News & Views from 465 California Street

Bay Area Regional Government

Clint Reilly

America is a country founded on the practical application of philosophical ideas. Ideas have a power to change the course of history. But today there is greater confidence in the immediate beneficial effects of technology, medicine, and science. There is little appetite for slowly baked solutions. Voters demand microwave answers, and easily forget that philosophical truths are the foundation of the economic and political institutions which have enabled technology, medicine, and science to flourish.

The late journalist and historian Theodore H. White claimed credit for coining the phrase “Power Broker”. Ironically, White, who wrote the breakthrough series on American Presidential Campaigns, The Making of the President, did not invent the term to describe a practitioner of electoral politics. He was referring to Jean Monnet, a man of ideas whose career was dedicated to creating a united European community. Today the European Union stands as a legacy to Monnet. The concept that a continent of independent nations with a history of war and sectarian rivalry that traced back 1000 years could unite around a shared system of law was a loony notion in the 1940’s and 50’s. The thesis that a common market of European Nations with a single currency and open borders would become a global economic powerhouse was a far fetched idea in post war France. In 2005, I visited the newly constructed headquarters of the European Union in Brussels, Belgium, which is now the political capital of Europe. Any American tourist visiting Europe can testify to the declining value of the dollar. But the rising Euro may be the most eloquent validation of Jean Monnet’s vision of the power of a United Europe.

In an age when almost every politician is a transactional leader who negotiates compromises between selfish interest groups and stale ideas, Monnet was heralded as “The First Statesman of Interdependence”. Long after his death in 1979, the European Union is slowly creating a united continent.

Big, transforming ideas are conspicuously absent from politics today.

Let’s take the Bay Area. A series of isolated cities, created in the last half of the 1800’s or the early 1900’s, circle the bay. The parochial attitudes of local jurisdictions often impede progress on pressing regional issues. Is the affordable housing crisis really an Oakland problem or a Santa Clara problem or a Fremont problem? Is the traffic quagmire on local freeways a Walnut Creek or San Jose issue? The narcissistic nimbyism of local politics often defeats regional pooling of resources and region-wide planning. Ineffective umbrella governing bodies like ABAG (the Association of Bay Area Governments) and a warren of regional bodies overseeing such critical matters as Transportation, Air Quality, The San Francisco Bay, BART, The Golden Gate Bridge, etc. duplicate and diffuse talent and money that could better be focused on a single, unifying political jurisdiction. The local ownership of public assets like airports and ports, which are indispensable to the economic growth and development of the entire bay area, lead to inefficiencies which stall progress.

A competitive global marketplace carefully measures regions to assess infrastructure. Though the Bay Area leads the world in technology and venture capital and features an acclaimed climate and environment, the region lags behind global competitors in almost every key category. A decade ago Theodore Hershberg wrote, “When historians render their judgments on the last quarter of the twentieth century they will conclude that the defining phenomenon was the emergence of a global economy… The first lesson of the global economy is that regions – not cities nor the suburban counties which surround them – will be the units of economic competition.”

Will a Bay Area Jean Monnet please stand up!

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