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THESE days, in the thick of the American presidential primaries, it’s easy to see how the 50 states continue to drive the political system.
But increasingly, that’s all they drive — socially and economically, America is reorganizing itself around regional infrastructure lines and metropolitan clusters that ignore state and even national borders.
The problem is, the political system hasn’t caught up.
America faces a two-part problem.
Unfortunately, American policy making remains wedded to an antiquated political structure of 50 distinct states.
To an extent, America is already headed toward a metropolis-first arrangement.
The states aren’t about to go away, but economically and socially, the country is drifting toward looser metropolitan and regional formations, anchored by the great cities and urban archipelagos that already lead global economic circuits.
The Northeastern megalopolis, stretching from Boston to Washington, contains more than 50 million people and represents 20 percent of America’s gross domestic product.
These city-states matter far more than most American states — and connectivity to these urban clusters determines Americans’ long-term economic viability far more than which state they reside in.
This reshuffling has profound economic consequences.
Meanwhile, smaller cities like Dayton, Ohio, already floundering, have been falling further behind, as have countless disconnected small towns across the country.
The problem is that while the economic reality goes one way, the 50-state model means that federal and state resources are concentrated in a state capital — often a small, isolated city itself — and allocated with little sense of the larger whole.
Not only does this keep back our largest cities, but smaller American cities are increasingly cut off from the national agenda, destined to become low-cost immigrant and retirement colonies, or simply to be abandoned.
Congress was once a world leader in regional planning.
The Tennessee Valley Authority was an agent of post-Depression infrastructure renewal, job creation and industrial modernization cutting across six states.
What is needed, in some ways, is a return to this more flexible, broader way of thinking.
Ironically, even some states are warming to the idea: Regional cooperation and planning is a top item at the National Governors Association.
Correction: Apr 15, 2016An earlier version of this article said that Congress provided support for the construction of the Erie Canal.
Rather, the canal was funded by New York State.