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Gar Alperovitz

Gar Alperovitz

Distinguished Next System Fellow more

Community & Place Democracy & Governance

Why consider long term regional devolution of power?

Though we rarely pause to reflect on the matter, compared to the size of other materially rich nations, the United States is gargantuan. France would fit inside Texas. Germany could be swapped with Montana. California is not much smaller than Spain.1 Indeed, the United States is larger than all of the economically advanced countries taken together, after excluding Canada and Australia—nations with large, sparsely populated internal regions.2

The United States is huge in other ways as well. In terms of population, for instance, the United States is very large and growing. The Census Bureau projects that the U.S. population will increase by nearly 100 million people by 2060, reaching almost 400 million in total around 2050.3 Economically, Social Security Administration projections indicate that the US economy will nearly double by midcentury, and have roughly twice the entire European Union’s current economic output.4

How does one create a democratically responsive and participatory structure in a nation of such huge geographic, demographic, and economic magnitude? A number of concerns present themselves. As just one example, Harvard economist Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore from Tufts University have explored the ways in which large nations systematically fail to meet the diverse needs of large populations. Size alone leads to concentrations of power that often leave distant areas unable to effectively compete in decision-making. Individuals in different geographic regions (close to or far from a capital where public investments are often concentrated, for example) or with different ideologies will opt for different public goods, in different quantities.5

Currently, gridlock at the national level has also motivated citizens to look to lower levels of government for redress of their pressing problems.

The question of how to achieve genuine democracy at scale is not a recent problem. James Madison, for instance, expressed reservations about nations both too small and too large. Long before the United States had become continental in scale he observed that a large and widely dispersed population would be at a structural disadvantage against the tyranny of a central administration that could pit different groups against each other. A number of writers have recognized that since the continent is too large and many states too small for dealing with many critical problems, the intermediate unit of devolved government was inevitably the region. (More than a third of states have populations less than 3 million and more than half of states have populations less than 5 million).6

In the late 1920s, Harvard political scientist William Bennett Munro argued that the appropriate scale for addressing many problems “belong by right to regional governments.”7 In the 1930s, another Harvard political scientist, William Yandell Elliot, argued for “regional commonwealths” as the preferable “real units of government.”8 During the 1960s economist and political scientist Rexford Tugwell proposed a new constitution structured on the basis of “regional republics.”9 In the 1990s, George Kennan proposed a regional devolution of power to a “dozen constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of the existing states but a considerable part of those of the present federal establishment.”10 Any such proposals, of course, would likely require hard-fought constitutional changes. Nevertheless, the idea has recurred again and again throughout American history for a reason. Systems that involve more than 300 million people and that physically are continental in scale are very hard to conceive as genuine participatory democracies.

How might long term devolution to regionalist patterns operate in the Pluralist Commonwealth?

The United States has a long history of regional thought and practice to draw upon. During the 1930s, 1960s, and 1970s, as noted, considerable theoretical and practical work focused on regionalism. An important example, cut short in significant part by the advent of World War II, is the Tennessee Valley Authority. Established during the Depression, the TVA addressed a somewhat ambiguous mix of regional planning issues related to watershed management, agricultural production, and electricity generation in a seven state area defined in significant part by the Tennessee River.11 While it suffered from political infighting, failed to disrupt existing economic relationships, and let national dictates trump local participation, the TVA also dramatically increased electrification in the region and helped create a significant number of new jobs.12 Perhaps more importantly, it inspired a vision of regional PLANNING and production that could in theory be adopted nationally. Senator George Norris’ 1937 legislation for seven TVAs, “enough…to cover the entire country,” remains an important precedent for future regional restructuring.13 The 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, saw a rash of experimentation with other regionalist efforts. The Delaware River Basin Commission (1961), Appalachian Regional Commission (1965), Title II Commissions (1965) and the Title V Commissions (1965) all funded, planned, or coordinated regional activities. While most of these bodies (except the Appalachian Regional Commission), were dissolved during budget cuts in the 1980s—and all would have benefited from greater channels of democratic participation and accountability—they provide additional significant precedents for further regional efforts.

In addition, as noted (see PUBLIC) within markets that naturally tend toward oligopoly or monopoly—and given the failings of many regulatory schemes—establishing regional worker/community/publicly-owned enterprises may be one promising possibility for grounding self-determination in democratically accountable and participatory institutions.

What are some on-the-ground developments that suggest possibilities for the future of regionalism?

Recent attempts to address climate change and promote sustainability have led to significant regional perspectives, programs, and proposals. For instance, communities at the forefront of efforts to save their land and livelihoods from the oil and gas industry—what Naomi Klein has called “Blockadia”—are motivated by a profound connection to “place.” This identification with place is also central to what is known as bioregionalist theory—which seeks to devolve power to ecologically defined bioregions.

To take a more concrete example of regionalist practice, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the nation’s first cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions, includes nine northeastern states. In addition to helping reduce greenhouse gasses, the sale of emissions allowances has raised more than $2.4 billion dollars since going into effect in 2009.14 This revenue has primarily funded increased energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. While President Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan at this writing is currently undergoing judicial review, some have speculated that the Plan’s mandated reductions in power plant emissions (of approximately 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030)15 may induce other states to follow the RGGI example.16

Additional recent regional proposals have focused on “megaregions” and high speed rail. Given projections that most future population and job growth will take place in 10 or so “megaregions,” or clusters of metropolitan areas, economic and environmental PLANNING is almost certain to focus converging attention on this scale.17 Recent proposals for high speed rail, like the Obama Administration’s 2009 Vision for High Speed Rail in America, have emphasized connecting such megaregions. Billions of dollars have already been spent on implementing that vision—though much of the funding has gone into planning and speeding up existing rail.18

Finally, the West seems likely to look increasingly to new regional coordination and governance approaches. To begin with, there are a number of multi-state issues that will have to be faced regionally in combating climate change, including lowering emissions for the Clean Power Plan (or otherwise), drought and water scarcity concerns that cut across borders, forest fire prevention, river basin management. The regional-scale “mega-state,” California is already pointing in this direction, by establishing its own cap-and-trade carbon market in what is equivalent to the 8th largest economy in the world.19 (It is also in the process of establishing a state-wide regional scale high-speed rail system.)20

See also:


Further reading

Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore, The Size of Nations (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005).

Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do: Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013). See: “Afterword.”

Gar Alperovitz, America Beyond Capitalism, 2nd ed. (Takoma Park, MD: Democracy Collaborative Press and Dollars & Sense, 2011). See: “Chapter 5 Democracy: Is a Continent Too Large?”

Gar Alperovitz, “California Split,” The New York Times, February 10, 2007.

George Kennan, Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993).

Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2014).

William Bennett Munro, The Invisible Government (New York, NY: Macmillian, 1928).

William Yandell Elliot, The Need for Constitutional Reform: A Program for National Security (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1935).

Gar Alperovitz

Gar Alperovitz

Distinguished Next System Fellow more

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