Regaining our Competitive Advantage: A National Blueprint for Prosperity

What if Washington was smart? asks Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution.

What if the Federal government could be an effective partner—setting the framework for big issues such as transportation and sustainability-- in making metropolitan areas more competitive in this new global economy?

It’s a big question that’s at the heart of the Brookings Institute’s new initiative, Blueprint for American Prosperity. The premise? Dynamic global and domestic forces pose urgent challenges that are testing American prosperity, says Katz, vice president and director, Metropolitan Policies. To compete, the U.S. must leverage four key assets: innovation, infrastructure, human capital and quality places. Those assets are concentrated—and this is paramount—in metropolitan areas.

The problem? The federal government has not kept up with global changes and is impeding rather than promoting progress in metro areas.

Not smart.

On June 11 and 12, a summit by the Brookings Institute launched the next phase of the Blueprint for American Prosperity: Unleashing the Potential of a Metropolitan Nation. It’s a bold, long-term initiative to “reinvigorate” the federal government to promote the health and vitality of the country’s metropolitan areas. (Phase One was selling the concept of a metro nation.)

‘We’re going to attempt to reimagine and redevelop a partnership with a national government that’s been adrift for decades,” Katz says.

“This is how we think of our country, a nation of 50 states, but it’s essentially become a network of metro areas, and unless these places are healthy and vital, our ability to compete globally is at risk.

“We are a metro nation,” says Katz. “It’s time we started acting like it.”

Recently, Katz sat down with  Tracy Certo, Managing Editor of Soapbox’s sister publication, Pop City in Pittsburgh to discuss the  the Blueprint.

Q: Of the four key assets you say are critical to leverage—innovation, infrastructure, human capital and quality places-- is there any one that’s more critical than the other?

They’re all critical in their own right. Success has to be productive growth, inclusive growth, sustainable growth. You can have a very sustainable place but not be very inclusive, with big disparities in income or education; you can be very sustainable but not compete globally.

You’ve got to be thinking about all four of these things. Depending on your starting point you might want to emphasize one or the other. If you’re very productive already --if you’re Seattle, then maybe sustainability is the issue and however you define sustainability. Talking about quality of place or urban regeneration may be the most important thing to do.

I tend to want cities and metropolitan areas to think about their challenges in a unified and holistic way rather than operate on multiple paths.

Q: Why hasn’t the federal government kept pace with the changes in the world today? What’s gone wrong?

I think there’s been a philosophy in play since the 1980s that we should be pushing out responsibility from the federal government. It may be aligned with Reagan but a lot of democratic leaders have aligned with this as well.

This notion that power should be pushed out of Washington crossed party and ideological lines. The problem is the world has change a bit since 1980: the Internet, globalization, global warming, wage stagnation. We need to rethink the national government. We believe we’re not going to return to the federal government of the 1970s -- top down, hierarchical command-control -- nor should we. We need to have a more balanced vision of federalism. The Federal government leads where it must, sets the frame for big success on climate, wages, and competitiveness but also empowers metros to push the envelope further.

Q: Are there governments elsewhere in the world doing it right?

When you look to Europe or China or Japan or Korea or Singapore, you find governments that are leading -- they’re leading in ways that as Americans we probably find intrusive but they are setting goals and aspirations and aligning policies in support of all those things. So we can learn from Asia and, especially, Europe on what it means to lead on climate, and infrastructure, what it means to have a first class rather than third class infrastructure, which is what we have.

Because we’re American --and this is a good thing --we share power more, we diffuse power more. There are more people involved in making things happen and that’s why we’re stronger. We’re not waiting for the regs from some central bureaucracy somewhere. We are the most entrepreneurial country in part because of our governing system but our governing system is broken and dysfunctional and needs to be repaired.

Q: What kind of buy-in are you seeking and how’s it going to work?

A: It’s at three levels. The first level is we want people to buy the paradigm of the metro nation.

Q: Is that a tough sell?

Very much so. We’re still Jeffersonian Americans. A large portion of Americans think we live in small towns and when you say metro, they think you mean city. Even though they’re living in a town or suburb and they’re commuting into cities or using the amenities of a city, they don’t regard themselves as living in a broader metro.

Q: Back to the question. The second and third levels?

We have a whole series of concrete legislatable ideas on innovation, on infrastructure, on quality of place, and climate. We would like those to be enacted.

And the last piece, we are building a network of corporate, civic, and political leaders from metros like Cincinnati because we think that metros are less than the sum of their parts politically—because they’ve never acted to impress their agenda on either the nation or states. So if we’re successful in that with our allies and build this network, they can ultimately advocate for these kinds of changes.

Q: How are you building that network?

Through these large convenings and small convenings; it’s mostly retail, to be frank. You can’t build a network over the Internet; you need people to come together. 

We will have a group of affiliates from the major metros from the U.S. so business, universities, environmental, civic, politics, a group of folks affiliated with this initiative, who say we agree with the principals of this. They may not agree with every single policy reform that is being advocated but fundamentally agree with the notion that we’re a metro nation but we’re not acting like one.

Going forward, what we’ll have is a sort of self-selection process and a bunch of leadership networks within metros who say this is something we really want to engage on. What we’re looking for is people who really want to spend time on this. The big rules have to change.

Q: Are the two presidential candidates addressing this?

When it comes to these areas like innovation, human capital, infrastructure and climate, they would say they have many ideas along these lines. Do they accept the notion that we are a metro nation? No. I don’t think any political candidate would say that because the word metro for a large portion of the population is something people don’t side with.

I do expect them to pick up ideas around these areas, these assets that drive prosperity, to have a bold and ambitious plan in innovation, and a purposeful plan on infrastructure. I think that’s where they’re going. That’s victory on some level.

Ultimately, we’re trying to create a safe place where political leaders can actually say, ‘you know what, we are organized differently than we were 200 years ago and maybe that requires more dramatic restructuring in how we think about our place in the world and how we think about climate and alleviating poverty.’ That’s in the long run what you want to have happen. In the short run it’s changing policies.

Q: How does a city today work on an issue like transportation in conjunction with the Blueprint on Prosperity? How would it work?

A lot of this is about making choices. There are infrastructure dollars raised by the federal and state government that are more flexible than people think that allows for shifts between highway and transit.

The question is what’s your vision for yourself? In many metros we tend to be on autopilot. We still tend to make investments in infrastructure that serves the 1970s economy as opposed to this economy.

Using state and federal dollars in advance of visions that are more likely to have high returns on investment that’s competitive and sustainable--that’s A.

B--leveraging our private sector and C, leveraging our prospective tax and revenue enhancements. Because you build these corridors you can do your land use, you’re going to have some real revenue enhancements and you can bank those right now. That’s a smart use of tax increment financing.

Q: Is it too late to get a train system in the United States?

Light rail is going to be prevalent in the US. I think the train system will happen in a select group of corridors in the US.

To see all Blueprint for Prosperity policy papers, on issues from a national innovation foundation to transportation for the 21st Century, click here.

Note: The paper on the carbon footprint of the top 100 areas is the first time anyone has showed how each metro acts vis a vis climate, spatial landscape, energy sources, and its rules. To see how Cincinnati fares, click here.

Photography by Scott Beseler

Cincinnati Skyline

FRCH human capital

Bruce Katz copyright Jim Harrison

Nada view

Jaguar skyline

Barack Obama copyright Andrew Certo

Westin taxi cab

Train copyright Brian Cohen

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