Las Vegas Sun

November 19, 2017

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Cities hold the key to America’s evolution, not revolution

“You say you want a revolution …”

John Lennon’s song from 1968 could have been written at so many different times in our 200-plus-year history. I think the point of his lyrics is that there are ways to revolt and there are ways to evolve. And there is significance in the difference.

America is frustrated. Most Americans know what needs to be done, but we get hung up in the politics of actually making progress. Whether it is common-sense immigration reform, common-sense tax reform, common-sense measures to protect our national security, common-sense gun reform or myriad other challenges that require common sense, our broken political system — or, more the point, the system we allow ourselves to break every election cycle — does precious little that can be traced to common sense.

This is true at both the national and state levels. Consider the 2013 Nevada Legislature’s short list of accomplishments.

It has been a very long time since there was a revolution in this country. Our Founding Fathers were smart enough to create a framework for evolution — it has its genesis at the ballot box — that has served us fairly well these past three centuries.

But now we are in a new century; one that doesn’t allow oceans, time or distance to separate us from our trading partners, enemies or competitors. We are constantly in each other’s faces as we try to deal effectively with the problems that this new world presents. And so far we are trying to meet 21st-century challenges with 20th-century solutions.

Two very bright writers, thinkers and visionaries, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, have just written a book, “The Metropolitan Revolution.” In it, they outline the governmental and political dysfunction that allows inertia — in this case, the kind that is harmful to the body politic and the future of a strong and vibrant America — to take root and remain rooted in the ways of the past. The result is that nothing, absolutely nothing, gets done, which means the United States will go backward as the rest of the world moves forward and some countries even surpass us.

But, Katz and Bradley show us the way to a much better and brighter future. And that way starts right here at home.

At this point I have to acknowledge a bias. Katz is the founding director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, and Bradley is a fellow in that program. I am a member of the board of trustees of the Brookings Institution and a big believer in the kind and quality of independent research, policy and programs that come from the Washington-based think tank. I am a big fan of Katz, whose work this past decade gave rise to what is now Brookings Mountain West at UNLV.

In their book, the authors describe some incredible turnarounds of regions of this country that many had declared dead and of others that saw low-performing futures without some dramatic and innovative efforts to change course. In each of their examples, the federal government and, for the most part, the state governments played little or no part in that success. It all started in our cities and their surrounding metro areas. Hence, the Metropolitan Revolution.

The book details what it took to overcome citizen frustration, economic stagnation and a sense of a future that was devoid of either sense or a future. Like everything else, it took people. People with, as former President George H.W. Bush used to describe, the “vision thing,” and people with, as former President Bill Clinton used to describe, the willingness and pleasure of getting up every day and going to work.

New York City, a city founded on and reliant upon the huge financial sector that it has become (and which almost took it down in 2008), is fast becoming an engineering and technology hub of world renown thanks to the leadership and vision of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other mayors and political leaders, as well as business, social and academic leadership that have come together to make it work.

The moribund Northeast Ohio region that once housed the manufacturing base of our nation and which has been declared dead is now teeming with excitement, innovation and, yes, manufacturing jobs. And it happened from the inside out, from the city and regional political leadership combining forces with business and academic leaders to make the impossible happen.

Similar stories are told about Houston and its desire to harness the creativity of a huge immigrant population in turning the city into a booming metropolis, and Denver, where vision was driven to success by two mayors, one of whom is now governor. They listened to their competitors and brought them to the table by sharing the benefits of a much bigger pie.

The individual stories are different, but the collective lesson is the same. The future of the United States over the next several decades will be conceived of and driven by the 75 percent of Americans who will live in the top 100 metropolitan areas of this country. What the state and federal governments add to that success remains to be seen, but their contribution will also be driven from the ground up. From the cities themselves.

Bruce Katz is here this week talking to local political and business leaders, chambers of commerce and anyone else who will pay attention. Sure, he’d like to sell a few books, but, more importantly, he wants to inspire those people in this community who want a future here and who are willing to work toward it. As he often says, he can shows us our strengths and help us with that “vision thing,” but the hard work must be ours.

By the way, it is no coincidence that he is here at the same time as the U.S. Conference of Mayors. I would suggest that this conference is fertile ground for a man who believes that the mayors will lead the charge. Such conferences are among Las Vegas’ great strengths and one which, I am sure, Bruce would tell us to grow our future on.

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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