This essay is drawn from a speech delivered at the Silver SPUR Awards luncheon on November 29.
I teach a class at UC Berkeley’s planning school about politics and geography. I like to get the students talking on the first day of class, so this year I had them debate the question, Should California secede?
It was a lot of fun to see what they did with it. The policy students went straight to the legal questions of separation of powers and federal preemption. The business school students tried to work out the math: We’d save a lot of money because California pays much more in federal taxes than it gets back, but we’d have to build up our own army, and that would get expensive. Some of the planning students got this gleam in their eyes, picturing the ecotopia they could build: California as a sovereign nation.
I find myself thinking about that debate as I reflect on 2017. It’s been a really weird year. A lot of bad things have happened, but we’ve seen a lot of good, too.
In the category of good things, I’m feeling really proud of the State of California. On immigration, on climate change, on a whole bunch of issues, this state has been going in a different direction from the federal government. We’re building high-speed rail. We raised the gas tax to pay for better transportation. We actually made some progress on housing reform. We’ve been showing off a little.
On the other hand, it’s quite worrisome to me that the federal tax reform bill appears to be designed to extract wealth out of California and a few other states to ship to more conservative parts of the country. It’s a huge threat to California, because it goes right to the heart of our ability to take care of ourselves. If the federal government is not going to be helpful on the big issues we care about, then we have to step up to tax ourselves so that we can invest in our own future. If we want to have transit, if we want to have affordable housing, if we want to phase out fossil fuels, we will have to do that on our own.
The same goes for federal policies that have the effect of closing us off from the rest of world. The Bay Area is proudly cosmopolitan. We’re a place for ambitious people from all over the world to come work hard, invent things and make their mark however they can. If the federal government shuts off the flow of global talent, that’s not just a social justice catastrophe for us, it’s also an economic catastrophe.
We know that many parts of this country are living through a time of economic trauma, which can be hard to remember when the Bay Area is experiencing perhaps the biggest economic boom in a century. I think there’s an optimistic story and a pessimistic story we can tell about what’s happening to the places that are struggling.
The optimistic story is that this is a moment of economic transition, and it’s temporary. Inventions and cultural changes are sweeping through society. New industries are being created, and old ones are going away. Many kinds of jobs will disappear, but in the long run new jobs will be created. This is what’s happened over and over again in the history of capitalism.
The pessimistic story might agree with all of that, but it would also note that when people are scared, they don’t act rationally. During a previous moment of economic transition and disruption, our country turned to the New Deal — but some countries turned to fascism. We’re about to watch a bunch of jobs disappear: truck drivers, retail clerks —most of the routine functions in our economy are at risk. There could be places that never recover from this transition.
Between the optimistic story and the pessimistic story, we don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But what I’m starting to understand is that the Bay Area has become a more central player in the story of our country. First because we are the place that is coming up with so many of the things that are disrupting people’s lives. And second because we represent the alternative path. We are what it looks like to embrace immigration, put in place a European-style, high-tax / high-service social compact and take climate change seriously. We are the symbol of progressivism urbanism in this country.
Given that, what are we called on to do in this moment?
I think it starts with making this place work better. We need the cities of the Bay Area to be a model we can be proud of.
Thousands of homeless people living in tents is not acceptable.
Having the highest housing costs in the country is not acceptable.
Forcing people to sit in traffic for hours to get to work is not acceptable.
Our job at SPUR is to solve those problems. And we are not as far away from figuring them out as it might feel. Let me describe the model I think we’re moving toward.
First: It’s a region linked by high-speed transit, where it’s easy to get anywhere within the inner Bay Area. The backbone of public transit gets us most of the way, and from there we get the rest of the way on foot or bike or some form of ride sharing, which may be driverless. We’re not quite there yet, but the pieces are starting to come together.
Second: It’s a region that’s affordable. And that’s because we have embraced a radical increase in the housing supply, recognizing that adding more jobs requires adding more homes. Truly, this is how we flip our story from one where we are victims of economic forces to one where we shape our own fate. We don’t have to let the cost of housing continue to go up. We can instead come to terms with the fact that we are not a small place anymore. We’re part of a bigger story now.
Third: it’s a region that’s inclusive. It welcomes people from all over. It has an economic engine that provides opportunity for everyone who is willing to work. As old forms of work go away, we invent new forms of work. It’s a place that is geared toward upward mobility, because we care about growing the economic pie and we also care about making sure everyone gets a piece of it.
And finally: It’s a region that is ecologically balanced. We have a chance to create the first carbon-free metropolis. The necessary pieces of the puzzle are being invented here, from electric cars and batteries to renewable energy — we just need to put the right tech together with the right city planning so that everyone can get where they need to go without fossil fuels.
I don’t know how it’s going to turn out at the federal level, none of us do. But I think we should be optimistic because we know what we’re working toward. We know what success looks like. We have, right here in the Bay Area, everything we need to solve our problems.
I’ll sum it up this way: We don’t want to secede from the United States, we want to lead the United States.