignores the organic potential of what “should be.”

  10. Alon Levy says:

    International high-speed rail is doomed to underperform as long as the markets aren’t fully integrated and the border crossing isn’t seamless. See the unusually small size of the NY-Toronto air market, or the unusually low ridership of Eurostar. You’re right that New York State is the empire of Manhattan and Buffalo is a protectorate with voting power, but this is not why.

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