A couple weeks ago, I weighed in to a debate going on in Minnesota over the advocacy organization Move MN. My piece -- Why I do not Support Move MN -- was a response to a piece written a few days earlier (that repeatedly referenced Strong Towns) by Ethan Fawley titled Why I Support Move MN. I have admired Ethan's work for quite some time and was fortunate to meet him once. I like him. I would guess that, even though we disagree on some things, we could find a lot to work together on. I have every indication that he is a really quality guy.
I’m interested in having the best place to live in for my family now and in the future. I live in a city (Minneapolis), where the cultural and political shift toward more transit/bike/walk and rational land use is farther along than any other place in the state. I’m fundamentally NOT worried about my city building mostly things that will make my quality of life worse because I’m actively working to change paradigms at the city/county level and many have already changed. There will probably be a little bit of new auto-capacity put in on the highways of Minneapolis because of Move MN, but mostly it will go to repaving streets, fixing bridges, building new LRT, expanding Rapid Bus, expanding local bus, adding protected bikeways, and improving pedestrian crossings and accessibility.
I'm going to highlight what I got stuck on there because it is the jumping off point.
I’m fundamentally NOT worried about my city building mostly things that will make my quality of life worse because I’m actively working to change paradigms at the city/county level and many have already changed.
To me this has illuminated a paradox of big cities and -- perhaps -- goes some ways towards explaining why there is such a different view of the role of government between urban and rural areas.
The paradox: I've always believed that working in a big city one would be faced with the small fish in a big pond problem. How does one person make any meaningful impact on such a big system? It's overwhelming. Yet, in a small town, I not only can go talk to the mayor, I could be the mayor if I really wanted to be (maybe not me, specifically, but someone who was so inclined could work and make that happen). There is little distance between me and the local government.
Yet reading Ethan -- and working with people in cities large and small all over the country -- I have developed an realization that he feels (a) far more empowered to actually change things than I do here in my small town (pop. 13,500) and (b) feels less impacted by the policies of a centralized state than someone in my small town does. A paradox, and I think a rational one.
I personally have a base skepticism about centralized government. I would not vote for anything that expanded it -- and would vote to devolve or disband much of what state and federal governments currently undertake -- unless I was convinced there was no other way to address an issue locally. For sake of the conversation, let's assume that the typical urban voter feels differently, that this person is less skeptical about government and often easily finds state/federal interventions to be welcome. I don't think this assertion is a stretch based on voting patterns.
Here's why both of those beliefs might be rational: In my small town, the state and federal governments are THE force shaping the trajectory of my community. It is state and federal policy that dictates nearly everything about how we develop and grow. I find it frustratingly impossible to fight that, to the point where I would rather have nothing than what we're being handed. For a city like Minneapolis, the state and federal governments are two of many players, often not even the biggest. The relationship there is much, much different.
Let me give a concrete example: local government aid. This is money that the state of Minnesota gives cities each year to help provide basic government services. Here's how my city of Brainerd compares to Minneapolis.
Obviously, Brainerd is far more dependent on state aid than Minneapolis. How does one change a system that is, from the start, so incredibly fragile? How does Brainerd evolve and adapt when the biggest player in funding our local government is not us? We get more money from the state than we raise in local property taxes! That's an extremely fragile system, whether we want to admit it here or not.
As another example, here are the projects that have been recently completed or are in the pipeline for the near future. All of these are nasty, stroady, old school public works approaches.
How much can I -- your above-average, involved citizen -- impact these projects? Not at all. They are all hostage to forces outside of our control. Sure, we might get some superficial input, but unless the money is coming out of a state and federal bureaucracy, it isn't happening. And look at the size of those projects! The Minneapolis equivalent would be a Vikings stadium sized project every two or three years totally funded by the state. Feel powerless to oppose that stadium? What if those same dynamics applied to your local street?
On many, many occasions I have proposed small, rational changes to our approach that would help our small town grow stronger and healthier. Things that would improve property values, build wealth in the community and make people's lives better. Time and time and time again, I get the same answer: We can't do that or we'd lose our funding; the money would have to come out of our pockets and we don't have it.
And, really, who does that money empower? It empowers the politicians, local bureaucrats, the affiliated non-governmental organizations and the large corporations, all of which have a near-monopoly on the knowledge, connections and pipeline to make things happen. Oppose them and you not only are opposing growth, jobs and progress: you threaten the viability of the entire community.
I suspect that when Ethan -- or his equivalent in another major metropolitan area -- reaches a hurdle, there are at least two options available that are not available to the advocate in a small town or rural area. The first is to use a different funding stream. That might not be easy, but it is far easier in a system where alternative funding streams actually exist. The second would be to work with your cadre of elected state officials -- people who likewise have a positive view of what state and federal government can accomplish -- to make the policy changes needed to clear that hurdle. This is almost impossible in a single small town where legislators -- already not inclined to public policy nuances -- represent many cities, some who would certainly see change as threatening.
I'm not going to pretend that this explains the many differences between Red America and Blue America, but it does help me understand why thoughtful people living in different situations yet wanting similar ends would have drastically different outlooks on the benefits of state and federal intervention. If someone lives in a place dominated by state/fed money, where progress is continually thwarted by state/federal mandates, it is not hard to imagine where the healthy skepticism of government would originate. Conversely, if someone lives in a place where the state/federal governments are less important players, where they often serve as a difference-maker in achieving locally-established goals, it is easy to understand why such a person would look more favorably on state/federal interventions.