Boosters of local economy and tech-driven decentralization gather Monday to Chattanooga for a pep talk on how the city is in line with other innovative cities whose growth gained from “public-private” partnerships and increasing political decentralization.
By David Tulis / NoogaRadio 92.7
Bruce Katz of Brookings Institution and Mayor Andy Berke share the podium to hear Mr. Katz sketch out findings published in his book, The New Localism; How Cities Can Thrive in an Age of Populism, with Jeremy Nowak, which sees nation-states disintegrating and city-states rising as networked trade partners as they did during the decentralized era of the Hanseatic League in 13th century Europe.
Mr. Katz made his presentation to about 130 people gathered at the Edney Building in the city’s innovation district, including candidates for office such as Yusuf Hakeem (seeking a state house seat), former mayors such as Ron Littlefield and dozens of entrepreneurs such as Philip L. Donihe of Innovekt.
“The federal government, like Elvis, has left the building,” Mr. Katz says. “They’re not coming back any time soon. And what is the federal government? It’s mostly a health insurance company with an army. If we’re waiting for them to investing in our children, if we’re waiting for them to invest in a customized way on our infrastructure, if we’re waiting for them to commercialize research, we will be waiting for hundreds of years. So, this mythology, that there’s a group of smart people in Washington, D.C., or sometimes in state capitals, who are smart enough to show the direction of a country *** is absurd.”
Cities can’t create a welfare “safety net” or “protect the homeland” or “write rules that will cover the whole country” as might a national government. But the future is lococentric and self-directed, he says, and Chattanooga is blessed to exist between Atlanta and Nashville with solid infrastructure (such as Gig Internet and a waterfront development) and “tight geography.” The city is has traversed 15 percent to 20 percent of the core developments explored in the book, Mr. Katz says.
The book studies cities that have revived themselves, including Pittsburg and Indianapolis. There’s one more. “For every Copenhagen, there are thousands of places that don’t even know what ‘public wealth’ is,” and Mr. Katz is excited that people in Chattanooga, whom he has visited repeatedly in his researches, grasp that idea.
With the event Mayor Berke, a progressive Democrat lawyer, rises above petty partisan politics and takes a view that looks past party and ideological differences. “The idea of America is that you do all this work, you can be whoever you want, and people just think that’s not the deal anymore. *** We live in a place where the economic power can be more diverse than it ever has been before. Because you don’t need to be in New York City to invent the next big app, right? You don’t need to be in San Francisco. You can be someplace else because of the power that is in the Web.”
Mr. Katz’ focus on the power of cities puts him on the side of skeptics of big government, doubters of Washington, worriers about taxes on families and free enterprise — the conservatives, in other words. But his arguments for “investing” tax money to obtain equality locally wins him favor of progressives, redistributionists, public school backers and people who support ideas such as Mr. Berke’s “baby university,” of which Mr. Katz speaks glowingly.
Cities, networks and use of local “soft power” are the best prospect for wealth creation and prosperity, with civil authority held in continually lower regard, he says. Mr. Katz conceives of mankind in any one part of the continent to be best served by strong-willed elites who gather not just to discuss the future, but decide it — educated great ones in corporations, universities and in elected office working together locally in a spirit of amitybbnpm ,.
Mr. Katz’s vocabulary is a mix of policy wonk verbiage and sharp writing in which he eliminates what he would call ideological distinctions, such as those espoused by Marxists on one hand and constitutional libertarians on the other. He says cities are not governments, but are pragmatic networks that are supple and effective in bringing talent, people, resources and means together. Washington may stare dully in one direction; but cities think in terms of 360 degrees, “interdisciplinary,” “integrative.”
Mr. Katz goes halfway toward the horizontal society envisioned in the Christian scriptures, halfway toward the liberal and free market world envisioned by voluntaryists and some libertarians. But he hints that the most democratic of all concepts — that of a truly free market under an anarcho-capitalist Christian social order, propounded since the 1970s by Christian reconstruction, secularized in 1776 by Adam Smith’s invisible hand rationalism — is not tenable because somewhere, somehow, in either mayor’s office or boardroom of insurance giant or philanthrocapitalist, must sit Mr. Katz’ “new class” of leader and decisionmaker who seizes major policy routes and civilizational-shifting votes to himself and his friends.
It may be that Mr. Katz speaks with two minds, or two tongues, about the use of power, which is to say, of compulsion, law, coercion, license, tax and obligation. He says we have old institutions — old community foundations, old public schools, old legislatures. Old uses of power have met a bad end, with decaying cities and discredited national government choking on debt and militarization. But power in itself isn’t a danger in principle to Mr. Katz. Power retains its place in his view of the geopolitical unwinding of the nation-state. Only now it’s local — and softer.
Executive government, he indicates, is a necessity, and for things to get done, to aggregate capital and lay plans, the passive judicial state of the Christians will not do. Behind the talk of marketplaces, distributed economies and diversity there sits activist government, chastened from its excesses and corruptions of the 20th century, and now thinking not internationally, but provincially, on a more sustainable scale.
“We are not waiting for Godot,” Mr. Katz says. “There’s no deus ex machina [God from the machine]. The solutions can come from leaders, from disparate walks of life — that means they can crowdsource different kinds of experience and expertise — and where is your power?”
“This is the moment of the city state. This is our moment. The cavalry is not coming. It’s up to us to rebuild our communities. It’s up to us to rebuild this country, and ultimately it’s up to us to rebuild the world.”
Snide treatment of Trump
More than once Mr. Katz speaks slightingly of U.S. President Donald Trump, as much perhaps of his person and his tweetstorms as his supposedly high office whose alphabet agencies continue overseeing the demise of liberty and real economic growth, which Mr. Katz seems to lament.
Mr. Katz says localism is rising as people are expressing discontent with the status quo via populism — public anger at people being unable to keep their heads above water financially. Mr. Katz’ strong lococentrism dictates that remote centers of power such as Washington are not greater than Chattanooga, but less than Chattanooga.
“We really have to perfect the power we have at this level. We have to ride out the storm, reverse engineer our national and state government. States are — us. They serve us. They’re not at the higher level, they’re at the lower level. Cities and counties are at the higher level, and we’re waiting for these democratic forms of these institutions to actually do their job.”
Localism holds that local people are entirely able to solve problems imposed upon them from elsewhere or arising from within their own populations.