19 March 2006

Little Cities, Big Towns

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I live in New York City, but I rarely go to Albany. I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, but cannot remember ever visiting Annapolis. I have been to Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Louisville, Newark, New Orleans, Portland, and Seattle – but never to Springfield, Carson City, Sacramento, Frankfort, Trenton, Baton Rouge, Salem, or Olympia.

This is not a lesson in geography-by-free-association, but rather a perspective on the nature of growth and government in the United States: in 33 of the 50 states, the capital city and the largest city are not the same, including in the six most populous states, California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Moreover, those six states are among the biggest economies within the country (California actually comprising one of the world’s largest economies in its own right), and yet each state’s policy-makers sit several hundred miles from the the cities and people that are their economic engines.

One type of idealist might say that the more these two aspects of life are conjoined – politics and economics – the more the citizens benefit from the combined expertise and the increased awareness of social issues within both communities. After all, it is when the politicians become too isolated, too trapped in their own social spheres, that they lose touch with the people they have been (t)asked to govern. Similarly, if businesses were in closer proximity to those addressing governance issues, maybe they would be quicker to share the concerns of the communities in which they operate. (Maybe WalMart would have been more ready to address the challenge of providing health care coverage for its employees if it were stationed in a city as large and diverse as Los Angeles or New York, rather than in Bentonville, Arkansas.) Of course, in a democracy – with elected representatives chosen from within our communities – this kind of psychological distance should not be present: our representatives should know us, and our desires, because they come from us and are chosen by us. Likewise, businesses should operate in the interests of their communities because the health of the citizens can affect the health of their companies and the value returned to their owners and shareholders.

That said, locating government elsewhere may just provide a beneficial separation, an insulation of politics from business and a degree of protection for both. Most cities have their own obsessions and forms of intrigue, whether it’s the Hollywood-style showbiz drama of LA or celebrity stocks and famous brokers in market-driven NYC – and these are distinctly different from the sturm-und-drang of budget bills, lobbyist lunches, and the sausage-making that is politics. It is tempting to see this division of cities as being very American, fed by our mythological distaste with government, which encourages us to focus our economic energies more effectively when the politicians are off by themselves, elsewhere.

That’s the myth, anyway. Looked at in a global context, this distinction between geography, demography, and economy is rare: London, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, Cairo, Baghdad, Tehran, Mexico City, Buenos Aires... All are capitals, all are the largest population centers of their respective countries, and most are the primary business centers, too.

The oddities of the growth of our cities may just be an accident of American history. After all, Houston, Los Angeles, and Phoenix were backwater towns for much of the 20th century, even though they now sit comfortably amongst the top 10 largest cities in the U.S. (Other aspects of these cities – such as proximity to water, or temperate climates, or merely being newer communities in which people could easily establish themselves – certainly played a role in their rapid, post-World War II development.)

Meanwhile, Baltimore, New York City, and Philadelphia each had brief turns as capitals in the colonial era, but government eventually moved on. Those cities prospered anyway. Go figure!

Click here for a PDF of U.S. State Capitals & Largest Cities.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home