The United States as “a decentralized nation”

One analysis of the concentration of people and activity in American cities leads to this conclusion about the country today:

The modern U.S. is thus a decentralized nation, where despite an urban revival in recent years the periphery has kept growing faster than the center. Rural areas aren’t growing; most American counties actually lost population in the 2010s. But low-density suburban counties attached to large metropolitan areas grew faster than either high-density suburbs or urban counties, economist Jed Kolko calculated recently, while the fastest-growing major metro areas (Austin, Orlando, Raleigh, Nashville) aren’t among the largest.

This is a little hard to square with claims that large cities continue to wield great political clout. If it weren’t for the Electoral College, according to one oft-heard argument, voters in New York, Los Angeles and/or Chicago would choose every president. How they would manage to do this with only 4.7% of the nation’s population is a bit of a mystery. True, the three cities’ metro-area populations added up to 13% of the U.S. total in 2020, but that was down from 13.3% in 2010 and traditionally suburbs and cities largely canceled each other out politically — although that has been changing lately.

There’s a stronger argument to be made that economic power and cultural clout remain concentrated in a few places. Gross domestic product grew more slowly in the 10 largest metro areas than the country as a whole from 2010 to 2019 (2020 data aren’t out yet), but per-capita personal income grew faster. New York still dominates finance and the news media, Washington dominates government, Los Angeles rules entertainment and San Jose and San Francisco technology.

Census data suggests that the majority of the American population lives in suburbs. But, population alone cannot explain the importance and persistence of big cities. They will continue to remain powerful and important for multiple reasons. They help anchor broader metropolitan regions. They are centers of finance, innovation, real estate, cultural opportunities, key transportation infrastructure, and other essential activity. They occupy some of the most important and strategic locations. They have long histories.

At the same time, a decentralized landscape means (1) no single city or set of cities may dominate activity and/or (2) residents of the United States may not feel the importance of cities. For example, even with data showing the importance of cities and their regions for economic activity, Americans consistently discuss small businesses and farmers. Or, Manhattan and Washington, D.C. may dominate headlines but many Americans will be more invested in their local regions or communities.

More broadly, it may be safe to describe all of American society as more decentralized than other developed countries. I am thinking of Frank Dobbin’s book Forging Industrial Policy where France is the example of a more centralized state, both in terms of government structure – more power at the state level – and geography – all roads/rails lead to Paris. The United States has had from the beginning a system with distributed powers at the federal, state, and local levels as well as a broad landscape with many kinds of settlements.

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