Burney channels Kenichi Ohmae’s The end of the nation state, and brings it up to the awful, sludge-filled poltical scene of the present day.
An Interview with David Burney: On New York and the 21st-Century City-State
Nancy Levinson: As an urban designer who has worked for years in the public sector in New York City — and as a Brit who is now a U.S. citizen — what is your assessment of the current political scene? What are the key challenges for cities in these tumultuous times?
David Burney: There’s a growing consensus that this is one of the most dysfunctional eras ever in American politics, and I’d have to agree. The federal government seems paralyzed not only by the impasse between Democrats and Republicans but still more by the internal politics of the GOP. The anti-government ideologues have hijacked the legislative process to the point where it’s hard to expect leadership from Washington — and certainly not on much-needed investment in the country’s declining infrastructure. At the state level it doesn’t seem much better. So increasingly it’s been our cities that have taken the lead on critical issues, from gun control to immigration reform to economic stimulus to climate change.
Given the migration of people into cities worldwide, this trend is sure to continue. We might even be in a de facto transition to a society dominated by economically and politically powerful cities — a contemporary version of the great city-states that arose in the 13th century and ruled Europe until the consolidation of modern nation-states a few centuries later.
Here in the United States, the federal government remains strong, but its authority is being eroded by the polarization of the political parties, and also by an extremely unproductive debate about taxation. It’s an old story: we hate paying taxes but we value the services that taxes support. But the real issue goes deeper — it’s no exaggeration to say that civilization depends on the proposition that we all do much better when we work not just individually but also collectively, and that we need to balance personal freedom with common interest. In other words, if we all contribute to the common good — the commonwealth — then it will be there for us when we need it, whether in the extreme case of post-disaster assistance or the more everyday matters of affordable housing and healthcare and reliable civic infrastructure.
This idea of common good is the basis of the modern concept of progressive taxation, in which each citizen contributes according to his or her ability, and our elected leaders determine the best collective use for the revenue. What’s more, it is the most technologically and culturally advanced societies that adhere most strongly to this concept of collective revenue and spending. Think about Scandinavia and what’s come to be called the Nordic model, in which high government investment in education, health care and social services has helped to produce national stability and prosperity for decades.
Of course, the United States of America continues to resist this model. Maybe this is because America is still, after all, a relatively young country, born in reaction to the oppressive constraints of its European colonizer-ruler — which accounts, I think, for the libertarian tendencies that inform the U.S. Constitution and persist in the national psyche.Live Free Or Die. Don’t Tread On Me: These slogans date back to the Revolutionary War, and they’re still rallying cries! The original Tea Party was an act of resistance to a British tax in 1773. But the disparity between the U.S. and Europe is also a legacy of World War II: the devastation of Europe was so profound that recovery could only be financed and executed by strong national governments, entrusted with the power to borrow huge sums and marshal the necessary resources. In the postwar decades, European nations invested in major housing programs, in single-payer healthcare systems, in social security plans that protected the poor.
The U.S. has never confronted the need for such massive reconstruction. The closest parallel remains the Great Depression, which produced the New Deal programs of the 1930s, which in turn inspired the Great Society of the ’60s; and today those legacies — the monumental public works of the WPA, the protections of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, et al. — are being steadily dismantled in the wake of the Reagan Revolution and the 21st-century Tea Party. From a European perspective, and from my personal perspective as a Brit who has lived in New York for three decades, this trend seems absurdly retrograde. But I do think that we have now arrived — as we realize with increasing urgency — at a moment when our politics must change if the U.S. is to retain its status as a democratic role model and if we are to solve the problems that confront us in the 21st Century.