The USA is rightly regarded as the birthplace of many ideas that now underpin the modern world. From mass production to household white goods to air travel to semiconductors to genetics, to computers, mobile phones, space travel, not to mention fast food, fast cars and Facebook, Even if they didn’t invent it, they found a way to develop lucrativel markets from it. All this made them the richest country on the planet.
But there is one key area where thus bustling modern state seems stuck in the 18th century—civic geography and government. Their system, born in the crucible of their War of Independence from Britain worked well in forging a nation out of 13 highly individual colonies who jealously guarded their right to do things their way within the umbrella of a union.
As the country prospered, spilling over the Appalachians, absorbing the Louisiana Purchase and the spoils of the Mexican War, territories were carved out with simplistic, straight-line boundaries with little reference to actual geographical features. In a short time these grew into states, with little reference to whether a system born on the Delaware still made sense on the Columbia.
What is true of states is also true of the counties and cities into which states are sub-divided. Away from the East Coast, counties are almost always rectangular boxes on the map, paying little heed to geography,. In California, the Gold Country, where the states prosperity started is split into a half-dozen counties with populations of a few thousand. In contrast, San Bernadino County contains not just a city of a quarter-million of the same name but suburbs like San Dimas (home to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure), plus half the Mojave Desert. Cities often occur in agglomerations with convoluted boundaries, often with lumps of unincorporated county land embedded within them. While prosperity boomed, the inefficiencies inherent in this for services like individual police and fire departments did not much matter. But there has been no redrawing or consolidation since these boundaries were set to adjust to modern population patterns, as there has in Europe.
Restructuring a prosperous and litigious country of 4,000,000 square miles and 328,000,000 people is a massive, if not impossible, task. But there a few places crying out for reform where a stat could be made. California (pop. 39m) sends two senators to Washington. Several states, including Wyoming, Delaware, Alaska, Vermont and both Dakotas have populations under 1m. Yet all send two senators to Washington. If strongly Democrat California sent senators in proportion to its population, Trump would have been impeached by the Senate.
One obvious and simple answer (arrived at a century ago, but never implemented) is to split California into two states. The North and South elements are already culturally distinct so this might even prove popular.
If Americans were game for biting the bullet with urgent reform, they should consider their main metropolitan areas, currently split among states, as well as cities. Although these may cause conniption fits (as they might say) among Americans, here are some suggestions how things might be better organised:
- New England, Fold Rhode Island into Massachusetts and merge New Hampshire and Vermont with Maine, giving states with populations of 7m an 4m respectively.
- New York. Split the city and lower Hudson off from the state (which would retain ~9m population) and combine with Connecticut and Northern New Jersey to make a metropolitan ‘state’ of ~17m people. Southern New Jersey would become part of…
- Philadelphia, which would split from Pennsylvania (leaving it with 10m people) and taking in Delaware to form another metropolitan ‘state’ of some 5m people.
- Washington would cease its amorphous ‘DC’ status expand to include Maryland and Northern Virginia, leaving 6m there and forming a metropolitan ‘state’ of ~9m
- Chicago would expand to include the adjacent urban counties of Illinois (leaving it ~7m people) and those around Gary in Northern Indiana to result in a metropolitan ‘state’ of some 5m.
America tends to regard Europe as archaic. Oncem Germany was indeed a myriad of statelets and Italy a jigsaw with larger pieces. But Bismarck and Garibaldu sorted that out 150 years ago And cities like Munich, Amsterdam or Barcelona boast transport, planning and services more coherent than Americans city-dwellers enjoy.
Some might rail at the demise of historic states but their identity could be retained, even if the civic power isn’t. other might protest that it implies (assuming two Californias) a net loss of two states to equal the earlier 48. This could be redressed by splitting the remaining two larges states:Texas (28m) and Florida (20m) in two. This would restore the total to 50 and make a better senatorial balance at the same time.
But civic incoherence is not solely the province of our American cousins. The City of London (pop. 8,000) is only a small part of, the city of London (pop. 8m). Neither Berwick-on-Tweed, nor North Berwick are within the county of Berwickshire.
As those Americans might say: “Go figure!”