Sunday, November 27, 2016

Richard Florida on Devolution

The 2016 election results—not just the presidential result as sieved through the rural-state-biased Electoral College, but also the close margin in Minnesota and the fact that both our state house and senate are now Republican-controlled—have been on my mind.

Today’s Star Tribune op-ed section included an interview with Doug Peterson, one of the last farmer-legislators in our Democratic Farmer Labor party, about how Democrats can better connect with rural people. The front section also included a long piece on Becky Rom, a woman from Ely, Minnesota, who has fought the battle to keep our Boundary Waters Canoe Area free of mining, logging, and motors, generally, a stance opposed by as many as 99 percent of her rural and small-city neighbors, but approved by majorities in the Twin Cities.

This divide between urban and rural (discussed with different emphases by Arlie Hochschild and Catherine Kramer) was the subject of a 30-message tweetstorm by geographer Richard Florida today. Florida, at least since the election, has been calling for what he calls “devolution”—transforming the American way of government into more state and city control and less federal control.

Here are Florida’s thoughts; I’ve removed most of the breaks between tweets and combined his words into fewer paragraphs.

We are undergoing several nested transformations at once that are causing incredible disruptions of the economic social and political order.

The first is the shift from natural resources and physical power/labor to knowledge—where the mind has become the means of production. This shift advantaged roughly a third of the workforce/population while 66% falls further behind.

The second shift is toward clustering as the source of innovation and economic advantage. This massively concentrates talent and economic assets in a handful of super-star cities and knowledge-tech hubs. The world becomes spikier and spikier, across nations, across regions, and within cities.

This clustering of talent and economic assets also makes the city/metro the new economic and social organizing unit, undermining two core institutions of the old order: the large vertical corporation and the nation state.

I would suggest this transformation is perhaps the most disruptive in human history—the clustering of knowledge > physical labor. But in contrast with claims of American "decline," the U.S. is perhaps best positioned of any place to succeed/compete in this new age. The U.S. has the research universities, the startups, the clusters, the open immigration...I could go on.

But many Americans look at this transformation and perceive that their old world is being torn apart and they are being left behind. The right has played this exactly as should be expected, promising to bring back a bygone era of American Greatness. And of course preying upon national, racial, ethnic, gender divisions...exactly as would be expected.

The great failure of our time is the failure of the left to outline an inclusive future in this new age of urbanized knowledge capitalism. That does not mean reaching backward to placate the forces of reaction, but creating a vision of a diverse, inclusive and prosperous society.

At the very top of the list that means a vision of how the 70 million members of the low-wage, multi-racial service class can prosper. It means a new social compact for the urbanized knowledge economy. It also means taking on the out-sized power of the nation-state and the imperial presidency and devolving power to the local level. The devolution of power and empowering of cities and local areas may be something that can be organized around in the short-term.

It is now clear that our economy and politics are completely out of sync. Like it or not, blue states and blue metros power the economy. They are very expensive to operate—research universities, public transit, affordable housing, addressing inequality. There is now ZERO change of national investment.

Red state economies and outlying areas require different strategies. Devolution and local empowerment would enable blue state/metro economies to invest their own resources and others to do the same. It would respect local differences, local desires and local needs. Importantly, it could enable blue and red America to mutually co-exist. We cannot go through this every four years.

More importantly, it would start to shift power away from the dangerous anachronism of the nation state (and the imperial presidency).
Florida has long called for much better pay for service workers, so that much is consistent in his thinking. But I think this turn toward devolution is recent. I don't know how he envisions this happening, since much federal influence (sometimes control) on states and cities comes in the form of federalized money returned to states and cities, from highway and street construction dollars to Medicaid and SNAP dollars. Does Florida mean the feds should block-grant those latter programs? Does he want to get rid of federal road money altogether, or somehow turning those dollars back into local taxes?

As everyone knows, most of the red states (of recent elections, if not 2016) are "taker" states, so how does devolution help those states, other than to make them face the fact that they are takers?

Map from Talking Points Memo, 2012.

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