The age of Trump has inspired soul-searching within our overclass – long nights reading “Hillbilly Elegy,” mostly – but also a wave of cosmopolitan pride. During the presidential campaign, when Trump talked about making America great again, Hillary Clinton countered that “America is already great” – meaning, of course, dynamic and diverse and tolerant and future-oriented, all the things that Trump seems to dismiss and his voters seem to fear.
This great-already sentiment has been reproduced in many elite quarters, and last week the Niskanen Center’s Will Wilkinson, writing in The Washington Post, brought it to a particularly sharp point: What’s really great about America is its big, booming, liberal cities.
Trump loves to talk down America’s great metropolises, Wilkinson points out, portraying them as nightmares out of “Death Wish” or “Dog Day Afternoon.” Wilkinson says that’s because our president needs “to spread the notion that the polyglot metropolis is a dangerous failure” to advance his nativist agenda. But in reality our cities are, yes, already great – safer-than-ever, culturally-rich, rife with policy innovation, and driving our economic future. They’re places where immigrants flock and college graduates increasingly cluster, compounding their talents through cooperation and exchange, generating new ideas and innovations while the Trumpish hinterland languishes in resentment and nostalgia.
I respectfully dissent. Yes, for many of their inhabitants, particularly the young and the wealthy, our liberal cities are pleasant places in which to work and play. But if they are diverse in certain ways, they are segregated in others, from “whiteopias” like Portland to balkanized cities like D.C. or Chicago. If they are dynamic, they are also so rich – and so rigidly zoned – that the middle class can’t afford to live there and fewer and fewer kids are born inside their gates. If they are fast-growing it’s often a growth intertwined with subsidies and “too big to fail” protection; if they are innovation capitals it’s a form of innovation that generates fewer jobs than past technological advance. If they produce some intellectual ferment they have also cloistered our liberal intelligentsia and actually weakened liberalism politically by concentrating its votes.
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So has the heyday of these meritocratic agglomerations actually made America greater? I think not. In the age of the liberal city – dating, one might argue, to the urban recovery of the 1990s – economic growth has been slack, political dysfunction worse, and technological progress slow outside the online sector. Liberalism has become more smug and out-of-touch; conservatism more anti-intellectual and buffoonish. The hive-mind genius supposedly generated by concentrating all the best and the brightest has given us great apps and some fun TV shows to binge-watch, but the 2000s and 2010s haven’t exactly been the Florentine Renaissance.
Thus this week’s installment in my series of implausible, perhaps even ridiculous proposals: We should treat liberal cities the way liberals treat corporate monopolies – not as growth-enhancing assets, but as trusts that concentrate wealth and power and conspire against the public good. And instead of trying to make them a little more egalitarian with looser zoning rules and more affordable housing, we should make like Teddy Roosevelt and try to break them up.
First, the easy part: Let’s take the offices of our federal government, now concentrated in the vampiric conurbation of Greater Washington, D.C., and spread them around, in poorer states and smaller cities that need revitalization. Vox’s Matt Yglesias has proposed a version of this idea – distributing various health and science and regulatory agencies to Detroit or Cleveland or Milwaukee – and it’s perfect for the next politician who claims to want to really drain the swamp.
But as Yglesias concedes, there’s only so much that breaking up D.C. will do. Which is why we'll go further, starting with the deep-pocketed elite universities clustered around our bloated megalopolises. We'll tax their endowments heavily, but offer exemptions for schools that expand their student bodies with satellite campuses in areas with well-below-the-median average incomes. MIT-in-Flint has a certain ring to it. So does Stanford-Buffalo, or Harvard-on-the-Mississippi.
A similar tax would apply to large nonprofits: If you want your full tax exemption, show that you’re employing people in lower-income states and cities. Meanwhile new business tax credits would encourage regional diversification, while the state and local tax deduction would be capped, making it more expensive for the upper class to live in and around high-cost, high-tax metropolitan areas. And the FTC’s mandate would be creatively rewritten to include an industry’s geographic concentration as a monopolistic indicator, letting it approve mergers and acquisitions and trustbust with an eye toward more dispersed employment.
Finally, because we can’t forget the media: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s funding for flyover-country stations would be expanded, not cut, and a new Corporation for Local News would fund newspapers in smaller cities and rural areas. And this would be paid for by a special surtax on media corporations (print, digital and television) based in New York and Washington, D.C.
Sorry, colleagues. See you in our Akron offices.