There's a weird calm around Washington these days. The Obama administration only has a year before the lame-duck status sets in. Yet you don't get a sense of urgency. White House officials seem busy running the government, but they are not filling the public space with a transformational second-term agenda.
Republican leaders aren't offering bold plans either. They seem more worried about offending pieces of the current coalition than in attracting new ones.
The heart of the problem is that nobody wants to champion proposals that have no chance of passing. Washington is immobilized by interest groups, polarization and a lack of federal dollars.
In their new book, “The Metropolitan Revolution,” Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution argue that Washington paralysis is already leading to a power inversion. As the federal government becomes less energetic, city governments become more so.
Katz and Bradley describe a country that is segmenting slightly into divergent city-states. Demographically, society is clustering. In an era when the nuclear two-parent family was the key demographic unit, it made sense to think of America as a suburban economy with common needs. But now two-parent nuclear families account for only a fifth of all households. The young, the old and the single make up a huge slice of the population, and they flock to density. According to Robert Puentes of Brookings, the share of young people with driver's licenses is plummeting. Public transit ridership rose 32.3 percent between 1995 and 2011.
Economic changes also reinforce regional concentration. For decades, companies sought to protect their intellectual property by isolating their research-and-development functions in suburban research parks. But now scientific breakthroughs are less likely to come from discrete teams. They tend to come from large, loose networks of researchers brought together in physical proximity. It makes sense to locate research facilities in urban districts, often around urban universities, where researchers will make wider and more flexible contacts.
Gerry Carlino of the Philadelphia Fed has found that the number of patents per capita increases roughly 20 percent to 30 percent for every doubling of employment density. Research by Stuart Rosenthal of Syracuse University and William Strange of the University of Toronto suggests that the intellectual spillovers that often drive innovation drop off as companies move more than a mile apart from each other.
Given this underlying structure, there are a number of reasons city governments are likely to be more dynamic than the federal government. In the first place, regional identity trumps partisan identity. In Washington, your primary affiliation is to your party. But, in Denver, your primary affiliation is to the health of the Denver area. That common consciousness makes it easier for politicians in different parties to cooperate.
Metro governments deal with issues in their particularity, not as abstractions. Leaders in northeastern Ohio can focus on their region's historic strengths, including a history of expertise with polymers. That leads to certain concrete opportunities — the chance to get into flexible electronics, which are very thin electronic components attached to flexible materials. They can design specific policies around concrete circumstances.
Because issues on the regional level are so tangible, it is possible to debate new proposals without getting immobilized by the big government-versus-small government frame. Republican mayors tend to be more activist than their congressional counterparts, and Democratic mayors tend to be more business friendly. Katz and Bradley highlight New York City's fantastically successful effort to lure the Technion-Cornell engineering school. That was an exercise in using government to set the table for long-term growth by luring human capital, not in trying to micromanage the future with shiny office buildings, a downtown stadium or a mall.
Finally, city governments actually have power over the basics, which are the key to promoting growth. American growth lags not because of higher order problems, but because of the bad elemental things, like lousy schools and bad infrastructure. Cities can change this. A study by the Economist Intelligence Unit predicted that Chicago will be the ninth most competitive city in the world by 2025. Its rise in the rankings is fueled by the fact that the city is taking care of fundamentals: $7.3 billion in infrastructure spending over the next two years, a community college program that links education to employment.
Since the New Deal, we have become accustomed to seeing American politics as an ever-concentrated national enterprise. But the sclerosis of the federal system will inevitably produce a reversal, as regions fill the void.
The happiest people these days are those who leave Washington and get elected mayor or governor. The most frustrated people are people who were mayor and governor and get elected to the Senate. They end each day knowing they were busy. They're just not sure they accomplished anything.
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