States Lab

California is unique among states. With a population of close to 40 million and the ninth largest economy in the world, policy making in California will set an example not only at the state and federal level but for the rest of the world. Justice Brandies famously said that States are the laboratories of democracy. While this is still true for national policy, cities are increasingly the leading innovators in policy making. People are moving to urban areas in growing numbers at increasingly fast rates, it is predicted that by 2050, half of the world’s population will live in cities. Therefore it is vital to understand how municipal policy making will work with State, Federal, and International Law. Los Angeles is the second largest city in the United States and it’s most dense urban conglomeration. The coming years will prove vital for policy makers in LA county and it’s constituent cities to adapt to the tide of urban migration..

Nations are an interesting unit of analysis for policy making. In large nations like United States or India, it can be very difficult to reach a consensus among a variety of different social groups, economies and geographies. Does someone in California have the same educational needs as someone in Wisconsin? For the sake of building nation states, education is a primary method of creating a common identity. Federal mandates like the Common Core Curriculum and No Child Left Behind (and the existence of the Department of Education itself) attempt to provide a stable body of knowledge across a population of nearly three hundred million.

American Federalism was explicitly designed to allow smaller political entities (states) control over their own affairs. When the United States was founded it had a total population of 2.1 million spread around thirteen states, leaving an average of 161 thousand citizens per state. With a smaller population and a nascent national government, property owning citizens had more control over their local affairs. This system did not allow women, slaves, or non-property owning white men a vote, so policy making was the domain of the landed gentry, a much smaller portion of the population.

The extension of voting rights has made more people eligible to vote than ever. Local areas are more dense than ever before and an increasingly urbanized population will necessarily change how citizens participate in the democratic process. At one end of the spectrum, mass media including television and the internet have made it very easy to see the national discourse. Decisions made at the federal level are available across the country to everyone at the click of a mouse or tap of a finger. Local policy making is largely ignored. Although the internet has democratized information, people are bombarded with news at the national level through their Facebook and Twitter feeds. The tools for increased transparency exist but are often used for “sexier” topics that appeal to a mass audience. Specificity has been substituted for generalities. People in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are far more likely to read about novel policy developments in New York or Los Angeles. New media has made it easier than ever to create content from any locale but has also overwhelmed the human psyche with information that is by and large irrelevant.

Cities are now where novel policy making takes place. Publications all over the world, from the Atlantic’s “CityLab” to the Guardian’s “Cities” have taken an interest in tackling urban issues. The increased interest in urban political structures is signaling a major change in citizen engagement. I am hopeful that these new outlets will reinvigorate citizens to engage in local politics, where they will actually have a voice. It is widely known that the opportunity cost of voting in a presidential election in firm red or blue states is quite high. The expected value from a vote, in say California, is far lower than the expected value in a state like Iowa. However, the expected value from voting in a Des Moines election or referendum is close to the expected value in Oakland. I hope that this tide of city studies will encourage citizens to focus on what really impacts their everyday lives. I am frankly tired of hearing people blame any presidential administration for not fixing potholes on their commute to work.