Eliminate Local Government

What is the purpose of having any local government? So much local activism just takes it for granted that the local is superior to the national or the global. “It’s a tight-knit neighborhood” is supposed to evoke positive feelings, and not, say, close-minded local notables whose oyster is a few square kilometers. So instead of this, let me positively propose that there should not exist government below the level of the state, or the province in a federal system. Cities like New York or Munich should just be places on a map, subject to a one state, one law principle.

Some of this comes from the realization that there is no federalism in a pandemic, and that if the EU were the leviathan state of the imagination of British tabloid readers, the EU would’ve had Japanese or Korean infection rates. (For one, in the first week of March there was widespread “it’s just Italy, it doesn’t affect us” sentiment in Germany.) But this is not really about corona. Localism causes a lot of other problems, which go away at the national and provincial levels whereas pandemics do not.

Physical issues

Progress does not come from localism. Housing, for example, is generally more plentiful when decisions are made at a higher level. Zoning is a national law in Japan, and the national government does not care about the opinions of local NIMBYs and therefore has made it easy to build more housing on your own property. (Takings, in contrast, are extremely hard in Japanese law, which has driven up urban transportation construction costs.)

Infrastructure is in theory more workable at the local level. In the past, municipalities built great public transportation and water works. But that is in decline now thanks to the growth of metropolitan areas with broader linkages. In the United States, this was already evident in the late 1930s and early 1940s, in the context of road construction: there was extensive high-income suburbanization in New York already, and each of the suburbs wanted easy road access to Manhattan jobs but did not want to be drive-through country for suburbs farther out. There were political fights over regional planning at the time, and eventually the solution that emerged, enabling regional road planning while protecting the privileges of wealthy suburbs, was Robert Moses’s arbitrary government; once the roads were built, he was no longer necessary, and it became possible to revert to empowering every wealthy community.

And that history is one of roads. Public transportation requires more coordination between different levels of government. Germany divides itself into broad metropolitan regions with their own transport associations, but in some places like Frankfurt and the Rhine-Neckar region they overlap, and even though the boundaries do not conform to state lines except in the Berlin-Brandenburg region and probably North-Rhine-Westphalia, there is no need for local government to exist either.

Tiebout’s law

The idea that people vote with their feet to choose the government they’d like is powerful, and makes a lot of sense at the national and provincial level. I can avoid Bavaria and go to Berlin’s more welfare state-oriented system. But this stops at that level. At the local level, such a broad choice makes no sense. Were the various neighborhoods of Berlin their own autonomous zones like American suburbs, with local tax base, the difference between their provision of services would not be about choice, but about resources. It’s much easier for rich people to cluster in one part of the region, be it Westchester, Hauts-de-Seine, or Charlottenburg, and then work to exclude others from living there, e.g. through restrictive zoning.

What’s more, choosing among 16 German states is reasonable. Even choosing among 50 American states is feasible, since there are differences between various American regions and then people can pick a state within one general area. But choosing among tens of thousands of municipalities is not reasonable. At that level it’s not about exact combinations of issues but about which local government markets itself the best to various classes of people, and about micro-level locations, e.g. on one particular train line. There is no need for such fractional governance.

The democratic deficit

I brought up the issue of the local-level democratic deficit last year. Anti-EU people like complaining about the EU-level democratic deficit, but it’s easier to get informed about EU-level issues in advance of a European Parliament election and choose the right political party for one’s views than to do the same at the local level. I lived in New York through a City Council election and was Facebook friends with a lot of American voters interested in politics and had no idea who was in favor of what, and this has not changed since. Between New York’s extent of primary voter suppression and the total lack of ideological politics, there is no democratic legitimacy in the city’s local elections, and at this point I’m ready to even include the mayor and not just the council.

In Europe, things are not any better than in New York, even though voter turnout is much higher so in principle there should be more democratic legitimacy. I can’t tell you how it even mattered who I voted for in the Stockholm city and county elections, which I was eligible to vote in as an EU citizen. In Berlin I’ve talked to a number of public transportation advocates and I know a lot about Andreas Scheuer and his agenda but about the most I’ve gleaned regarding local elections is the Neukölln bike lane network, except that even there the changes seem subtle by the standards of (say) Anne Hidalgo’s streetscaping, and at any rate people in Neukölln might want to bike to other neighborhoods.

The broad issue here is that local elections are not ideological, but personal. People can pick up an ideology easily and transfer it around. Even modifications for the local situation are not too hard to pick up: people can easily transmit information like “SPD in Berlin is on the moderate side because more left-wing people can vote for Die Linke and the Greens.” I have never lived in San Francisco but could still tell you about the difference between progressives and moderates there and how it differs from same in New York. On the national level it’s even easier, because there’s prestige media covering elections and their issues.

And I suspect that to the people who like localism as it is, the fact that local elections hinge on personality contests is a good thing. If you’ve lived 40 years in one city, you know all the local notables and their petty fights and how you can us them to pass your agenda. You’re empowered. It’s people who have recently moved in who are in practice disenfranchised, but for them you have slurs: “rootless cosmopolitan,” “transplant,” “globalist,” and so on. This democratic deficit persists because powerful people enjoy their power.

This means that the destruction of local government is specifically not just about good government but also about disempowering various local notables, including ones who have sob stories of how much they matter to their communities. They are in favor of bad government, and need to no longer have any power beyond the ability to vote for a party list once in four years.


    • Alon Levy

      Probably, yes. But I say this not knowing what Brandenburg elections are like. Berlin elections are semi-reasonable in that there are clear interpartisan differences, but SPD domination does hurt and I don’t think the possibility of a green-red-red coalition instead of a red-green-red one is enough to provide for ideological competition.

      • Herbert

        They tried in the mid nineties. It failed because Brandenburg voted against it…

  1. adirondacker12800

    Between New York’s extent of primary voter suppression
    Anybody who is eligible to vote can vote in a primary in New York. For the majority of people it involves the burden of checking a box on your application for some other state service, like a driver or non-driver identification. Just awful.

    • Alon Levy

      1. To vote in a primary in New York, you need to have registered with the party a year in advance. In most states the deadline is very close to the primary itself so someone who gets excited over an insurgent candidate can register while the race is in the news, but not in New York.

      2. Early voting in New York is only happening around now and it took a lot of activism.

      3. New York is trying to sue over mail voting because it doesn’t want to make vote by mail easier; I believe it’s the only blue state involved in the lawsuit.

      4. City Council and mayoral elections are on odd years, to reduce turnout.

      5. Even though City Council is 48-3 Democratic, it maintains the fiction of partisan elections and primaries in order to ensure the real elections are lower-turnout primaries (cf. San Francisco, where the elections are nonpartisan because pretty much everyone is a Democrat so might as well vote on election day).

      • adirondacker12800

        1, Too bad, There’s been too much hanky panky. And can be. It maintains freedom of speech and assembly.
        2. The polls are open for 15 hours on Election Day.
        3. They sent every registered voter an absentee ballot application for the primary. Anybody can apply for absentee and use “temporary illness” as the reason for absentee request.
        4 Lots of states do that.
        5. It’s not the Democrats fault the Republicans are so execrable. Don’t like the Democrat, New York has a fusion ballot, don’t vote on the Democratic line.

          • Steve

            Because employers do not want to pay their workers for the day.

          • adirondacker12800

            It used to be and still is for a few people. But then Saint Ronnie of Reagan was elected and being closed for a day would mean making less money, so most people work on Election Day these days. …they only care about money…

          • michaelrjames

            But then Saint Ronnie of Reagan was elected and being closed for a day would mean making less money, so most people work on Election Day these days. …

            …. and you get the best democracy money can buy … (someone had to say it).

      • Nathanael

        Long story, but the Republican gang who controlled the New York State Senate blockaded a bunch of electoral reforms for decades.

        When we finally kicked out the last of the fake Democrats who ran as Democrats but caucused with Republicans in 2018 (this took 10 years, each 2 year we’d get rid of 4-6 of them and 4-6 more would reveal themselves) and got control of the State Senate, a huge raft of electoral reforms passed all at once. There will probably be more in the future, but it was a giant pile.

      • Nathanael

        So first of all, in New York State, Republicans blocked voting reforms using the State Senate for generations.

        We kicked out the Republicans in 2010, and discovered there were fake Democrats caucusing with the Republicans. We kicked them out 2 at a time until we got rid of enough of them in 2018. At that point a huge number of voting reforms passed all at once.

        New York City… is another matter. Conflating it with the state is the sort of thing you’d do if you weren’t thinking clearly. It’s got its own problems, and it has its own anti-democratic faction within the Democratic Party, which is yet another group.

    • Henry Miller

      There shouldn’t be primaries. Have a caucus and decide the candidates at the convention. Primaries allow those who don’t care to cast a vote for anyone. If there was a real causus trump wouldnt have been the candidate because the people who like him didn’t like him enough to continue on, while those who care (and were knocking doors for someone who was way down on their choice list) knew more about their candidate. I lived in Iowa at the time, so I saw who the regular rank and file Republicans supported VS the rest. (and we were the place where trump announced he was running so he got a boost locally for that)

      • adirondacker12800

        The ones that don’t care don’t go to the primary. Or the general election either. If they are are actually registered

        • Henry Miller

          The weakness democracy or republics is minorites. There are many minorities, each with different needs. Sometimes they can make an alliance (particularly when their needs mostly overlap with other groups), but sometimes their needs are expensive enough, or the group is out enough that they are helpless against the will of the majority.

          I have in the past had friends from Washington who complained that Seattle dominates state politics enough that no money is spent on snow removal and thus those out state where there is a significant amount of snow cannot get out for supplies. This is but one example of where a minority feels stepped on by a level of government and needs something else to turn to.

          You can point out the problems with the current system, but your solution makes other problems worse. There is no good clean answer as far as I can tell. I think on balance we have a okay compromise.

          • Henry Miller

            I don’t know how this got posted here not at the top level…

          • michaelrjames


            “The weakness democracy or republics is minorites.

            It is intended to be a strength of democracy: free to do as you wish … as long as you don’t infringe on anyone else’s freedoms.

            What I believe you are really identifying as a weakness is the dominance of two-party systems, which is a feature of the Anglosphere (though to the extent of my poor familiarity, Canada & NZ might not fit this description?). It forces everyone and every issue into false binaries and thus to the extremes, and worse, even when no one especially believes in their positions (but you gotta oppose what the other party’s position. We see its reaching its limits in the US election, and on both sides. Trump and Trumpism has taken over the GOP forcing everyone to either conform or to get out. With the Dems we see the tensions between the old-school moderates (in rest-of-world terms: small-L-liberal conservatives) and progressives who see how broke the system is and want to finally do something meaningful in fixing it–this may yet blow up if they win the election, especially if they win the Senate because true progressives may be able to hold the party to ransom (let’s hope). Boris Johnson is another example of the extreme winning out and simply crushing any opposition within his own party. Ditto in Australia where, starting with village-idiot Tony Abbott the tiny cabal of extreme rightwing nuts dictated policy because they threatened to destroy the joint (in a series of finely balanced governments; indeed 2010-2013 Labor ruled in a minority govt with the Greens and three independents–all 3 of whom were escapees of the major conservative parties; the current conservative govt. has a single seat majority). In general those who disagree with their party have nowhere to go so if they are old they retire (or for John McCain, die) or of course lose in the primaries, or in Boris’s conservatives they get expelled (when Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke get expelled over their anti-Brexit stances you know there is something seriously dysfunctional; also Alistair Campbell from Corbyn’s Labour). With nowhere to go, you get a clutch of Republicans appearing at the only other place possible: the DNC! Or the Lincoln Project insurgency. The centre cannot hold because in essence it doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever did.

            All over the world, the major established parties are fracturing and are well beyond their use-by dates and need to go. It can only change with a change in electoral systems. FPTP systems are terrible, but even Australia’s Preferential Voting (or elsewhere: AV, Alternative Vote) just serves to reinforce the dominant two-party system (via coalitions and arranged vote/preference swapping). This is partly why northern Europe in general has better government via the fairer representation of PR. Though Merkel has managed to turn Germany into a single dominant party affair which is the underlying cause of all their problems. Macron has kind of done the same in France but, as I’ve said on this blog since his and the LREM dominance, it cannot possibly hold–and for the same reasons: such a system cannot possibly satisfy all the diversity of a modern electorate. Minorities can’t get heard, much less get any action. These are not all small minorities. In Australia the Greens get about 12% of the national vote which is why in the Senate (state-based PR voting) they often hold the balance of power, yet have only a single lower house member and are treated with utter contempt by both major parties. When I lived in the UK at the birth of the Lib-Dems (then the Soc Dems formed by the Gang of Four breakaways from Labour) they achieved almost one third of the vote (about 27% IIRC) yet just a few percent of the seats; having seen how their vote was wasted, the next election saw their vote drop hugely. In a repeat performance amid peaking dissatisfaction with the majors, in 2010 the Lib-Dems won 23% of the vote yet obtained only 8.8% of the seats but enough to put them into the disastrous Cameron coalition government.

            It is extraordinarily difficult to change these things. The paradox is that, under a more representative system, the progressives and moderates would rule forever (much as they have in northern Europe) in various coalitions because they really do reflect the majority (and are also more responsible than the Right about honouring that thing about looking after other minorities’ interests). The moderate Republicans speaking at the DNC prove this point. The other irony is that if the Dems win then the so-called centre will claim it proves that they must be centrist and not “radical left” as Trump tries to define them. In turn this will justly infuriate the progressives …

            Hah, I see it is almost exactly ten years since I first wrote about this topic:

            The crisis in governance in two-party systems
            by Michael R James, Friday, 3 September 2010

            Electoral reform to reform fractured politics
            Michael R. James, 25 May 2010.
            The advocates of status quo in our electoral systems argue that strength and stability of such two-party systems is worth the tradeoff in reduced influence of minority interests.

        • Henry Miller

          Problem is that a lot of people want to be seen as caring but without actually learning something about who they vote for. See the Kennedy/Nixon debates (for those who don’t know history, Nixon looked like he was hot on TV and so lost the debate, but to those who listened on the radio he sounded better and won. (I always wondered if anyone studied transcripts without listening and if that would make a difference).

  2. nathanarticulated

    Many metro areas have way to many small cities and that does not make sense. Look at SF Bay area 101 cities. Many city services would always be regional like water, sewage, enviromental services,
    solid and liquid waste, transportation etc.
    It is up to provincial/state govts to
    make some decisions for all these cities, maybe amelgamate some of them. Proper services should be provided consistently regardless where you live in a big metro area.
    In Canada there are vast differences
    between different provinces, taxes
    paid are so much different and that does not make sense. Need proper urban planning to properly plan and have vision for the future.

  3. Matthew Hutton

    If you don’t like local responsibility you’d love Britain where every significant decision is made centrally.

    Except that it doesn’t actually work, and countries such as Germany or France with more local power are more successful.

    • Alon Levy

      There are local elections in Britain all the time, hence e.g. Militant Tendency’s takeover of Liverpool. Big infrastructure decisions are made by the state, but that’s equally true of France and almost as true of Germany (the D-Takt is a national plan that activists took 15 years to push through a CSU-run ministry of transport).

      That said, in North-Rhine-Westphalia, CDU established a quango to run its corona response, with predictable outcomes, so clearly some British ideas have made it here.

      • fjod

        Yeah but there’s no local power, which is a problem. It inhibits the ability of areas to respond to their own situations, and reduces local government to a set of advocates trying to compete with each other for central government handouts to cover all of their investment and much of their basic costs. It leads to stupid outcomes like the fact that Manchester can’t build bike lanes because central government doesn’t want the Labour administration to succeed.

      • michaelrjames

        Matthew Hutton is right. But the problem is that the political cultures and citizen expectations of the two countries are too different. The Brits retain too much of their neo-feudal origins for democratic institutions to work as well as they should. The class system lives on and it prioritizes its own survival above all other considerations. Simon Schama nailed it in his book (Citizens) on the French revolution over 3 decades ago: citizens versus subjects. He himself couldn’t resist the system’s entrapments as he accepted a knighthood a few years ago.

        The other peculiarity of the French system is how politicians can hold both state and local elected positions simultaneously, the cumul des mandats. To the Anglosphere this seems a gigantic conflict of interest, of cronyism and likely to be unworkable, but I’ve come to the conclusion it’s the opposite (however I can’t claim to fully understand it). It does that thing much desired by management consultants: it actually aligns interests between the local/provincial and state levels (and EU too). No doubt there must be instances of abuse of power but I don’t know it is any more (and possibly less) than anywhere else. It may also be a mechanism to counter the over-centralisation in France. While in the Anglosphere (and perhaps most jurisdictions) a political career is usually unidirectional from, say, city councillor/mayor to state/governor to federal, it doesn’t work that way in France. Many state-level politicians (deputies or senators) retain their mayoralties. For example Édouard Philippe just returned to his mayoralty of Le Havre after resigning as PM (he resigned as mayor to become PM but remained a municipal councillor and was re-elected with a super-majority in the recent municipal elections). Alain Juppé was mayor of Bordeaux city from 1995-2019, with only a 2 year break 2004-2006, during which he was a minister of various departments under PMs Fillon and Balladur, and Prime Minister (1995-97) under President Chirac. During this period Bordeaux went thru a transformation, perhaps culminating in its gaining UNESCO status in 2006 (coincident with a rehabilitation of the historic centre including the tramway) and economic revival, all of which is generally attributed to Juppé. Presumably on the back of this perceived local success he decide to have another shot at the presidency in the last cycle but lost to Fillon (who he could not support so quit the party, along with his aide/protege Édouard Philippe).

        One could perhaps argue that the success of provincial capitals owes more to national-level devolution policies (which took hold in the Mitterrand era when I first lived in France, though like many such policies it was bipartisan), and it’s true that all the major provincial cities have had terrific rejuvenation in the last several decades. But equally there is a strong tradition of influential mayors. It may well be that both things work together additively. In the UK especially, but in most of the Anglosphere it is more adversarial and always politically partisan between national and state or local. Though Bloomberg’s creation (and personal funding!) of his association of city mayors is an attempt to overcome those kind of obstacles in a non-partisan way.

  4. Korakys

    This is an interesting idea. I don’t agree but I have for a while thought that municipal governments should be heavily proscribed in what they can do (e.g. the national govt should set zoning laws and then give the local govt fixed percentages for each zone type to decide how to place them). The other big issue with local governments that I see in other countries is that borders are fixed when they should be frequently changed instead, fixing this one problem could by itself be a huge boon.

    In New Zealand we don’t have provincial govt, just national and city/district, except for Auckland which in essence is a provincial govt with no (real) local govt. We for sure have our problems because of this.

  5. Jason

    Some forms of local government services are clearly necessary, from installing pipes to cleaning ditches and repairing potholes, as well as building inspections, maintaining parks and schools, etc etc. It would be inconvenient and inefficient if such minute details like selecting a contractor or deciding what type of tree to plant have to be decided by a state government 500 miles away.

    The question really is how power should be divided between federal, state, and local governments. Clearly giving municipalities vast discretion in zoning is a mistake, so is causing infighting by dividing transit planning among many small competing agencies. I’m not so sure about other types of government policies though – surely some services can be implemented better when the local government is given more control?

    • Joseph

      I’m not sure it’s the case that remote state governments would be less efficient at, say, planting the appropriate type of tree in a city 500 miles away. The National Park System for example is able to maintain a vast number of sites with very different needs spread across North America, presumably a more challenging task than maintaining parks in a single state. If anything placing infrastructure under the state increases the likelihood of municipalities receiving equal funding, since the tax base is shared rather than divided between poor/wealthy areas.

      • Eric2

        Given how a certain US political party is intent on removing as many voting booths as possible from certain parts of town, I doubt they would provide equal park service to those areas.

        • Joseph

          My point is that there’s no reason to believe a state-level government would be less efficient at providing what we are usually municipal services, even though a lot of people are convinced that’s the case. As for your point, if larger regional governments didn’t benefit poorer areas, why are wealthy neighborhoods so eager to secede?

  6. Patrick Jensen

    While I sort of get the line of reasoning that brought you to this conclusion, I don’t think such a broad statement is warranted. Take the example of regional trains in Finland. The whole country has a population of 5 million, which would place it between Rheinland-Pfalz and Hesse in terms of population, a perfectly manageable population.

    The entire railway system is under state control, with very little input from cities. The state has almost completely ignored regional rail and rapid transit in favor of intercity travel. The Helsinki region is the only one that even has the authority to procure rail transit on its own, the rest may only petition the state for regional train service, which has led to perennial underprovision. It’s an example where more devolved decisionmaking would most likely produce better results.

    I thus find the statement “local government = bad” a bit too simplistic. The appropriate level of decisionmaking depends on the incentive structure the particular context creates. Too often, hyperlocal government becomes an example of a repeated prisoner’s dilemma game where the incentives are tilted in such a way that free-riding is the optimal stategy. Of course a centralized (technocratic) government is a possible solution, but there’s no reason why proper burden-allocation and more clearly delimited property rights couldn’t achieve similar results in a more devolved structure.

    • Alon Levy

      What kind of regional rail would even make sense in smaller Finnish cities, though? Finland Proper has 500,000 people, at which level you don’t really see strong public transit anywhere.

      I guess there’s the county-based mechanisms that one sees in Sweden, with regional rail around Gothenburg and such, but that’s specifically not localism – Swedish public transport is run by counties, and big projects are mostly funded by the state, like Citytunneln. And also, both Scania and Västra Götaland are more Uusimaa-size than Finland Proper-size.

      • Patrick Jensen

        The Tampere region has recently started a pilot, which, although more similar to American style commuter trains than proper regional rail, has been positively received. It seems a clarification of terms is in order, because it seems when you say “local” you mean “municipal” in the Nordic context.

        The Finnish system of governance is a bit odd because it’s organized in a two-tier fashion with the state and the municipalities and very little in between. In this system, a lot of tasks would benefit either from being transferred up or devolved down.

        Focusing on transport, the reliance on the top-level government funding for transport infrastructure investment is in my mind pernicious, because it encourages the local/municipal and regional levels to search for big-ticket panacea that will produce a big ribbon to cut out of someone else’s pocket, rather than a strategy for continuous improvement. Compare with the pedagogical effects of kids having to pester their parents for money vs. giving kids an allowance. The latter will learn to use money responsibly much sooner.

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, in the Nordic context I mean municipal, as opposed to the county-wide governance one sees in Sweden (I thought Finland was similar, but maybe the regions of Finland have less autonomy?).

          • Patrick Jensen

            Finnish regions are extremely weak and have few tasks other than rubber-stamping municipal plans into regional master plans. They’re complemented by various ad-hoc municipal organizations, e.g. in the Helsinki region you have:

            – Helsinki Region Transport (Public transportation)
            – the Joint Authority of the Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District (Hospitals)
            – Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority (Water and sanitation)
            – Metropolia University of Applied Sciences (college)

            The state on the other hand has 15 Centres for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment that do some sort of business promotion, manage the highways and monitor environmental protection, as well as 7 Regional State Administrative Agencies that are responsible for permits, work safety, environmental permits, rescue services and overseeing education.

            If this sounds confusing and opaque, it’s because it is. Reform attempts over the decades have been stymied mostly by disagreements over the provision of healthcare, the number of regions and their funding sources. I also suspect progress has been slow because the parliament is unwilling to delegate discretionary spending powers, because that would reduce opportunities for pork spending.

  7. fjod

    Theref are a number of things which have to be managed locally: let’s say maintenance of public squares and parks, or organising markets. Once we accept this, it’s hard to argue that accountable local management is better than top-down management or shadowy and corrupt local societies/guilds (rotary clubs, Merchant Venturers etc). At that point the question is how much governance is local and at what geography, not whether local government should exist at all.

      • Lee Ratner

        At least in the United States, state and national parks are big wilderness areas that are supposed to be protected from development. The public parks maintained by local governments are the type that parents take their children too or have picnics in.

  8. Robert Jackel

    As someone living in Philadelphia, which is attached to an often hostile Pennsylvania, I would not want to lose the buffer of my local government.

    In a lot of ways (most ways!) the Philly local government is crummy, but it’s not gerrymandered to prevent Philadelphians from having a voice. Our government has enough authority to pass much better laws re: wage protection, LGBTQ rights, some amount of protection for immigrants, etc. Our DA is much better than the state AG, who himself is much better than the venal and opportunistic U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Even the collar counties of Philadelphia have a lot of hostility towards the city – the closest thing we have to regional governance is SEPTA, and the planning and projects are largely skewed towards the collar counties, and the agency is run by a suburban man with open disdain for the city.

    Abolishing local government probably makes more sense in a context where the state, as a whole, doesn’t hate the city and everyone in it.

      • Robert Jackel

        Those are different things. The municipality borders are separate from the representative districts, which cross city and county lines. More that, despite routinely losing the overall vote at the state level, Republicans remain with large majorities in both houses of the legislature.

        But yes, also the white flighters in Montco/Chesco are not exactly happy to vote in favor of policies that benefit the city residents.

    • Nilo

      Philadelphia has 38% of the population of Delaware, Chester, Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Bucks Counties. It appoints 2 of the 10 local SEPTA members. A merged government would give quite a bit more power to the city proper than it has at SEPTA.

      • Robert Jackel

        It’s a merged government right now, isn’t it? SEPTA, that is? Assuming a merged government would give Philly more power makes a lot of assumptions of just how that new government would allocate power.

        I don’t think a dissolution of city/county government, and a vesting of that power into the State, will give Philly residents *more* power.

        • Nilo

          No SEPTA gets away with under representing Philadelphia because it’s technically not an elected body and the courts haven’t yet extended “one person one vote” to such commissions. If all counties were merged together the “one person one vote principle” would insist that Philadelphia voters have power in proportion to their numbers.

          I think a problem with Alon’s abolish local government is it works well in places where the subnational entities are logical. The contrast between Australia, where almost every state includes one metropolitan area that houses the overwhelming portion of that state’s population, and the United States where we have a horrifically large amount of “tri-state areas” Makes this readily apparent. IMO since modifying state borders is a tough lift an intermediate step where greater metro area governments makes a lot more sense in the United States, and reestablishes the trend of the first 150 years of the country’s history where cities grew spatially as their populations did.

          Some examples: NYC would annex the entirety of Long Island, Putnam and Westchester. Philadelphia and Chicago would annex their collar counties. San Francisco would annex Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Marin. Los Angeles County would abolish local government and annex the entirety of Orange and Ventura Counties. Redrawing the county lines for San Bernardino and Riverside to include their sprawl portions would probably also be good.

          • Nilo

            In General a solid starting principle in the US IMO would be to abolish all sub county government in most of the country. New England should just merge municipalities.

          • Eric2

            ^ This, at least, is a reasonable starting point for discussion. And it’s not so different from the current situation in some places – Houston for example has expanded to a population of 2.3 million (out of 4 million in the county), with no apparent ill effects.

          • Nathanael

            Nilo is correct. We have bad state borders and bad municipal borders. It would make no sense whatsoever to get rid of municipal government — the state doesn’t really want a State Department of Sewers responsible for handling every independent sewer system in the state, this just makes no sense — but the borders are all wrong right now.

    • Lee Ratner

      In conservative states, the conservative legislature often takes steps to prevent liberal cities from implementing liberal policies because they can. A few years ago the Tennessee legislature prevented Memphis or Nashville from improving transit services within their areas because the conservative legislature hated transit.

      • Henry Miller

        And liberals do the same for their agenda.

        the waters of the US rules would have harmed farmers to advance an agenda. (don’t claim one is good unless you are will to accept them all as good, even those you disagree with)

        • Nathanael

          The waters-of-the-US rule was actually going to help farmers. It was disliked by idiot farmers with no understanding of long-term conservation and appreciated by those who wanted to preserve their ability to farm for many generations. But that’s the difference between right-wing farmers (no long term thinking) and liberal farmers, so…

  9. fjod

    Oh I mean there are just too many parks in any state/country to manage them at anything but quite a local level. You can, as I hinted, have loads of people employed by central government each managing a handful of parks in a small area but I don’t see why you would do this when it’s much easier to coordinate if these things are organised locally. So for example, the person who organises the market on the nearby square needs to coordinate with the people who clean the streets and the people who manage parking (to clear all the cars that usually park there). And all these people need local knowledge (e.g. of footfall at different times) to perform their duties most effectively. This is just far easier to do, and more responsive to local needs, when all these people work for the same body. The alternative is that one works for the national parks department and the other works for the national street cleaners – but if you’ve ever worked in or with government as I have, you’ll know that trying to bury your way deep into a large national-level bureaucracy to find the person responsible for what you want done is very time consuming and often impossible.

    I agree, by the way, that land use and infrastructure planning are in many countries done on too local a scale. But this is not the case for a lot of what government does.

  10. Lev

    Using NYC as an example is odd, because from a NYer perspective, the governments that go up from us (State, Federal) are both substantially worse in terms of competence/democracy, and are openly hostile to the city itself. I don’t really see how putting more power into the hands of 10 million state or 300 million federal voters who have, through their votes if nothing else, clearly communicated an open desire to eat us raw for having too many minorities. Best case scenario I can think of is a DC-ification, which is the one example I can think of in America where local administration has been significantly hampered in the name of larger administrative units – with largely deleterious effects for the disadvantaged in DC.

    • Alon Levy

      In a country that treats direct rule as a punishment, sure, you’ll get patterns like the one for DC. This is similar to how a state takeover of a local school district is a punishment, and the people who the state would put in charge care about cutting the budget rather than improving outcomes. And yet, in developed countries that have national or province-run school systems, outcomes are almost always better than in the US, because a one-state-one-law system forces the state to administer people relatively equally.

      • Lev

        Putting aside my earlier snark I think that this points to a common problem of general US governance – Americans and their governments (local and total) are frequently, even generally, opponents. It’s hard to see a way out, and my time in labor movements makes me think this is a problem of “two-side arguments vs. three-side arguments” (a three side argument is when a union represents itself as an independent mediator between workers and bosses, rather than as a part of the workers), by which I mean “US governments do not put in a good faith effort to govern on behalf of their constituents, but instead place themselves as an independent party.” This is a terminal democratic deficit, and I think that attempts to push around jurisdictional boundaries is victim to all the critiques you raised about incrementalism several posts ago.

        • michaelrjames

          I have had a comment sitting on my screen for a day or two, with my finger poised over the delete or the post buttons. Your comment states the important point in my post (below), about democratic deficits. Instead of trying the impossible and impossibly long-term attempt to change that, the solution is institutional pan-county for the given thing, in this case transit. Obviously it is pretty useless unless it has authority and that means the local entities giving up some portion of their sovereignty on the issue, and that is something many of them, especially the right-wing ones, will die in a ditch defending.
          The disjuncture evident on this comments thread is that Alon assumes competence and rationality improves as you progress up each step in the ladder of government. And that each higher level retains concern for, and protection for the interests of all lower levels–ie. balances overall interests versus local interests. One can see this in action in many nations such as East Asia or northern Europe, but it has clearly fallen down in the Anglosphere, particularly the UK and USA. Any balance has been lost to the big vested interests who grow in size and influence as you go up the ladder. But it is also because both countries are stuck in their past. The UK in its class-based neo-feudalism. The US in its worship of originalism w.r.t. a constitution conceived and written in an age utterly different to today’s, and in fact and with fortunate timing, just before the modern age eg. the age of railways.

          By definition, everyone commenting here understands that transport requires higher-level organisation and thus powers that are well above the local level or even next-level. But the vast majority of Americans believe the opposite: they are stuck in their Jeffersonian ideal of tiny communities in which nothing more than the equivalent of Roman tracks (roads) are needed with the grudging acceptance of a freeway within ten minutes for ‘modern’ purposes, but ideally not actually within their community.

          The same originalism reflects the wider problem of refusal to acknowledge anything can be learned from the rest of the world. Even domains that share some of their regressive social mores. Switzerland comes to mind because they have that dour, brutal Calvinistic outlook which revolves around hyperlocalism and is manifested at all levels, including national. Switzerland is barely a single nation with only a loose federation to handle matters for which there is no alternative (most powers are local, most taxation is local, and hence the jealously guarded cantonal structure and four language groups etc). The Swiss also are hyper-rational and no accident that one of the things they allow the top level of government to control is transport–roads and rail. At the national level the US remained behind the rest of the industrial world until finally in the 50s the feds imposed a national highway plan. When the likely growth of post-war SF Bay Area became evident to many people, it was blindingly obvious that the local level of government was not up to the job yet that is what they had to work with. Clearly those BA counties should have federated their powers w.r.t. transport but instead each jealously and counterproductively retained their absolute veto rights (which in the case of rail actually extended into de facto veto rights in adjoining counties eg. Santa Clara’s control over CalTrain and its ROW) and you got the mess we see today.

          The Swiss with possibly even more fierce notions of localism could do it (and on a wider issue even manage to be a de facto member of the EU! Forget building a Great Big Beautiful Wall, they are a member of Schengen and adhere to FOM.). The Ile de France with its 120 communes and mayors and bewildering array of governance mechanisms has done it. It eludes the US. Even the most ‘enlightened’ domains of NY and CA fail. Health is in the same dilemma–and again contrasts with two of the world’s best health systems in Switzerland and France (and incidentally both largely private, if heavily state regulated).

          The pandemic has revealed this underlying problem cemented with deep distrust of government. I have little optimism that anything can change because the causes are so fundamental and deeply baked-in. But this covid election has actually changed some things, for example no one expects conventions to return to past circuses and it is possible it has finally laid to rest the ridiculous spectacle of a tiny unrepresentative state like Iowa holding the nation to ransom each election year (and by a medieval process of caucusing!). Alon’s article is a cri de coeur to overcome the obstacles but abolishing local government is a non-starter. The solution has successful models out there: power (sovereignty) must be shared and partly delegated. The local entities (counties, cities) must federate their decision-making (on transit), like the Swiss or STIF for Paris or TfL for London etc, where they each have input but no individual veto power. Oh, and the body must not be under the de facto or outright control of the highest authority, eg. like NY state controls NYC-MTA. While that can work elsewhere (eg. France or Japan) it clearly doesn’t in the US.
          Lev said it: there is a lack of good faith in US politics and interactions in general (the Cuomo-Di Blasio standoff shows it is not just between parties).

          • Alon Levy

            First of all, ZVV is a canton-level agency, not a local one. The federal government had to force various organs within the canton to cooperate as a precondition for giving federal funding to rail improvement.

            Second, France is giving Ile-de-France (and separate bodies for the city and the Petite Couronne) more power precisely because having 90590280262.5 communes run by NIMBY mayors whose first priority is to fight against affordable housing is no way to run the EU’s largest metropolitan area. To some extent this goes back to the 1960s and the creation of the regions, since the departments are too small. If there weren’t a psychological barrier coming from the Périphérique, Paris would’ve amalgamated with at least the entire Petite Couronne sometime this century.

          • michaelrjames

            You’re missing the most important point. What Ile de France and France in general is doing is working. Your dream scenario is to abolish all those smaller entities, from the 120+ communes of Ile de France, or the 96 departments* etc. Yet, as reality and every comment on this thread shows, it is extremely difficult to do anywhere in the democratic world. Creating new entities that span the smaller ones is an alternative … and.it.works.

            Of course a common complaint is that France is grotesquely over-governed. It may even be true but what do you or people want? No progress on things that matter … or progress? BTW, France’s system of appointing existing elected officials–from the current constituent smaller bodies–to the executive of the larger entity is also a good mechanism. Retains democratically elected officials, and presumably nominally experienced administrators and a measure of local input and accountability. It’s similar to the Swiss federal system of having the top position rotate amongst the 7 member executive council. Whatever and however, it seems to avoid the toxic hyperpartisanship and institutional and political paralysis that afflicts the US. In some ways Bloomberg’s ‘federation’ of city mayors might be inching towards something similar–it certainly is a deliberate attempt to overcome the stasis and toxic partisanship of higher level polities in the US.
            *though fewer per cap than the 26 Swiss cantons each of which (wiki) “has its own constitution, and its own parliament, government, police and courts”. Nevertheless, hard to argue it doesn’t work. Unless, re Ile de France or France or Switzerland, that is what you are arguing?

          • Alon Levy

            The complaint in France is that there are too many communes.

            And no, appointing existing electeds to higher office is not actually good. In practice, it’s the American systems of councilmanic privilege or aldermanic privilege: in non- or weakly partisan legislatures, e.g. city councils that are 90%+ Democratic, there is no sense of majority and minority and therefore members defer on decisions to the member who represents the relevant district.

          • michaelrjames

            “And no, appointing existing electeds to higher office is not actually good.”

            That is the default assumption which, as I wrote in my first post, I had assumed too. Seeing France and how successful some of its government operations are made me rethink it. Which is no proof, but there must be some fundamental reason as to why France gets so much right when one’s superficial view of the French is … ahem, not so different to the Italians who seem to be always brawling and perpetually stuck in institutional gridlock. OTOH, my concept may be wrong but you’ve never come up with a plausible explanation as to why Ile de France works so well (transit wise, and please don’t bring up Zurich or other tiny jurisdictions). Yonah Freemark uses it as a model that US cities should follow. The SF Bay Area is broadly comparable to Ile de France, with about 10m (versus 12.4m) people spread across 9 (or 14) counties (versus 8 departments) and 101 cities (versus ≈120 communes). I’ve just reviewed (superficially) Bay Area institutions and one can see that inter-regionally they are very weak:

            The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) is a regional planning agency incorporating various local governments in the San Francisco Bay Area in California. … All nine counties and 101 cities within the Bay Area are voluntary members of ABAG. As an advisory organization, ABAG has limited statutory authority. It is governed by its General Assembly, which consists of an elected official (delegate) from each city and county which is a member of the organization.
            There are over
            two dozen public transit agencies in the Bay Area with overlapping service areas that utilize different modes …

            In fact ABAG does consist of elected officials from each member but it is obvious it doesn’t have enough executive authority. And clearly there is often lack of good faith between the parties on some important long-range planning.

          • Alon Levy

            It’s a default assumption coming from serious problems of having people be masters of a fief. In France this problem doesn’t exist much because the legislatures are all partisan, so the dual mandates are less important because what really governs is the legislative majority; but in legislatures that are not so governed, e.g. safe US states and cities and the EU Parliament, it’s imperative to avoid this kind of councilmanic privilege.

          • Nathanael

            What michaelrjames said. I think you have it exactly right, Michael.

          • michaelrjames

            In my earlier post, as an almost throwaway line I wrote:

            “Health is in the same dilemma–and again contrasts with two of the world’s best health systems in Switzerland and France (and incidentally both largely private, if heavily state regulated).”

            This note is just to alert readers of an excellent analysis of Swiss healthcare that just aired on PBS-Newshour. It is part of a series by reporter William Brangham in which he and various experts accompanying him on his world tour examine the health systems of the UK (last night), Switzerland and tomorrow Australia. But I think the Swiss story tonight was a standout. In fact I found the UK report disappointing as it didn’t seem to address the relevant issues while this one addressed them all. Being almost entirely a private market, it surely has more appeal to the US (I’m wondering if Romneycare was inspired by it?), namely (1) health insurance is compulsory, (2) it is somewhat expensive ( and (3) it is highly regulated, both the charges permitted for medical services and drugs etc. There are co-pays but there is a yearly cap on out-of-pocket charges so it doesn’t drive bankruptcy even though plenty complain about the cost; a family of four they interviewed (American father, Swiss mother) said it was expensive at 16% of household income but he agreed with it. Clearly the upper-middle earners effectively subsidize the lower end who pay less. The total cost works out to about 11-12% GDP which is the same as France which is the other country with the highest cost in the OECD. The US is still ≈50% higher with far poorer outcomes (and 5 years lower lifespan but even worse health associated with ageing). They have near complete population coverage.

            One of the experts, Victor Rodwin (Health Policy at NYU) explained that the Swiss have the world’s lowest “affordable mortality rate” which is the mortality due to treatments that could have saved life. The US has the world’s worst–ie. it chooses to let its citizens die. He pointed out that the US has much bigger health problems at the lower SES end, but equally that is a product of the system which a Swiss system would eventually reverse.
            Wait times are low because there are plenty of doctors and they are well paid and responsive.
            Insurance is with private companies but is mandatory. If you don’t pay the government will eventually garnish your wages. But the vast majority of people do it voluntarily though it is also pointed out that life is difficult without proof of insurance for all kinds of things like renting an apartment, having a drivers license etc. One young person interviewed (who to my ears was British, she was also overweight which vibes with ….) who complained at it being mandatory as she had low pay (waitress) and she didn’t need it as she was healthy. Doh, you see what I mean, either Brit or American, in utter failure to understand how insurance works.

            Anyway, a balanced report by PBS (not polemical like Michael Moore). The series was made early in the year before covid-19. It will be free to watch online now.
            I guess they covered the UK as an example of a purely state-run system, the Swiss as a private system and Australia as a mixed system. The UK system is heavily stressed by persistent underfunding, especially by Conservatives but also by absurd schemes from Blairite-Labour to introduce “internal market mechanisms” (and it has to be said by the bigger health burden of the Brits) but it could mostly be that they spend 50% less of GDP than the Swiss & French. The Australian system has a very good outcome but is under strain and IMO is unsustainable in current form (and conservatives are constantly trying to push people into the private system).
            Do I need to apologise for posting this on a transport blog? No. The reasons why the Swiss (and French) have a much better healthcare system than the UK are the same as to why they have superior transport systems.

  11. conservadox

    In US transportation policy, state governments are dominated by rural and suburban voters, and thus completely hostile to urban interests. So in most of the US, “no local government” basically means “no public transit, and lots of roads for the rural areas.”

    • Alon Levy

      The situation in the US today is, plenty of local government and also no public transit and lots of roads for the rural areas. The only metro regions that have any public transit are in states where the state government is not particularly hostile to urban interests.

    • Nilo

      NY throws tons of money at the MTA it’s just wasted. Not at all apparent that Illinois would do a worse job directly managing Metra and especially Metra/CTA interface than Metra does right now. Maryland has run mass transit at the state level for a long time, the existence WMATA just make the picture really messy.

  12. Peter Johnston

    I think abolishing all government below the subnational level is a bit too coarse. I’m in California, with 40m people and the world’s fifth biggest economy were it independent. We definitely need sub-state levels of government 🙂

    Also, this is related to a critique of San Francisco Bay Area transit activists’ call for regional transit unification. One danger of full agency unification is ceding control to millions of voters far from you that don’t necessarily share your values. Compare the FY 2019 operating budgets for a sample of the local transit operators in the Bay Area – there’s a strong argument to be made that the current fractured governance gives more progressive places like SF the ability to tax and fund better services:

    – San Francisco county (SFMTA): $1.2b or $1360 per capita (figure includes non-transit spending too, since SFMTA manages streets, taxis, etc). 3500k revenue hours or 4 rev-hr per capita.

    – San Mateo county (SamTrans): $190m or $261 per capita. 630k revenue hours or 0.87 rev-hr per capita.

    – Santa Clara county (VTA): $500m or $259 per capita. 1669k service hours or 0.87 ser-hr per capita. (it’s remarkable how close the per capita figures are for these two)

    I strongly believe the Bay Area needs a wider area government to handle problems like transit fare / schedules integration, not to mention vexing problems like housing that the local governments have totally failed to address! But abolishing local government doesn’t feel like the solution to me. I don’t want the suburbs’ values when it comes to transit!

    • nathanarticulated

      I agree. However many suburbs do not want to increase their density and population but they cry for better Transit. There are many examples similar to SF Bay Area but the statistics that you quoted are usually not available. In Canada the highest level of service hours per Capita is only around 3 in Toronto/Montreal in other cities it is between 2 to 2.5 hours per capita.

    • Alon Levy

      Localism means ceding control to people who live near me and do not share my values, because as empowered local voters they’re probably landlords who’ve lived here for decades and feel nostalgic about an era when the city was poorer but they were younger.

      You bring up San Francisco in this context, but transportation is regional, and having a rail network that isn’t useful outside a small central city isn’t too useful. Of note, in Vancouver transportation is a regional issue, run by the province and the metro area and not just by the city. People in the Vancouver suburbs have the same auto-oriented values as in the San Francisco suburbs. The compromises with them do lead to some useless stuff like the SkyTrain extension into Langley, but worse compromises than those happen in fractionalized networks like SF’s (or semi-fractionalized ones like LA’s and San Diego’s, which are technically county-run but have to get supermajorities for tax increases), but investment is still a lot better. There’s TOD thanks to weak local empowerment, much greater professionalism at TransLink than at anything American, lower construction and operating costs, and generally more willingness to build strong lines.

      • Matthew Hutton

        Localism doesn’t have to mean that. You can have local meetings in the evening. You can force them to be advertised. You can make sure they don’t run on.

        • Alon Levy

          Yes, you could. But in practice it doesn’t happen, because people who work for someone else are likely to be commuting across neighborhood or borough borders and to have social circles that cross neighborhood or borough borders, and therefore are necessarily less interested in random local issues like park shade. If it takes several hours a week to prep to be politically empowered, you’re necessarily biasing yourself in favor of retirees, the petite bourgeoisie, and (less now than in the 1950s) middle-class wives.

          • fjod

            So the proposed solution is have no representation rather than imperfect representation? This is an odd approach to problem solving: if you applied this approach to public transit it would result in scrapping the idea of public transit in much of the inland US rather than building on the flawed but present infrastructure.

        • Reedman Bassoon

          For example …..

          Memphis. When Elvis bought Graceland, it was in Whitehaven. Tennessee allowed cities to forcibly annex their neighbors. So, as Memphis became poorer and more dysfunctional, Memphis took over its suburbs, which had jobs and people. Federal Express made Memphis Airport its master hub. So, for a while, Olive Branch, Mississippi was the fastest growing city in the US, because you could buy/build a house and have a FedEx job with a modest commute, but be guaranteed you wouldn’t be sucked into Memphis government. The same think happened in West Memphis, Arkansas. Tennessee no longer allows forced annexation.

          San Jose completely surrounds some neighborhoods that refuse to become part of the city (some of these are only about two blocks by three blocks in size). If they call for police help, the county sheriff responds.

          Highland Park and Hamtramck are both completely surrounded by Detroit.

    • Car(e)-Free LA

      I disagree. At the very least, what is the benefit of having Atherton, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Walnut Creek, Albany, Marin City, etc., etc., etc. being independent? As a starting point, turning Marin, Alameda, San Mato, Santa Clara, and Contra Costa into consolidated city-counties with unified school districts removes useless local control from what is essentially the neighborhood level.

      • Eric2

        But what have you gained? The people in Atherton and the people in Palo Alto agree on most issues. Merge the two, and you will have more of the same, with no change. Merge areas with different priorities and demographics, and one will impose its priorities on the other. Sometimes this works out for the best, but usually not.

        In short there are no simple answers here.

        • Alon Levy

          No, because once you merge things into a larger constituency, different groups of people get empowered. You see this in California in the state legislature versus on the local level – SB 50 won NorCal handily, even though local governments elected in theory by the same voters are very NIMBY.

          • Herbert

            Local government in the U.S. is the worst it could possibly be.

            In much of Europe and even some of the global south, mayors are those pushing the most for progressive transportation solutions…

            I for one wouldn’t like “red Vienna” to be taken over by Sebastian Kurz…

          • Eric2

            So government by all of California is bad, because SB50 fails, but government by NorCal would be good, because SB50 would pass there? I think you contradicted your point about local government being bad.

          • Alon Levy

            No, government by all of California is better than local government, because evidently in California SB 50 came close to passing, and in both NorCal and SoCal the state legislature voted YIMBYer than the respective local governments. California YIMBY is generally weak in the South and it’s something the YIMBY orgs know and are trying to work on. In LA, the NIMBY interests tend to be very local, e.g. AHF, Beverly Hills, the homeowners who form Portantino’s base, so over time expansion of state power relative to local power would lead to YIMBYer results, and the NIMBYs know this.

          • Eric2

            SB50 came close to passing, but it DIDN’T pass. If NorCal and SoCal were run separately, it would have passed in the north. That is an explicit case where local government would have given better results (for the policies that we think are better) than no-local-government.

            “In LA, the NIMBY interests tend to be very local,” – this is true everywhere. NIMBYs care about their own backyard, that’s in the name, and it’s inherently local. Atherton NIMBYs care about Atherton, Palo Alto NIMBYs care about Palo Alto.

            The key point being: any land use policy within a metro area affects all other parts of the metro area. Neighborhoods frequently believe that development is not in their interests, for widely varying reasons (to remain socially “exclusive”, to prevent “gentrification”, to prevent further car congestion, or simply because people like familiarity and dislike uncertainty). While we can trust the neighborhood to speak for its own interests (that’s democracy), anti-development policy has externalities in terms of high housing prices throughout the metro area. So it is appropriate for land use policy to be decided on the level of the entire metro area, not the level of individual suburbs, to properly take these externalities into account. But externalities between metro areas are negligible, so there is no good reason and lots of danger in letting a far-off government, lacking local knowledge, make decisions they will have no accountability for.

            (Despite being introduced by a “far-off government”, SB50 is still justified because any law restricting landowners from building on their property is dubious to begin with, and SB50 would reduce those restrictions, while at the same time we expect SB50 to benefit society in general)

    • Nilo

      People in Santa Clara at least are plenty happy to vote for money for transit, it just all gets wasted on dumb BART to SJ projects instead of connecting bus service to upgraded Caltrain. Merging with SF could very well bring the welcome benefit of flushing most of the people who don’t know anything out of the transit space, and letting the competent professional staff in SF manage everything effectively.

  13. Matthew Hutton

    I think the main thing people doing big infrastructure projects fail to do is to provide win-wins for the communities they pass.

    For example if someone wants to build 150 houses off a road that the community accepts has traffic problems then it’s a bit of a kick in the teeth when there is no money for a pedestrian controlled crossing on that road. Now sure there are NIMBYs who are against all development, but I think there aren’t as many as you’d think, and a lot of people probably find it appearing when they’ve sat in 20 community meetings to hear about a problem and then someone is coming in to make it worse.

    Another example would be knocking down houses to build infrastructure. If we gave people $100k cash on top of the market value to have their house knocked down I think people would probably actively encourage it, and if we gave people $100/night cash for the disruption I’m sure that would go down well too.

    If we spent $5 million a kilometre (and I think we don’t need to spend anything like that much) on community improvements as part of High speed 2 but that meant we could build it for french costs without lots of unnecessary tunnels that would be a big win.

    • Matthew Hutton

      Some examples of community improvements could be bypasses for any villages and small towns on main roads approaching a station and perhaps anyway, cycle lanes connecting every village and area with difficult roads within 5 miles of every station, public transport improvements for any new stations, improved cycle access to existing stations away from new stations on the new line and if there isn’t anything like that you can always do improvements to community buildings, schools and religious buildings.

  14. Eric2

    Your suggestion means to concentrate all the power of government in a single place. Think about what that would actually lead to.

    The most recent party to control all three branches of government in the US was the Republicans. If there were no local or state governments in the US, Republican federal law would be the only standard everywhere in the US. Gays would have no protection against discrimination. Abortion would be effectively outlawed in most places due to onerous government restrictions. Every state would be a “right to work” state with limited union activity. Homeless and other social services would cease to exist. No state or city could require masks to protect against covid19. Is this really what you want?

    • Alon Levy

      When it comes to human rights, state Republican parties have already passed preemption laws to prevent cities from enacting progressive legislation, e.g. in Indiana and North Carolina. (And meanwhile, it’s the Republican Supreme Court that read 1960s civil rights law to include protections for LGBT people.) This also includes masks – I know some red states preempted mask mandates, but I forget which.

      But with corona specifically, there really aren’t any red and blue states, only failed states. The worst governor is Cuomo. The mere presence of states empowered to act on the crisis – as opposed to states that relinquished this power to the federal government during the peak of the pandemic as in Germany – discourages responsible behavior. In a pandemic, the least responsible person chooses society’s risk level, and this is also true for the level of communities (e.g. Berlin in Germany, with its YOLO attitude toward indoor parties). So you definitely want this to be handled at the highest possible level, which here means the EU and not even Germany.

      • Eric2

        “In a pandemic, the least responsible person chooses society’s risk level,”

        No, this is backwards. In the US, the federal government could require masks, or states could require masks, or cities could require masks. Any level of government could protect society, and in practice both cities and states have done so in various parts of the US (just as countries have outside the US). In contrast, lack of state/local government would leave everything up to the whims of Donald Trump. And we know how that works out.

        (There have been a couple cases where states tried to override cities’ attempts at protection, but the effect of these cases is miniscule compared to the effect of the various positive actions – while still insufficient – by either cities or states.)

      • adirondacker12800

        The infection rate in New York City is a quarter of a percent, in New York state it’s three quarters of a percent. It’s 20 percent in Arizona. New York has a mask mandate which is being effectively enforced and many businesses are still closed. Red states still aren’t sure it’s needed. I even had elective surgery in June. Who is doing better? … and deaths per 100,000 were higher in New Jersey.
        NIce sortable lists that get updated regularly

        • Alon Levy

          That’s not the infection rate, that’s the positivity rate. The infection rate in New York is still higher than in Berlin, as in 48 states, and the death rate in New York and New Jersey in March and April was horrendous.

      • Nathanael

        OK, now you’re out of your mind, Alon. Nobody half-sane wants the explicitly dysfunctional Trump-McConnell government in charge of *anything*, not even his own aides.

        Update your information, Alon. While the whole US is still doing badly, it’s undeniable that NY is the national leader at this point. The primary mistake made by NY, early on, was assuming that we had a federal response; we know better now. Had we recognized the lack of federal response, we could have shut down the airports and locked out the Floridians and Italians earlier. Our primary problem now is imported cases and unwillingness to close the southern border.

        • Nathanael

          The “highest possible level”, emphasis on “possible”. EU wasn’t a possible level; neither was the US federal level. Obviously, WHO/UN would have been ideal but they weren’t possible either.

  15. SouthJerseyOne

    There has been a significant debate in the State of New Jersey about the existence of local for approximately 25 years, starting from the time of the Whitman administration. The passion of the discourse has ebbed and flowed with time. My understanding is that New Jersey is one of only four states to have a local municipality in place for every square inch of territory.

    This organization — http://www.couragetoconnectnj.org/ — was formed more than a decade ago with the intent to advocate and educate about the high costs associated with supporting an excessive amount of local government entities. One focus of the organization is the consolidation of smaller towns into larger ones, with the primary argument for consolidation being financial. I’m not clear from the organization’s website if it is still actively being advocated, but at one point there was a policy position that no local municipal government entity should have a population of less than 50,000 residents. I firmly believe in the concept of local government consolidation or elimination if it makes sense, but this strikes me as one size fits all. IMHO, the context of population and density in a particular county should be considered when establishing a minimum threshold.

    Through my empirical observation, it appears that people in New Jersey want cost reduction (i.e. lower property taxes), but have no interest in consolidation or elimination of local government as a remedy. They believe two things: 1) that the local government officials serve as a firewall against the possibility of a negative circumstance (i.e. locating an unwanted institution or service in their community), and 2) that the true problem creating financial strain for government isn’t related to economy of scale (or lack thereof), but rather is the result of what they believe are unnecessarily inflated public sector salaries. This is especially true among the subset of working class residents with limited education that support Donald Trump.

    Neither of these beliefs are beneficial to a whole region, but the focus of concern for many is generally only the parochial interests of their community, not anything beyond its boundaries. Some of this is driven by racism. The direct manifestation of these perspectives is that facilities deemed to be undesirable (incinerators, sewage processing plants, jails, drug treatment centers, etc.) tend to be located in lower income, majority BIPOC cities (i.e. Camden, NJ) that have few resources available to mount an effective opposition. City residents are effectively forced to subsidize suburban dwellers who enjoy higher property values due to lack of proximity to that which is unwelcome in their own communities.

    In many other U.S. states, local government services (to the degree they exist) are provided at the county level. This allows costs to be distributed across a larger number of residents, and in many rural areas, some activities must be performed by the property owner (i.e. taking trash to the local dump vs. curbside trash collection). Even this has proven to be anathema to many New Jersey residents.

    Some (though not all) solutions are simple. Lying opposite Manhattan, very urban Hudson County, with an estimated population of 672.4K in 2019 and a land area of 46.2 sq mi encompasses some of the highest population densities — 14,415/sq mi (5,566/km2) — found in the U.S. It would replace Nashville as the 23rd largest city in the country, and it makes sense for it to be consolidated into a combined City/County form of government like those found in Philadelphia and Baltimore. By contrast, rural Cumberland County (pop. 150K) in southern New Jersey could have 11 local governments eliminated, with services provided at the county level. Vineland (pop. 60K) , Millville (pop. 28.4K) and Bridgeton (pop. 25.3K & county seat) are the 3 municipalities large enough to remain.

    Despite the prevailing attitudes of the masses, there are example of successful consolidation in New Jersey. From NJ Spotlight —

    “The merger of the 12,000-resident Princeton Borough with the surrounding 16,000-resident Princeton Township was New Jersey’s first municipal consolidation in over a decade when it went into effect on January 1, 2013, creating a new municipality that now covers a swath of more than 18 square miles that includes Princeton University. Delivering $3.9 million in gross savings, according to municipal records, the merger came on the fourth try over several decades for such a consolidation even as the school district that serves the two communities had already merged into a regional district. Under unified government, police officers can now race to emergencies without having to waste time checking jurisdictional boundaries. But there are also fewer total members in the combined force; the number of sworn officers dropped from 60 to 54, according to municipal records. In all, the total workforce was reduced from 229 employees to 204 because of the consolidation, according to the records. Additional indirect savings will be accruing as the two towns won’t have to cover long-term pension benefits for employees who are no longer on the payroll.”

    Readers should understand that Princeton is a community with citizen education and income levels far in excess of the state and national average. These factors played a significant part in the success of the of the consolidation effort.

  16. Leo Shirky

    In the case of New York, the metro region extends across three, arguably four states. Would you be content letting the laws, policies, and transportation in the NY metro area to vary so much? Connecticut could remain a tax haven for the wealthy even if Nassau and Suffolk are brought more in line with the city. Or, would you propose to create metro governments that cross state borders in cases where that makes more sense?

    Entirely unrelated, but what about cities whose ideology differs from their state’s dominant ideology (in the US this is borne out as progressive cities in conservative states)? Should Austin, Texas, or Atlanta, Georgia be forced into compliance with the Republican government of their states, despite the people living and working in those cities largely opposing Republican ideologies? Shouldn’t Atlanta be able to enforce a mask mandate even if the Governor won’t, in order to protect their own citizens?

    • Alon Levy

      [I killed a duplicate comment.]

      Austin, Atlanta, and so on already have to comply with Republican ideology on anything that is truly important to the state. There are state-level preemption laws against human rights ordinances. A trans Chicagoan I know told me a few years ago that they’re physically afraid of going to gaming conventions anywhere in Texas, even in Austin, because of bathroom laws. Charlotte was very famously hit with a preemption law leading to the statewide bathroom law. Atlanta gets no state funding for public transportation and not much for roads, and this is not something that can be fixed with more local autonomy because any local tax will just lead to local tax arbitrage.

  17. Frederick

    Definitely, Alon and the American readers here are talking past each other.

    When Alon speaks of “local government”, what he imagines is probably something like a London borough council, governing some tens of squared mile and 300 thousand folks. In contrast, when the Americans speak of “local government”, they think of the county-level government, one of which governs 10M people and some others govern more than 10k sq miles.

    • Alon Levy


      And when I speak of local government I mostly think of fractionalized American suburbs, like New England townships with their segregated school districts.

      • Herbert

        Thanks to annexationism, many local governments in Germany actually govern substantial areas. Berlin with municipal boundaries drawn in 1920 is actually the odd one out here…

      • Nathanael

        School districts are another matter. And they’re bonkers: school district boundaries are *totally independent* from municipal boundaries. Given that voters often care more about the school district they’re in than the municipality, it might make sense to redraw all the municipal borders along the school district borders, just as a first reform.

    • Mike

      American “local government” is each suburb in a county. County-level services would be more like a London borough. Suburbs incorporate specifically to limit growth and avoid annexation.

      • fjod

        This is kind of the opposite: London boroughs are a lot less powerful than US counties and a little less powerful than most US cities (e.g. no control of police), but much more comparable to the latter. The London Borough model is also just not the standard way local government is structured in the UK or the rest of Europe, much like NYC’s boroughs.

        • Herbert

          The boroughs are powerful enough to stop “bicycle superhighways” through their territory…

          • fjod

            US cities can also do this though; in fact they also generally control public transport, road maintenance, spatial planning and police. Hence why I said US cities are a little more powerful.

          • fjod

            Yeah sorry this was my imprecision in phrasing. What I meant was that London-style boroughs are not the typical form of government for European cities, just like New York’s boroughs are not typical for the US. I didn’t mean to imply they had similar powers.

        • Lee Ratner

          New York City boroughs are basically powerless vestiges of when the boroughs were separate counties. They might have their borough Presidents but the main purpose is for providing organizational geography for the judicial system and other things. London boroughs and Tokyo wards have more administrative powers and responsibilities.

        • Mike

          I meant US counties are the SIZE of London boroughs. Most US counties have up to a million people, and the largest ones have 2-3 million. New York City’s boroughs are counties. London has roughly the population of New York and a handful of boroughs. So if you want to amalgate responsibilities the easiest way, counties would be the way to go. States are often too large and urban-hostile.

  18. Herbert

    You forget an important part. In most places, cities are more progressive than the average. Bavaria is deep black and even rural Franconia is pretty black. Munich had one one term CSU mayor as an aberration to SPD rule. Nuremberg just elected the second term of CSU mayorship in history. Erlangen+ county sends a right wing CSU member to Berlin, but the mayor of Erlangen is an openly admitted member of the left wing of the SPD.

    Similar things apply in Saxony, which is brown black statewide but has strong leftists in Leipzig, Dresden or Chemnitz. NRW may be structurally “red” but the NRW SPD is pro coal and pro cars on the state level, locally they’re far more NUMTOT…

    Schleswig Holstein is a “swing state” statewide because red Lübeck and Kiel are balanced by brown black rural areas…

    A lot of pro bike and pro transit policies would have local majorities if they were allowed under state or federal law. To give just one example, to designate a street 30 km/h max. the local government needs to give reasons for it and they can’t do it for roads that “belong to” state or feds.

    I’m Facebook friends with several city councillors. I’m not sure I’ve spoken to an MP more than once…

    • michaelrjames

      Berlin reports rise in fatalities as new bike lanes fail to keep cyclists safe
      Campaigners demand more rules for lorries after initial hope pandemic would mean less traffic
      Philip Oltermann, 24 Aug 2020

      A coronavirus-related drop in traffic and new protected bike lanes have failed to make Berlin’s roads safer for cyclists, as the German capital reports a four-year record in fatalities. A woman run over by a right-turning articulated lorry in the district of Reinickendorf on Friday became Berlin’s 14th official cycling fatality of 2020 – more than twice as many as the six recorded in 2019.
      But according to Siegfried Brockmann, an accident researcher for the German Insurance Association, the coronavirus crisis has mainly reduced the number of passengers on public transport, while the number of cars on the city’s roads has risen back to normal levels or higher.
      Articulated lorries were involved in six of the 14 accidents resulting in cycling fatalities in Berlin this year.

      This mirrors what happened in London almost a decade ago:

      .. 14 cyclists have died this year in London as opposed to eight soldiers in Afghanistan.

      Boris Johnson: “There have now been six cycling fatalities on the capital’s roads in two weeks and a total of 14 so far in 2013,” he wrote in an open letter. “Heavy goods vehicles were involved in nine of the fatal crashes — that’s 64 percent of the fatalities — despite making up less than 5 percent of traffic. In Paris, last year there were zero cyclist fatalities.”

    • Alon Levy

      The problem with 30 km/h localism is that it’s very easy for drivers to just suburbanize. Car use is already much lower in the big cities than in suburbs and small cities, so 30 km/h limits create a little bubble where it’s nicer to walk but don’t do much to reduce overall v-km. This has been the main limit on American cities’ ability to demotorize – early attempts to pedestrianize streets, e.g. in Buffalo, failed, and so far the only successes have been in huge cities like New York in which there is no alternative to the CBD.

      I spoke to a Landtag member on Twitter once. He Aryansplained gentrification to me. He represents a district where probably around half the population are people of color and yet he thinks that his opposition to neighborhood change (Neukölln is undergoing net white flight, not gentrification) is antiracist.

  19. Lee Ratner

    Nearly every country found it necessary to divide itself into second and third tier administrative units because the national government can’t handle every issue or doesn’t really want to deal with every local annoyance and concern. The purpose of second and third tier governments is to cover these issues because people elected to Congress or even the state houses don’t want to be talking about sewage in rural county A or city B. Democratic legitimacy requires that these second and third tier local governments be elected rather than administrated by appointed officials. I suspect that in nearly every country, people in the periphery areas are going to be annoyed if every decision gets made at the center even if the latter might technically be superior. So local government exists as a necessity for democratic legitimacy and because national level politicians don’t want to handle everything even if it leads to many subpar decisions.

    • Alon Levy

      Not because the national government (or provincial government) can’t handle it, but because it couldn’t in the 19th century and localism kind of stuck. Since then, state capacity has grown with the formation of professional civil services rather than the clientelism of Andrew Jackson and with mass media making local intermediaries no longer necessary, and localism has become more problematic with the growth of metropolitan areas leading to tax and regulatory arbitrage.

      • Herbert

        The civil service having a mind of its own is blamed on some problems in Berlin as is (e.g. Trams and bike lanes taking too long to implement). How would that get better if local government is replaced by unelected civil servants?

  20. Lee Ratner

    After reading the entire thread, I’m really not sure at what Alon is getting at. The argument seems to be that eliminating local government and doing everything at the first and second tier level is going to get rid of the worst aspects of localism/provincialism because reasons and provide for superior administration of regional services because of better coordination. The latter might be true but I’m not sure of the former. Recent politics has shown that you can get irrational majorities electing bad governments at a national level like Orban in Hungary. American politics would have conservative state governments dominate many liberal cities and preventing the implementation of any liberal policy on social issues or planning issues. The only real way to get perpetual progressive governance is to have a citizenry that perpetually elects progressive politicians like the Nordic countries or to really empower the civil service at the expense of elected politicians to counteract any time the citizenry might decide to get wild in who they put into power.

    • Alon Levy

      You (and others in comments) keep saying “would have” for things that are actually happening. Even before the post-2010 changes in US partisanship, state governments treated inner cities like Detroit and Atlanta like glorified Judenrats, deprived of resources under court rulings that permitted school segregation by preexisting municipal boundaries and put under constant threat of state interference. More recently we’ve seen this method applied to better-off cities that were too liberal for the state’s taste, like Charlotte and Indianapolis, but the primary use of this method is to segregate government. This is why Americans tolerate this even though it visibly produces worse educational outcomes for the same amount of money – it empowers the local Karens, and rich suburbs can afford to spend $30,000 per student to get comparable outcomes to what we here get for €10,000.

      • Lee Ratner

        I’m still not seeing how you are going to get better results by eliminating local government because the electorate is going to be the same people. Either you need a way to neuter the malign parts of the electorate or hope that the electoral calculus changes for better results.

        • Alon Levy

          The point is that the human rights problems are already present, so might as well require the state to directly administer all parts of its jurisdiction, including the ghettos.

          • SB

            That is separate argument from eliminating local government.
            I think part of the pushback is that you are trying to combine different arguments (eliminate local government, zoning laws should not be at not local levels, US states should treat all parts of their state fairly, voters deserve the government that they voted for) into one big confusing claim.

          • adirondacker12800

            The yokels who whine about how the big city makes them do all sorts of awful things that they don’t need out in the country don’t want to be treated fairly. They want to keep sucking great big rivers of subsidies out of the city.

          • Lee Ratner

            So in other words, the conservative state government in Tennessee should be allowed to appoint a prefect over Nashville and Memphis that goes against the desires of the actual residents.

          • Alon Levy

            Yes, exactly, as it does today except without the bullshit Judenrat layer that lets the state deflect attention from its failings.

          • adirondacker12800

            Lee, as long as it is his autocrat, the one who shares his view that the bus should come every ten minutes. Not the one that says buses are icky and everybody should drive their own car everywhere.

          • Nathanael

            Well, Alon, that’s completely idiotic. You’re making a “heighten the contradictions” argument which is obvious bullshit. I mean, I’ve read better “heighten the contradictions” arguments — unlike better arguments, you don’t even bother to argue for why this would actually lead to any improvement whatsoever.

    • Herbert

      Urban people tend to be more progressive. Which is why many major cities have rarely (if ever) elected non progressive mayors and city councils. I don’t quite see how getting rid of their power empowers progressives…

  21. Felix Thoma

    Clearly against eliminating local goverment. We need city governments because they are more pragmatic and long-term oriented than state or country governments. the city-states Berlin and Hamburg have a quite political majority government but this makes long-term transit planning over one election period more difficult. look at the ideological debates between U-Bahn and Tram supporters in different parties. We can and should discuss about new state borders and integrating suburbs into the main city in order to have non-fragmented agglomerations.

    • Alon Levy

      Berlin seems okay re long-term planning even across government changes, e.g. the A100 extension is being built even though the Greens are in the government now, they’ve only pledged not to build further extensions.

      And re state borders: NRW is basically the state for the Rhine-Ruhr, combining provinces that were historically different.

      • Felix Thoma

        Not really when it comes to transit. Network extensions are currently a particularistic decision based on the ideological preferences on the coalition parties. In small consensus democracies such as The Netherlands, where mayors are appointed from above as I remember correctly, it’s maybe okay to have lower independence of the city government, but not in Germany.

        I also think that the localists should look more globally to other cities. But this doesn’t have to do with political system. If you have more professionalized high-level politicians, the chance is higher that they know about international politics, but lower that they know about international transit developments.

        • Felix Thoma

          And about A100 – it was the reason why the coalition talks with the Greens failed 5 years before, so they now knew that they had to accept it for red-red-green.

          NRW ist one of the more natural federal states as its borders don’t cross a big agglomeration.

          • Felix Thoma

            And about A100 – it was the reason why the coalition talks with the Greens failed 5 years before, so they now knew that they had to accept it for red-red-green.

            NRW ist one of the more natural federal states as its borders don’t cross a big agglomeration.

  22. adirondacker12800

    Public transportation requires more coordination between different levels of government.

    I suppose you could turn it all over to a regional or state level authority and give it a catchy name like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Or something more identifiablely associated with the state or region. Boston could come up with something like the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority! Or if a whole state decided to do it, something like New Jersey Transit! …….

    • Alon Levy

      The MBTA is a separate organ from local agencylets called regional transportation authorities, or RTAs, with a fair amount of agency turf fighting between them. Go two posts back to here and see F-Line’s comment about the Canton-Brockton issue – technically they’re different turfs. In Massachusetts it’s an easily solvable problem because the RTAs are so broke the state can tell them what to do if it cares, but in places without such mechanisms (hi, NorCal), it’s a serious obstacle.

      • adirondacker12800

        So let me check to make sure I get the story straight. The state can do whatever it wants but doesn’t so you want the state to do something about it. Okay.

  23. Felix Thoma

    > And I suspect that to the people who like localism as it is, the fact that local elections hinge on personality contests is a good thing. If you’ve lived 40 years in one city, you know all the local notables and their petty fights and how you can us them to pass your agenda. You’re empowered. It’s people who have recently moved in who are in practice disenfranchised, but for them you have slurs: “rootless cosmopolitan,” “transplant,” “globalist,” and so on. This democratic deficit persists because powerful people enjoy their power.

    I agree that Berlin politics could be more transparent with less of these fights. But at local level you perhaps need 5-10 years to get to know local notables and important topics in one specific field such as transport, whereas on the higher level you will only get to an important position if you are very professional in politics, media or lobbyism. Politics on higher levels has similar same power conflicts like on lower levels, but with much much more power hierarchy because of a larger network and thus fewer persons with very high degrees of power. State government is usually more conservative than city government, ethnical aspects play a bigger role. For example, cities are generally more open towards foreigners or issues such as transit than the countryside.

    Last but not the least city mayors, often with all-party governments, play an important role in holding together the society and finding local solutions for global problems, for example for the integration of refugees. That’s why they are under increasing threat by right-wing extremists who want to segregate society.

  24. Paul

    An interesting idea, but I don’t really see it working out. City identities are fairly strong and, especially in larger states, people see their city governments as a line of defense against a distant and hostile state government. If you were going to do political reform in the US (and I agree that it’s needed), I think the level to focus on would be counties.
    County responsibilities vary from state to state, but I’ve seen county highways, transit systems, libraries, schools, and parks. They also tend to have taxing authority; in my area, counties collect property, sales, and vehicle taxes. Yet counties are fairly invisible to most people and don’t have much loyalty. Cities and states have strong identities and valuable brands, counties not so much. So I think it would be possible to redraw county boundaries to form regional or sub-regional governments. County boundaries haven’t changed much since the late 19th century and were drawn to serve an agrarian population without motorized transport. So there are both too many counties in rural areas (some in West Texas have only a few hundred people) and boundaries that don’t make sense in urban areas.

    • nathanarticulated

      It is somewhat similar in B C. Canada where instead of Counties there are Regional Districts.In the Metro area of Vancouver there are 3 Regional Districts instead of only ONE.
      It is up to BC Provincial government
      to change that.

  25. Shaked Ofek

    What about smaller countries like Israel?
    You would suggest having metropolitan government only under the national level?
    Obviously, we have too many local governments, but the national isn’t enough I believe.

    • Alon Levy

      In Israel I might actually call for just eliminating local government. The main organizing principle of Israel is the millet (i.e. mainline Jewish education, Orthodox education, the Haredi systems, and various Arab systems) and not where one lives, and Hebrew doesn’t even really have regional accents, only ethnic ones. Even when city elections hinge on local issues, like when Roni Milo won the mayoral election on a promise to build a subway, all this means is “advocate for the state to spend money on this.”

  26. Edward Swernofsky

    This runs counter to what Jane Jacobs says in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: Urban planning is completely broken in the US (c. 1961) and needs neighborhood (representing pop 100k-200k) fully-horizontal government divisions to properly represent neighborhood interest and to get things done w/o ridiculous inefficiencies. She mentions working with city-wide organizations to do full city policy coordination. I sympathize with the need for centralization and see this as a problem of incompetent central planning in her experience, and incompetent local planning in yours.

    I imagine the solution involves neighborhood divisions to handle many small things and run various services, but most power (esp. power to reform, etc) in city-wide (or national) government. The Strong Towns guy seems to lean left locally and right nationally.

    On a more fundamental level, politics seems pretty broken in the US (and everywhere?) to me so far.

    • Alon Levy

      Her experience was not with incompetent central planning. It was with central planning that treated different city neighborhoods equally, rather than treating the Village better than the South Bronx because the Village was populated with gentrifiers like her and her husband and the South Bronx was populated with working-class white ethnics. That equal treatment was of course not equal with the suburbs, which everyone realized were rich, but at the time nobody realized the Village had gentrified because gentrification hadn’t happened before, and Jacobs herself had the temerity to portray her neighborhood as integrated.

      Essentially, postwar urban renewal was a compromise between small-minded localism (which would later Jacobs) and egalitarian regionalism: there would be regional planning but it would be inegalitarian. To avoid demands for integration, there would be an arbitrary process for siting highways – can’t have them slice where rich people lived. Once the most useful highways for drivers had been built and the next set of highways suffered from high costs (Mid-Manhattan) or going through a crypto-rich neighborhood (LoMEx), this compromise was no longer needed and localists could run things and ensure no new housing or infrastructure could be built.

      The solution is to abolish the concept of neighborhood. Landlords live in neighborhoods. Grocery store owners live in neighborhoods; Jacobs views small business as a universal class, and she’s wrong. Those of us who work for other people (or freelance, the freelancer/professional boundary is fuzzy) live in cities, and we form the vast majority of the city. So, no more community boards, or community meetings, or fractionalized suburbs. One region, one law.

      • fjod

        There is a class issue here, right? At least in the cities I’ve lived in, politically marginalised groups (the poor, the less educated, ethnic minorities) are much more strongly connected with their neighbourhoods than others. A city that does good neighbourhood representation thus tends to better represent the politically marginalised, while one which only represents at a citywide level tends to better represent rich, mobile people.

        • Alon Levy

          I don’t think that’s really true. Ethnic minorities are strongly connected with their minority identity, which spans different neighborhoods – e.g. black New York spans Harlem, Bed-Stuy, Jamaica, and so on, and there’s even the Take the A Train song about these cross-neighborhood connections. In Washington DC, distance-based fares mean there’s station-to-station Metro trip data, and one can see the connections between Anacostia and Columbia Heights.

          This kind of larger-scale ethnic representation is how Israel organizes itself, even though there’s so much residential segregation that in a lot of places local representation would have the same effect. Haredis in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, and countless little developments all over the country have a shared Haredi identity, and likewise there are shared Arab, Russian-speaking, Ethiopian, etc. identities.

          In Europe this issue is compounded by the fact that with lower nonwhite populations than the US and lower levels of residential segregation, there aren’t really any neighborhoods with demographic domination by a nonwhite group. Neukölln is about evenly split between whites and POC, and because the whites have been there longer, they get to be the community leaders. Since they are the community leaders, they get to set the agenda, which for example treats neighborhood change as negative since demographics are turning from whites to POC and whites perceive this negatively. Seine-Saint-Denis, is a more diverse and more segregated region than Berlin, is likewise about evenly split and there’s a lot of white community leadership that’s pretty reactionary.

          But even in the US, once you let the neighborhoods run things, you do not really get racial representation. You get landlord and petit-bourgeois representation, and the petite bourgeoisie likes to say it speaks for workers, and some of those landlords and shopkeepers happen to be black, but the great majority of black New Yorkers who work for someone else have different views of development. Across urban America, black people are consistently YIMBYer than white people when they’re asked directly: in the Houston zoning referendum black voters opposed zoning by the highest margin, in San Francisco London Breed is a YIMBY and is rooted in black public housing activism that the tenant union ignores, in California the SB 50 poll commissioned by YIMBY groups showed greater black (and Hispanic, and Asian) support than white support, in New York POC tend to speak more in favor of new housing developments at community meetings than whites. However, once you devolve power to local organizations, the generally YIMBY population has to work under the supervision of NIMBY community leaders.

          The class issue works pretty similarly. Poor people don’t usually have stable employment, so they work in a bunch of different neighborhoods, and in the US this sometimes even involves working two part-time jobs. So their work ties are not tethered to a neighborhood but to the entire city, and thanks to job sprawl even to the entire region sometimes. The petite bourgeoisie stably works in-neighborhood and so do family and friends who work at the same store, but these are not representative of the working class, in much the same way the butlers of classical English literature were in no way representative of the era’s working class.

          In New York more than in any other American city there thankfully exist structures for political integration of the working class, namely, unions. In Europe this is a common political structure with great power through sectoral collective bargaining, ensuring that the system provides the poor with what they need the most, that is higher wages and benefits. Historically there’s even been opposition between generally liberal and socialist politics viewing unions as an important intermediary between the working class and the state and generally conservative ones preferring local power structures (inc. the literal gentry here and in Britain) as the intermediary.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Alon, with respect, that very much isn’t my impression when talking to people who are white working class.

          • Alon Levy

            Okay, but “white working class” specifically is a political identity and not an economic one, so for example in New York this identity is most pronounced among cops, firefighters, and tradesman, and not among (say) whatever is left of industrial workers, or service workers in retail and such.

            For what it’s worth, in Brooklyn, per OnTheMap, only 34.7% of employed residents work within Brooklyn. 41.3% work in Manhattan. The local number is a bit higher in the lowest income category, <$1,250/month, but still only 42.4%, not a majority. If you go down to the neighborhood level, the numbers of people working locally falls dramatically, making a mockery of any local claim to normality. No, it's not normal to be so attached to one neighborhood. But people who are attached, who are the past, keep claiming that they are Real America/Real France/Deep England, or its urban equivalent (Real New Yorkers), even though they are a local political elite that's afraid of what would happen to its privileges under democratic equality.

      • Matthew Hutton

        Yeah but if a note goes to your house about the new village speed bump why is neighbourhood politics unfair?

      • michaelrjames

        “The solution is to abolish the concept of neighborhood. ”

        Neighbourhood is almost the only thing worth saving in cities. Even the most gigantic maws of mega-cities are saved by their neighbourhoods whether Tokyo, Seoul, Mexico City, Sao Paulo or LA. There may be a kernel of truth that Jacobs was a gentrifier but the essence of her philosophy and battle with Moses was not specific to her neighbourhood but to all neighbourhoods (hence the book’s title; it would have nothing like its influence if it was just about saving Greenwich Village). Indeed it was Moses who fulfilled your concept because he made no distinctions and was as happy to wreck the Village as the Bronx. The turning point in the 60s against freeways helped save innumerable neighbourhoods; though poor ones still suffered disproportionately they still suffered less as a result of the waning power of the freeway mania and road lobby. The Bronx expressway was the US’s first such road thru the middle of a city (begun in mid-50s) and thus prefigured what the road lobby intended throughout American cities and it inspired much opposition including Jacobs. When she went to live in Toronto she played a role in stopping similar schemes there, and her adopted city managed to avoid the worst excesses of American cities.

        To dismiss all that as mere “gentrification” or the preservation of neighbourhoods as pure negatives is kind of .. strangely trivial. I’d put it up there with your suggestion to demolish most of Paris-9th to build hi-rise. Also, kinda lazy because you can define any city improvements as gentrifying. It’s almost like screaming “fake news” about any news you don’t like. Equally, any kind of redevelopment such as unconstrained freeway building is not anti-gentrification, merely locking in poverty and disadvantage.

        Anyway, reviewing your responses to my comment about the French ‘cumul des mandats’ and this whole local-v-regional dogfight issue, I feel you still miss the point. You wrote “It’s a default assumption coming from serious problems of having people be masters of a fief.” To me the overwhelming factor in localism, at least at the institutional level, is petty partisan oppositionalism and to be seem to be ‘fighting for your corner’. A lot of the time they don’t genuinely disagree with what needs doing but the old system forces them into these absurd positions. This changes (enough) when the local top elected official becomes part of the wider institutional body, and is perhaps aided by not having to face election to this higher position. No longer is his best interest in openly blocking anything and everything, and he’s actually part of the negotiation and decision making, sitting around the big table–the equivalent of LBJ’s “inside the tent pissing out”. It creates more space for good-faith negotiation. I think you seriously underestimate this effect. Another broad analogy might be the German Arbeitsdirektor, of mandatory worker participation at board level of companies. Just like with the usual objections to ‘cumul des mandats’, most of the business world still froths that, despite the obvious German success, this is a recipe for socialist/communist disaster.

        • Eric2

          Jacobs was a giant NIMBY BTW… it was good that she fought expressway construction, but it was bad that she was a NIMBY regarding productive things like new taller buildings.

          • michaelrjames

            Hah, you’re obviously trolling me, with my positions on hi-rise. I can’t remember if she was extreme. Her house in Greenwich Village was IIRC a three-floor row-house. I’d agree that that is less than optimal use of space in Manhattan. Most brownstones are about 5 floors (with basement) which means they can be quite efficient when converted to MFH. Then of course one has Haussmannian/Parisian which is 6 to 7 floors, occasionally 8 (rarely yet 9 floors counting multiple mansard levels), but also more efficient because they are built to the property line on all sides of the block’s perimeter. As you well know, there are exceedingly few residential situations anywhere in the world that surpass Haussmannian density. Thus, for the vast majority of cities, there is no rationale or justification for building hi-rise residential.

            Anyway, you are abusing the term NIMBY to just mean opposing laissez-faire development of any type, anywhere. She was against rampant demolitions and “rebuilding neighbourhoods” when there was no rationale other than central planners obsession with renewal, or of course developers need to make outsized profits. Her description of North End, Boston revealed how it had well outgrown its old reputation as a slum into a very vital and diversified place. Jacobs was visiting it to see how bad it was and if it really did need “slum clearance”, and was surprised by what she found and how even the Boston city planner she consulted admitted that it had “lowest delinquency, disease and infant mortality rates in the city. The TB death rate .. less than 1 per ten thousand .. lower even than Brookline’s.” At one of the highest residential zones in North America there was zero point in bulldozing it, especially as that would assuredly displace the current residents. Her own neighbourhood is also one of the highest density residential zones in the US. She compared districts across Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, midtown-Manhattan and Brooklyn and Greenwich Village was either equal (eg. to mid-town) or greater (most including Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn Heights or Philly’s Rittenhouse Sq) with only Boston’s North End being higher (in the early 60s). Today Greenwich Village is part of Manhattan CD#2 which has 93,119 residents in 3.6km2 = 25,866/km2. Almost spot on Parisian density! It is a mixture of low and medium rise, plus Jacob’s most desirable quality: diversity (of everything, age of buildings, height, function, ethnic mix).

            As to the specious argument that allowing hi-rise in such zones to allow more people and to make it more affordable, we all know that is pure B.S. Here is a part of a post on this exact subject that was addressed to you Eric2. I cited Michael Sorkin, architectural critic and urbanist who lived in a 5-floor walkup in this same paart of Manhattan (he died of covid-19 26 March 2020):

            As to the free market, that is pure delusion. And the bigger the structures, the more it is a product of developer and/or corporate interests and manipulation. If there is a market in operation it is of the speculator who either barely lives there or just to flip it for profit. You may shrug and say, bah, it works. But increasingly it doesn’t and the simplistic notion of building more hi-rise residential (always 100% unaffordable almost by definition) especially doesn’t work. Here’s Sorkin:

            A big struggle at the moment concerns our local waterfront, specifically several soft sites that are in danger of being developed with very large buildings that the preservation community might describe as “out of character.” The poster children for this threat are three adjacent and widely hated 14-storey apartment buildings on the river, all designed, in his typically crisp and elegant style, by Richard Meier. They are held inappropriate because they are of larger scale than the predominantly low-rise character of the neighborhood, because they are unabashed in their white steel and glass modernism and because they tip the balance of waterfront development away form an irregular, predominantly low-rise, scale and rhythm into a version of Riverside or Lakeshore Drives or Copacabana, driven by the logic of their views rather than by the neighborhoods behind them.
            Although this is less openly expressed (and has no legal standing in any of the planning hearing that will influence the future of our waterfront), there’s a giant subterranean sentiment that the buildings are also out of synch with the idea of the Village as raffish, diverse, progressive, and a bastion against the remorseless trendiness and fashionability that has the city (and more and more, the Village itself) in a stranglehold. This reading has surely been helped by the raft of A-list celebrities (among them Martha Stewart and heather Mills) who have flocked to Meier’s buildings and paid the astronomical prices that have helped to push the cost of everything else–from real estate to yogurt–into the stratosphere.
            The Meier buildings and several others nearby (including a funky, over-scaled and under-detailed pink number built by the artist Julian Schnabel packed with a changing roster of stars, many of whom flip their digs for millions after a brief stay) beg the primary question of historic preservation: should physical objects be the only focus?

          • Alon Levy

            Yeah, the density she opposed in The Death and Life was fairly Haussmannian – she complained about new elevator buildings in the 6-12 story range on the Upper West Side and predicted the neighborhood would obviously decline and compared it negatively with the 3-story buildings she favored in the Village.

          • michaelrjames

            Seriously? Someone called Market Urbanism screaming on Twitter that Jacobs was an extreme radical socialist (err, no that was Trump; well … radical leftist let’s say), and btw no concrete examples given. I am not trawling thru the low signal-noise Twitterverse to do your job for you. You have lost the argument if you simply point to Twitter and can’t give actual examples and ones that make sense.

            I think the poverty of argument–in fact no argument at all if it amounts to screaming “Twitter”–is revealing, of a poverty of evidence not to mention intellectual laziness. I have yet to find a single instance of Jacobs unreasonable NIMBYism. Sorkin’s recent observations pretty much justify her approach to Greenwich Village all those decades ago, and all development since reinforces it rather than disprove it. The dominance of building (supertalls) in Manhattan and now Brooklyn, by the developers also shows how their activity does absolutely nothing to relieve the housing problems of NYC (despite the totally lame argument that super-expensive apartments in supertalls still relieves apartment availability lower down the affordability rung!). There happens to be an article in today’s Australian media about a new social housing block in inner Brisbane:

            It’s time for the feds to rebuild the economy by building social housing
            A $7.7 billion investment to build 30,000 homes and repair thousands more would raise economic output by $15.7 billion.
            Peter Mares, 31 Aug 2020.
            The Richmond Apartments — 107 homes built over eight storeys clustered around an atrium and with cascading plants — sits in Bowen Hills, a few kilometres from Brisbane. It was developed by the not-for-profit Brisbane Housing Company when many residents would struggle to afford a decent home in the private rental market.
            Research shows there is a nationwide shortfall of 433,000 affordable homes for renters on the lowest incomes. Yet Richmond shows what’s possible when three tiers of government work together. The building was supported by Brisbane City Council, and the Queensland government tipped in $1 million, but the core investment of more than $9 million came from a federal stimulus package in response to the global financial crisis. Unlike pink batts and school halls, social housing initiatives during the GFC got little fanfare — their success made them uncontroversial. An investment of $5.6 billion enabled almost 20,000 homes to be built. Another 12,000 were repaired. According to KPMG the scheme created 14,000 jobs and every federal dollar invested generated $1.30 in economic activity.
            But remarkably the stimulus that made Richmond Apartments possible is the only significant federal government investment in building homes for low-income renters in the past quarter century.

            This discussion is happening in the context of increasing pressure on the feds to do something significant to relieve the housing affordability crisis as covid-19 has greatly exacerbated it (and rental delinquency, due to our increasingly casualised jobs market). But like everywhere in the Anglosphere our politicians are under the control of the developer lobby and they simply won’t allow much building of social housing like the Richmond that they think undermines their practices. Nothing I have read by Jacob leads me to believe she would have opposed the Richmond, especially as it was on a brownfield site.

            Jacobs opposed hi-rise for the same reasons I do: all the evidence shows they don’t achieve any of the goals that either their proponents claim or urbanists want (or claim to want). It is very lazy to try to throw a silly label at such people. On those terms Jan Gehl is an extreme NIMBY (and in some ways he is as he promotes lower level than I do, ie. Copenhagen 3-4 floors versus Haussmannian 6-7 floors).

            As to Alon’s thing about the Upper West Side, we’ve had that discussion before and I recall that it was specific to the development immediately bordering the Lincoln Centre. And time has proven her to be correct. And btw, it ended up being developed by one Donald Trump which should tell you something. At the time she was writing the UWS was already built up to about 12 floors and I can’t find any evidence she opposed that. There is this bit on p213 of DALOGAM: (note, elipses indicate my omission of intervening text):

            Elevator apartments are today the most efficient way of packing dwellings on a given amount of building land. And within this type are certain most efficient subtypes such as those of maximum height for low-speed elevators, usually considered today as twelve stories, and those of maximum economic height for pouring reinforced concrete. … Elevator apartments are not only the most efficient way of packing people on a given amount of land. They can, under unfavourable circumstances, also be probably the most dangerous way of doing it, as experience in many a low-income housing project shows. In some circumstances, they are excellent.
            … The reason Greenwich Village can reconcile such high densities with such great variety is that a high proportion of the land which is devoted to residences (called net residential acres) is covered with buildings. Relatively little is left open and unbuilt upon. In most parts, the buildings cover the residential land at averages estimated as ranging from 60 percent to 80 percent of the land, leaving the other 40 percent to 20 percent of the land unbuilt on as yards, courts and the like. This is a high ratio of ground coverage. it is so efficient a use of the land itself that it permits a good deal of “inefficiency” in buildings.

            I note here that this is a de facto description of Haussmannian development or any historic Eurocity core.
            Also, you, Alon and these so-called market urbanists (a euphemism for laissez-faire property development that has directly led to the housing crisis afflicting the Anglosphere) ignore the context in which Jacobs was writing: the abuse and wide-spread application of eminent domain to clear so-called slum housing districts. By the end of the 60s and 70s the awful results of that were apparent. But even the successful ones were not a good development model:

            The Stuyvesant Town project in Manhattan has a density of 125 dwellings per net acre, a density that would be on the low side for Greenwich Village [125-254 dwellings per net residential acre]. Yet to accommodate so many dwellings as this is Stuyvesant Town, where the ground coverage is only 25 percent (75 percent left open) the dwellings must be most rigidly standardized in rank upon rank of virtually identical, massive elevator apartment houses. More imaginative architects and site planners might have arranged the buildings differently, but no possible difference could be more than superficial. Mathematical impossibility would defy genius itself to introduce genuine substantial variety at these low ground coverages with these densities.

            She also describes how the limited retail within StuyTown failed compared to thriving retail just across the street. Six decades later that phenomenon remains. A classic problem of big monotype developments and which is being repeated throughout Manhattan at street-level of fancy hi-rise residential, if for new reasons: unwillingness of corporate landlords to let to small owner-retailers, only to big corporates like banks or fast-food chains.
            It is also ironic that Jacobs is accused of being a gentrifier when her analysis of poorer communities–but vital communities often with better social statistics like North End with its Irish then Italian immigrants–identified the problems: rampant rentier capitalism. Redlining was one of the causes in that post-war period.

            Unless a neighborhood does possess extraordinary vitality, along with some form of extraordinary resource, a drought of conventional money inexorably enforces deterioration. … This sequence occurs in most great cities, and seems to be taken for granted, although fe w studies have been made of it. One of these few was a research report on a cataclysmically deteriorated area of New York’s West Side, by Dr Chester A. Rapkin, an economist and planner. Rapkin’s report described the imposition of a money drought from conventional sources, the appearance of high-interest and unscrupulous money in its stead. the inability of property owners to make changes except for the sale of their property to exploitative purchasers. The New York Times, quoting James Felt, Chairman of the City Planning Commission, for which the report was prepared, summed it up both neatly and dispassionately: He said that it disclosed the almost complete termination of new construction in the twenty-block area. He said it also showed a halt in the flow of bank and other institutional mortgage loans on real property, a turnover of property to a new type of investor, a growth of absentee ownership and the transformation of much of the housing occupancy in the are int furnished-room occupancy.

            Sorry I couldn’t summarize it in 280 characters of all-caps for you.

          • Alon Levy

            No, time has not proven Jacobs to be correct re Lincoln Center. She portrayed its streetscape as a wasteland filled only with bums; this description is completely unrecognizable of the modern Upper West Side, which gentrified soon after she wrote her book, because gentrification is not about building height or any of the things she considers important but about access to jobs, which the UWS had aplenty.

          • michaelrjames

            @Alon: “this description is completely unrecognizable of the modern Upper West Side”

            You continue to do it. That sector adjoining the Lincoln Centre is tiny and in fact was not part of the UWS until it was redesignated later. You’re making a totally false claim about Jacobs and the Upper West Side. Further, much of what you’re talking of was already built by 1961, and note her comment “(elevator apartments)… as twelve stories … In some circumstances, they are excellent.”.
            You really need to cite something specific re your claims of Jacobs. I can’t find anything that remotely confirms your attributions. And claims by latterday market-urbanists on Twitter don’t count. Actual Jacobs words. It’s not as if she didn’t write millions of words in print on this stuff. Including on the economics of it.
            Also, I am a bit amazed that people claiming to be urbanists have been taken in by the industry’s desperate attempts to discredit her so they can do even more damage to the fabric of American cities. I am ok with reassessment, especially after 60 years, but so far I have found it very unconvincing (though I am too mean to spend $80+ on that book on Reassessing Jane Jacobs). My own take on this is that this kind of reinterpretation has become trendy for its own sake. If I have to choose sides it is easy if the choice is between the current crop of econocratic urbanists (who are, no accident, all economists not actual urbanists or architects, planners) like Glaeser, Yglesias or Ryan Avent versus Michael Sorkin or Jan Gehl or David Sim or Neil Brenner …

          • Alon Levy

            Okay, so first of all, she literally used the word “bum” to describe the people around Lincoln Center. This matters, because the UWS gentrified south to north, starting from Lincoln Center and then moving uptown.

            And second, she was okay with some elevator buildings but didn’t like that all buildings were like that, citing diversity of building age (something that Haussmann thankfully ignored!) and specifically supported a zoning law that would ban such buildings from being developed in the Village.

          • michaelrjames

            I need citations. Where are you getting this stuff? And I can’t see that interpretation of UWS anywhere. I think you are falsely extrapolating out of context … I am willing to be persuaded but I need something solid.
            Incidentally I do agree on the age thing. And it is very noticeable that she doesn’t mention in any way whatsoever any European experiences–presumably because she had no direct experience and only discussed stuff she could directly experience (like her comments on North End, only after she inspected it to see if the talk was correct; it wasn’t). I don’t actually believe anything she wrote/proscribed conflicts with Haussmannian urbanism but it is an unfortunate omission. She was correct about the effects of mixed-age in a neighbourhood but it isn’t obligatory. (But hardly enough to warrant today’s critiques.)

          • Reedman Bassoon

            FYI. Today’s news. Lower East Side Manhattan:

            The state appeals court last week decided that the towers planned for Clinton, Cherry and South streets don’t need to go through the city’s tortuous Uniform Land Use Review Procedure because the plans comply with zoning.
            The ruling paves the way for four towers of between 63 and 80 stories to one day soar above the low-rise Two Bridges neighborhood’s mostly 19th-century tenements.
            The appellate judges: “Although the proposed towers are more than twice the height of surrounding buildings, it is undisputed that they do not violate any applicable zoning regulation.”

  27. Onux

    Several problems with this post. First Alon seems to be arguing it is better to have a political system that favors the mobile class (of which Alon is a member) over long term residents (of which Alon is not a member) without any objective reasons why. At that point Alon is just making a symmetrical argument to the landlords/petit bougoise: the mobile class feels they have an area’s interests at heart because they chose to move there, and view terms like “transplant” and “globalist” as slurs; the long term class feels they have an area’s interests at heart because they chose to stay there, and view terms like “NIMBY” and “close minded local” as slurs.

    Next, Alon continually uses a pet issue (zoning/housing production) for which there are good arguments for control at a state vs hyper local level (separate good arguments are introduced for for why pandemic control should be national). Yet it is a logical failure to say if one power shouldn’t be managed at the local level the solution is to eliminate all local government. The real issue is what powers *should* be at each level; other examples in the thread are transportation at the metro area level, neighborhood parks and street cleaning locally, etc.

    Also, there is no empirical evidence his approach would work. New York City would seem to be an example of large regional government, NYC has subsumed previous local governments-such as Brooklyn as a separate city-and now has one region one law (single school system, etc.) from midtown Manhattan to inner ring neighborhoods to “suburbs” like Staten Is. and the Rockaways. In size (population and geography) it is equivalent to the Bay Area (particularly if one compresses the Bay to East River width). Yet NY has just as many issues with localism, racial/neighborhood school disparity, and even NIMBY restrictions on housing through zoning as the Bay Area does with it fractured municipalities.

    Finally, in a democracy if you want good governance you have to elect good officials (if you want progressive government elect progressives, etc.) People are always looking for a structural fix to the ills of elections to no avail. You can arrange power at any level you like, and if the politicians at that level are incompetent you will end up with bad governance.

      • Onux

        For what it’s worth, the sentence was supposed to read “evidence this approach would work.” but in English pronouns are spelled too similarly to other common words.

  28. Randall

    I see regressive alliances where pro-democracy socialists align with provincial conservatives to oppose regional authority. To break this, I think we (in the United States) need socialists in power at the level of the state and to see our state governments pursue universal social programs over corporate interests. Local control is a desperate way to oppose a state that pursues policies that are too friendly towards corporate developers. I understand why people cling to it.

    • Alon Levy

      It’s more a matter of personality than ideology, but yes. People who ID as socialist will never be in power. They can be junior partners in a coalition, but even in Europe it’s rare for left-of-social-democrats parties to be responsible enough to give up fantasies about quitting NATO in exchange for a ministry, and in the US political integration means jettisoning socialist language. Individual members of DSA could advance and implement policy by appealing more to mainstream liberals, like Nancy Skinner, but the current crop of DSA loathes Nancy Skinner for being a YIMBY.

      So the result is that people whose political identity is “radical who doesn’t give anything up” can only be in power in the least relevant jurisdictions, that is, the neighborhood level. Slightly less toxic but still terrible people can get ahead at the county level, e.g. Marc Elrich’s socialism-in-one-county shtick, or Bill de Blasio with his Che Guevara quotes and total incompetence at actual governing, but even those don’t quite appeal to the DSA/Guillotine crowd. Because that’s the only level one can be an uncompromising socialist at, it follows that people whose main ID is socialist will oppose progress and state building and stick with failed ideas of neighborhood governance. Many can even be found making excuses for opposing school integration using radical language, because of the socialism-on-one-block mentality.

  29. Ericson2314

    My first reaction is shock, but I think I see why these Americans are confused. We’re so use to FPTP that localism seems better than it is, e.g. State governance is quite fucked and municipal boundaries aren’t gerrymandered. But once you throw in decent voting system, we’ll avoid problems like NYC being held hostage to upstate, or big states held hostage by small states, and then this starts to make a lot more sense.

    I’d argue that perhaps polities and currencies should line up, so as small as you can make your currency, you can have a polity. Whether that is in agreement or conflict with this, I am not sure, but certainly.

  30. Nathanael

    I’m not sure what you mean by “local”. It makes no sense to have suburbs separate from the city they adjoin, or to separate a city from its immediate hinterland. But on the other hand, New York State government has its eyes up at such a rarefied level that they don’t understand anything about local concerns in Ithaca, or Syracuse — and generally try to ram highways through and treat us as “drive-by locations”.

    City governments are *useful*. In Ithaca and Syracuse specifically I can name local elections which hinged on practical issues where the election resolved the issue.

    I’d advocate for merging the excessive numbers of miniscule townships and straightening out the bizarre county borders, particularly where they slice through single conurbations. The UK’s 1983 reorganization of municipal boundaries along rational lines is something which every country should do on a regular basis. But I don’t think anyone would seriously suggest that the state could handle city problems like sewer management or water system management better than the cities. It can’t.

    If you try, you end up with appointed city governments like Russia has, which are exactly the same as elected city governments but with less accountability.

    I am aware of precisely no country which has abolished city government, so I’m not really sure what you’re on about. Political institutions should be right-sized — and the right geographic size for a city government is probably a little larger than the contiguous area which needs contiguous sewer & water service. That’s a very practical definition.

    In the US, most of the governmental units are much too *small* and have bad borders; I think that’s obviously true; but this isn’t an argument against having elected local government at *all*.

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