New Nation Piece: The Withering Away of the States Can’t Happen Soon Enough
It’s time for a new federalism that brings suburbs and central cities together to promote equity, growth, and sustainability.
We’d be better off if the federal government stopped funding states to implement federal policies - and instead send that money directly to regional institutions more responsive to federal rules.
That is the core argument of my new piece in The Nation: The Withering Away of the States Can’t Happen Soon Enough. The core of the arguments is this:
Many state governments are at war with federal policies—and with their own local governments…we now have state governments regularly diverting much of the federal funding they receive away from racially diverse cities in favor of largely white suburbs and exurbs, while increasingly blocking any innovative policy by blue cities, from local minimum wages to innovative housing policies through preemption of local laws.
As the federal infrastructure and Build Back Better bills have been debated in 2021, a lot of attention has been devoted to the total dollar amount to be spent and the policy areas to be funded, but with remarkably little focus on who will be making decisions outside D.C. on implementing those policies…If local regions don’t have direct control over federal funds, the policies implemented will promote less economic and racial equity, drive sprawl, and largely undermine goals to reduce climate change. And whatever the language of the bills, states getting to redistribute federal funds will mean less support for urban areas, particularly in the increasingly blue urban areas in red states.
Progressives need a full-on campaign to stop running federal programs through the states.
Instead, programs like Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and transit programs should be fully funded at the national level with progressive income and corporate taxes, then administered directly through regional governments, bypassing the states.
And if you think “regional governments” would take massive new social engineering to create, think again. Over the past half-century, the federal government has quietly helped create what are called Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) covering well over 400 metropolitan regions in the country.
The latter are currently minimally funded by the federal government and mostly bring together local government officials for planning transportation projects in an advisory capacity. But they do already exist—and if significant federal funds were diverted to them directly, instead of to state governments, MPOs would instantly become heavyweight political and economic players.
Overall piece describes more on the dynamics of state attacks on local governments and their mismanagement of federal priorities, as well as why regional governments would more effectively build regional economies in a sustainable way AND, as a bonus, decrease the toxic polarization of politics by bringing suburban and urban interests together.
As a bonus, the following is a section of the piece dropped for space, which explores a bit more on why the lack of strong regional governments are undermining our ability to fight climate change. This is what Addison Del Mastro calls a “deleted scene” in his substack of that name - noting a fine use of a substack is to include the parts of articles cut for space from other publications :)
Mismanaged Regionalism Will Doom the Planet
More money for infrastructure by itself won’t solve the climate change crisis. In fact, it can make it worse if spent poorly, since, in the absence of strong regional cooperation, the easiest programs to implement will drive exurban sprawl.
Take water and waste disposal systems. In the exurban edge of regions, the initially cheapest option is quick building along expanding highways and an individual septic tank, which inevitably begins contaminating ground water as too many are installed. Myron Orfield, a former Minnesota legislator who now works with regional organizations around the country, explains that Twin City leaders initially came together to strengthen their regional government as septic systems began failing. But he’s seeing those problems being replicated all over the country: “In the white flight suburbs and the edges of Detroit, everybody's got a septic system and everybody's polluting… Atlanta's got seven hundred and fifty thousand units on septic systems and terrible wastewater pollution.” On the flip side, when there is regional coordination and sewers are built first along with other utilities, the money “goes two or three times as far” because you don’t end up spending so much on cleanup over time.
And if we want any significant mass transit built, strong regional coordination is the only way it will happen instead of just expanded highway construction projects. Most obviously, there is the collective action problem of getting multiple cities to agree on any mass transit project; Mayor Joseph Geierman of Doraville in the Atlanta suburbs describes the nightmare challenges of getting agreement among the cities and counties there, especially with the “philosophical opposition to funding mass transit at the state level” in Georgia.
But even with that agreement, any viable mass transit system needs more than train lines built. There needs to be coordination in directing housing and jobs to the transit nodes to make them economically viable. Instead of scattering new jobs at the fringe of the metropolitan areas like “they were blasted out of a shotgun,” Orfield highlights the way the best regional plans cluster jobs nearer the center of the region to strengthen multi-modal transit options.
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But read the piece. I’ve written quite a bit about state-local conflicts over the last year and this lays out a pathway for progressives to fight for a better kind of federalism, one based on federal priorities and local regional governments implementing them based on the real needs of functioning economic regions.