Tag Archives: Bay Area

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. ]