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A Presidential Proposition

Curtis Johnson / Oct 12 2012

For Release Friday, October 12, 2012

Curtis JohnsonIn a font size that virtually screamed from the Oct. 7 Sunday New York Times pages, readers saw: “REPUBLICANS TO CITIES: DROP DEAD.”

It’s true that most Republican heavies today hail from rural or suburban parts. That headline colorfully points to how severely one party has bent itself into an anti-urban crouch. But the headline also, if possible, understates how national politics today treats metropolitan regions – the cities of our time.

Having spent several years of my life working for a Republican governor, I cringe to see the way sensible economics has been chained up, locked out and hooted over by the reigning ideology of today’s leading Republicans.

Not that the Democrats are much better. A dear colleague of mine says ruefully that the Democrats don’t have very good answers, but the Republicans don’t even understand the questions (and he’s a Republican).

Most Americans now live and work in metro regions, so you’d expect full-throated support for their futures. Metros host the nation’s treasure of cultural and recreational amenities. They are undeniably the economic engines that power ongoing (if a bit fragile today) prosperity of the whole country.

Demographers in states with major metros point repeatedly to trends in baby-boomer behavior. Today once every eight seconds one of those 76 million people born between 1946 and 1963 reaches 65 years of age –a phenomenon that will last another 16 years. The majority of this group lives in suburbia. But their kids are gone (or at least grown), likely the dog, too. House and lawn care are wearisome burdens. As real estate conditions permit, nearly half are moving closer to the center of their regions, close to places they go frequently – restaurants, medical clinics, theaters, museums and sports venues.

And the “millennials,” a generational cohort even larger than the boomers, are already demonstrating a clear preference for more urban living. Strikingly, they’re the first modern generation to show a decline in the need to own an automobile.

Meanwhile fiscal constraints, polarized politics and ideological blinders have produced metropolitan conditions across the United States that are eerily like third-world standards: Streets not well maintained and pockmarked by holes, cracks, one-too-many asphalt overlays. Wastewater treatment systems needing replacement. Bridges with fracture-critical designs awaiting either replacement or the kind of disaster that struck a Minneapolis bridge in August 2007, when it collapsed. Transit systems – the only antidote to auto-dependent vulnerability to price and supply crises that could cripple U.S. mobility – remain on a slow track. Things that metro regions used to be able to build in a decade now take 30 to 40 years.

Despite a burgeoning diabetes epidemic, our national policies shelter sugar growers. We shower subsidies on commodity farmers while denying support for critical metropolitan needs. The sad fact is this: We rely on our metros to generate the profits that pay the nation’s bills. But that’s not where the nation invests.

How can anyone not see that the United States today is largely a mash-up of metro economies? How does any serious candidate for our highest office run around, or against, his reality? But listen carefully to the debates, read the press reports, analyze the spin of campaign artists. You’ll discover almost no mention of urban areas. It’s as if this reality is invisible, or if seen at all, irrelevant.

So before this quadrennial episode of national debate is consummated Nov. 6, might we wish for the last debate moderator, Bob Schieffer, on Oct. 22 to force the two presidential nominees to say what they think, describe what they’d do, to make sure our metro regions win the global competitive battles?

Let’s imagine Schieffer asking: “Now that the metropolitan regions of America have become the cornerstones of the nation’s economy, what would each of you do, as national policy, to ensure their vitality and competitiveness under rapidly changing world conditions?”

Curtis Johnson is president of the Citistates Group. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Posted October 12, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    National politicians are simply too remote and abstracted from these issues, at least publicly. NAHB and NAIOP would love to continue driving their buses just as they built them the 50’s and 70’s… ignoring all you mention. The sprawl monster will resurrect in force as soon as credit loosens up. Curtis, you need to get beyond analysis and make more compelling statements than this!

  2. Craig Anthony Thomas
    Posted October 12, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps if the last debate moderator, Bob Schieffer, is made aware of your commentary, Mr. Schieffer will defer to you and ask you to take his place.

    I know you, Mr. Johnson, would pose just the right questions that the electorate is collectively hoping the presidential candidates will address.

    The urgency, as you clearly note, is palpably here and now.

    Just thinking out loud . . .

  3. Frank Beal
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Curtis: Great column as ususal.
    By the way, I keep promoting “Disrupting Class” every time I get ina conversation about education. I tthink the ideas are gaining traction, at leasst with my friends.