By PARAG KHANNA, APRIL 15, 2016, New York Times
image from article
THESE days, in the thick of the American presidential primaries, it’s easy to
see how the 50 states continue to drive the political system. But increasingly,
that’s all they drive — socially and economically, America is reorganizing itself
around regional infrastructure lines and metropolitan clusters that ignore
state and even national borders. The problem is, the political system hasn’t
America faces a two-part problem. It’s no secret that the country has
fallen behind on infrastructure spending. But it’s not just a matter of how
much is spent on catching up, but how and where it is spent. Advanced
economies in Western Europe and Asia are reorienting themselves around
robust urban clusters of advanced industry. Unfortunately, American policy
making remains wedded to an antiquated political structure of 50 distinct
To an extent, America is already headed toward a metropolis-first
arrangement. The states aren’t about to go away, but economically and
socially, the country is drifting toward looser metropolitan and regional
formations, anchored by the great cities and urban archipelagos that already
lead global economic circuits.
The Northeastern megalopolis, stretching from Boston to Washington,
contains more than 50 million people and represents 20 percent of America’s
gross domestic product. Greater Los Angeles accounts for more than 10
percent of G.D.P. These city-states matter far more than most American states
— and connectivity to these urban clusters determines Americans’ long-term
economic viability far more than which state they reside in.
This reshuffling has profound economic consequences. America is
increasingly divided not between red states and blue states, but between
connected hubs and disconnected backwaters. Bruce Katz of the Brookings
Institution has pointed out that of America’s 350 major metro areas, the cities
with more than three million people have rebounded far better from the
financial crisis. Meanwhile, smaller cities like Dayton, Ohio, already
floundering, have been falling further behind, as have countless disconnected
small towns across the country.
The problem is that while the economic reality goes one way, the 50-state
model means that federal and state resources are concentrated in a state
capital — often a small, isolated city itself — and allocated with little sense of
the larger whole. Not only does this keep back our largest cities, but smaller
American cities are increasingly cut off from the national agenda, destined to
become low-cost immigrant and retirement colonies, or simply to be
Congress was once a world leader in regional planning. The Louisiana
Purchase, the Pacific Railroad Act (which financed railway expansion from
Iowa to San Francisco with government bonds) and the Interstate System of
highways are all examples of the federal government’s thinking about
economic development at continental scale. The Tennessee Valley Authority
was an agent of post-Depression infrastructure renewal, job creation and
industrial modernization cutting across six states.
What is needed, in some ways, is a return to this more flexible, broader
way of thinking. Already, efforts to coordinate metropolitan and regional
planning and investment are underway, whether they are quasi-government
entities like the Western High Speed Rail Alliance, which aims to link Phoenix,
Denver and Salt Lake City with next-generation trains, or industry-driven
groups like CG/LA Inc., which promotes public-private investment in a new
national infrastructure blueprint. Ironically, even some states are warming to
the idea: Regional cooperation and planning is a top item at the National
These are the groups that are pushing America deeper into the global
economy by rethinking how the national economy functions. But they have to
go it alone, because Congress still thinks in terms of states. America needs a
We don’t have to create these regions; they already exist, on two levels.
First, there are now seven distinct super-regions, defined by common
economics and demographics, like the Pacific Coast and the Great Lakes.
Within these, in addition to America’s main metro hubs, we find new urban
archipelagos, including the Arizona Sun Corridor, from Phoenix to Tucson; the
Front Range, from Salt Lake City to Denver to Albuquerque; the Cascadia belt,
from Vancouver to Seattle; and the Piedmont Atlantic cluster, from Atlanta to
Federal policy should refocus on helping these nascent archipelagos
prosper, and helping others emerge, in places like Minneapolis and Memphis,
collectively forming a lattice of productive metro-regions efficiently connected
through better highways, railways and fiber-optic cables: a United City-States
Similar shifts can be found around the world. Despite millenniums of
cultivated cultural and linguistic provinces, China is transcending its
traditional internal boundaries to become an empire of 26 megacity clusters
with populations of up to 100 million each, centered around hubs such as
Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing-Chengdu. Over time these
clusters, whose borders fluctuate based on population and economic growth,
will be the cores around which the central government allocates subsidies,
designs supply chains and builds connections to the rest of the world.
Western countries are following suit. As of 2015, Italy’s most important
political players are no longer its dozens of laconic provinces, but 14
“Metropolitan Cities,” like Rome, Turin, Milan and Florence, each of which has
been legislatively merged with its surrounding municipalities into larger and
more economically viable subregions.
Britain is also in the midst of an internal reorganization, with the
government of Prime Minister David Cameron driving investment toward a
new corridor stretching from Leeds to Liverpool known as the “Northern
Powerhouse” that can become an additional economic anchor beyond London
What would this approach look like in America? It would start by focusing
not on state lines but on existing lines of infrastructure, supply chains and
telecommunications, routes that stay remarkably true to the borders of the
emergent super-regions, and are most robust within the new urban
Connectivity isn’t just about infrastructure; it’s about strategy. It’s not just
about more roads, rail lines and telecommunications — as well as
manufacturing plants and data centers — but where those are placed. Getting
that right is critical to getting the most out of public investment. But too often,
decisions about infrastructure investment are made at the state (or even
county) level, and end at the state border.
Consider the Gulf Coast arc from Houston to Tampa, an area growing on
the back of the shale energy industry and agricultural exports. The ports of
Corpus Christi and Tampa both received federal foreign trade zone status in
the early 1980s and have been raising bridges and expanding terminals to
prepare for larger ships coming through the Panama Canal — and their
modernization also means accelerated export of food, oil and cars from
America’s heartland. Their fates are more intertwined than Tampa’s is with
Tallahassee or Corpus Christi’s is with Austin, even though they’re in the same
state — and yet building out their infrastructure depends largely on the
political whims of their respective state capitals. As a result, the region’s ports
have built redundant facilities rather than strengthening those best suited to
capitalize on new economic connections.
Nor is it just about federal policy. States need to work across borders, too.
For example, instead of waging a 1980s Asian-style race to the bottom to
attract low-wage auto jobs at Nissan, Honda or Toyota plants, Tennessee and
Kentucky should join forces to become an advanced manufacturing hub for the
global auto industry, with better cross-border infrastructure. They may end up
with fewer plants, but they would be more competitive ones, especially if they
could coordinate research and development through the states’ public and
Where possible, such planning should even jump over international borders.
While Detroit’s population has fallen below a million, the Detroit-Windsor
region is the largest United States-Canada cross-border area, with nearly six
million people (and one of the largest border populations in the world). Both
sides are deeply interdependent because of their automobile and steel
industries and would benefit from scaling together rather than bickering over
who pays for a new bridge between them. Detroit’s destiny seems almost
obvious if we are brave enough to build it: a midpoint of the Chicago-Toronto
corridor in an emerging North American Union.
TO make these things happen requires thinking beyond states.
Washington currently provides minimal support for regional economic efforts
and strategies; it needs to go much further, even at the risk of upsetting
established federal-state political balances. A national infrastructure bank, if it
ever gets off the ground, should have as part of its charter an obligation to
ignore state lines when weighing projects to support.
Consider how parts of the Rust Belt could benefit from this approach. A
Midwestern high-speed rail network that ran from Southern Illinois to
Southern Michigan would not just link wealthy investment hubs like
Louisville, Ky., and Columbus, Ohio; by tying in high-unemployment cities like
Dayton, it would make it easier for workers to commute to where the jobs are.
Such networks would just as easily help poor and rural areas, like
Appalachia. Upgraded transportation corridors between New York,
Washington and Atlanta could finally lift Appalachia’s isolated and stagnant
towns stretching from New York to Alabama by facilitating investment in
farms and vineyards, food processing and eco-tourism.
States will continue to have an important political and regulatory function
to fill. But the next president has to move beyond platitudes and implement a
serious policy of leveraging new infrastructure investment from home and
abroad and backing the shift toward a new urban political economy built
around transportation engineering, alternative energy, digital technology and
other advanced sectors.
The 21st century will not be a competition over territory, but over
connectivity — and only connecting American cities will enable the United
States to win the tug of war over global trade volumes, investment flows and
supply chains. More than America’s military grand strategy, such an economic
master plan would determine if America remained the world’s leading