New Athens? The Bay Area as city-state

Continuing economic woes in California… which puts the state on a par with the rest of the world, if nothing else, but hey-ho. So, what to do? Futurist Paul Saffo steps up to the punditry plate to suggest hiving off the Bay Area as an independent city-state [via Bruce Sterling]:

In an age when nations have become so large that their citizens no longer identify with distant governments, city-states are political units large enough to have a global economic impact but small enough for even the most casual citizen to understand the relationships that make their city-state work. Politicians are local and thus more inclined to pragmatism and constructive action. Businesses understand that their fortunes are tied to the success of the local community. This balance between effect and size and the tendency toward social cohesion make contemporary city-states like Singapore and Hong Kong bright spots in an uncertain global economy.


City-states have pragmatic governments. Pragmatism grows up from the local level, where decisionmakers witness the consequences of their decisions in their own backyards. Bay Area cities may be in considerable pain, but cities like San Jose started facing up to their problems years before Sacramento got serious, and towns like San Carlos have been proactive in attempts to re-engineer services (the city recently outsourced its police department). The Bay Area might not resemble Singapore with its highly disciplined government ministries, but our local governmental bodies have shown remarkable foresight in creating regional bodies like BART, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to achieve pragmatic long-term goals. City-states also have awkward relationships with their neighbors. Malaysia still resents Singapore’s independence and success, and Hong Kong citizens regularly oppose policies imposed on it by Beijing’s central government. The Bay Area hasn’t experienced this sort of tension with Sacramento, or other California regions, but it is time to do so. Tension would signal that the Bay Area is finally acting as a single body when it comes to looking out for its vital interests.

I’ve been waffling about the return to the city-state model for years now… whether that makes me smarter than I thought (or makes Saffo an uniformed loon, or both) is an open question. The real obvious downside of a shift in that direction would be the increase of nationalist rhetoric that the new identity would bring with it… but seeing as how economic hardship tends to boost nationalism anyway, you might as well take the economic benefits as well, right?

[ Addendum – The name and ideas rang a Pavlovian bell, and a quick search revealed that Saffo has previous: he’s the guy who gave the American economic model “five decades to live” back in 2007. I wonder if he’s shortened that expected life-span by now? I’m a lot less skeptical of it this time round. ]

4 thoughts on “New Athens? The Bay Area as city-state”

  1. In reality the U.S. was really supposed be a collection of city-states anyway, so this isn’t as radical for the U.S. as it sounds. Basically, the country would just be going back the early and mid-1800’s.

    One of the real problems for California is too much Democracy. Fareed Zakaria outlines this in his book The Future of Freedom.

  2. A point to note is that it’s always the *rich* cities/areas who are willing to “go city-state”. In fact the “economic benefits” that they would gain by going autonomous correspond directly to economic damage suffered by less rich cities. In a nation-sized state, resources generated by richer areas are transferred, more or less directly, to poorer ones; in a conglomerate of city-states, every city keeps its own resources… and people living in poorer areas are free to starve (or, less dramatically, experience lower-quality services) in order to let dwellers of richer cities to fully enjoy their wealth. Frankly, I don’t see this as a progress 🙁

  3. ^^ We don’t have enough examples of city-states in the modern era to say for sure, but of the ones we do have, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau prospered *after* independence, not before. It’s also noteworthy to mention that the areas surrounding those city-states are generally better off than other regions of their countries, too. As long as it doesn’t throw up any barriers to trade and commerce between regions, the whole independent/semi-independent cities idea could be worth a try.

  4. The SF Bay Area has 2 major world class universities (Berkeley and Stanford), 2 major world class medical research universities, high tech infrastructure, biomed R&D, and is progressive in addressing global warming with new tech that is,and will be in demand. Rest of CA is behind the curve, with the rest of the country wanting to go aggressively backwards by cheerfully destroying the production sector, and cheerfully destroying any semblance of a first world infrastructure. Either the SF Bay Area will, by necessity, become a city-state or get sucked down with the rest of the country that is hell bent on becoming a 3rd world country. A country that is totally OK with seeing its own children ignorant, hungry as a sacrifice to the real core American values of greed, oppression and poverty is not a country with which I would like to associate.

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