Buzzkill Prediction: The Future is Not Cities

A couple of interesting political predictions hit the news over the past couple of days. One of these is based on the previous issue of Foreign Policy magazine’s cover piece, which theorizes:

The 21st century will not be dominated by America or China, Brazil or India, but by the city. In an age that appears increasingly unmanageable, cities rather than states are becoming the islands of governance on which the future world order will be built.

And the second is the WikiLeaks release, scheduled for today, of another trove of State Department documents, supposedly profiling foreign leaders and detailing U.S. communications with paramilitary groups around the world. Of this event, President Obama implicitly prognosticates that the status quo of American foreign policy is at stake in the decision to release these documents. Each of these visions, in my view, are false. Here’s what I, and a little political science-based common sense, think about that first one. Tomorrow we’ll talk about the second one.

The Future of World Power is Not in Cities

Well – technically it is, but not any more so than it currently is, and the cities that are currently power centers will continue to be power centers. The FP piece basically talks about cities as wielding two types of power: political and economic. The political story begins with some fairly vague claims, such as that “New York and Washington [are] feuding over financial regulation,” and that “Dubai and Abu Dhabi [are] vying for leadership of the United Arab Emirates.” Neither of these ring a bell to me. Perhaps the first bit is referring to Federal level regulation of the financial industry, whose hub is New York City – yet New York legislators are strongly in favor of the Administration’s financial oversight plans (thus far, anyway).

Perhaps what the article was referring to is the problem New York State legislators have with impending financial oversight reform – and that helps reveal why I think this vision of the future is wrong. The ability of New York State legislators to influence public policy outcomes at the national level is incredibly limited – to say nothing of what New York City’s legislators can do. That’s the problem this FP piece ignores. The city may be the locus of economic power but, like it or not, the locus of political and regulatory decision-making is still elsewhere. The Federal government gets to tell New York City-based firms what countries they’re allowed to do business in. Financial organizations in New York are regulated by agencies based in D.C. And there is virtually no authority the mayor of New York City has that could change that.

Something that journalists and futurists of all stripes seem to ignore is the lesson that power is sticky. No matter what share of the economy New York City becomes, the people who currently hold the keys not only lack the mechanism to drastically alter the policy-making landscape, but they lack the incentives to do so. Why would they, after all? What in the history of power has led Foreign Policy to conclude that any meaningful sense of “power” is going to be handed downwards, voluntarily?

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One Response to “Buzzkill Prediction: The Future is Not Cities”

  1. Buzzkill Predictions, Part 2: The Latest WikiLeaks Dump Doesn’t Matter « Casual Factors Says:

    […] Casual Factors “Politics is for the present, but an equation is for eternity.” -Albert Einstein « Buzzkill Prediction: The Future is Not Cities […]

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