What could happen if the divide between federal, state and provincial government policy and the needs of metropolitan areas is not resolved soon? How will future historians write about political organization in North America (and the world) during the early 21st century?
Here’s some “social science fiction” – a hypothetical student history paper from the year 2108.
The emergence of the Federated City States of North America in 2027 had roots dating back to the early years of the 21st century.
In the United States elections were fought over distractions and not the real issues facing the country. The war in Iraq, although misguided, tragic and costly was not the biggest threat to the wellbeing of the United States. Nor was terrorism nor abortion rights nor Chinese imports or illegal immigrants from Mexico.
The biggest threats — recognized by many at the time, and also since — were that (1) American citizens and businesses were falling out of sync with the global economy and (2) that the nation’s cities were unsustainable and did not support prosperity as well as those elsewhere in the world. From approximately 2000 onwards, America rapidly became uncompetitive; the dividends from more than a century as a global economic leader were exhausted in a matter of just a few years.
Before we go further some background is required here on what went wrong. America’s 20th century economic strengths had come from its impressive post-secondary education system and ability to be innovative at creating and especially marketing new technology. Open immigration policies in the early 20th century brought motivated, entreprenurial people from around the world to Americas cities. The USA also avoided having international wars fought on its own soil, contributing to a peace and prosperity dividend that lasted several generations.
However, because of its size, the American population and political leaders (and even many academics) tended to view the United States as an isolated “exceptional” island in the world. By the end of the 20th century most of the population either ignored global trends or believed that they didn’t apply to the United States. (Elementary education had also begun to falter such that most Americans could not find other major countries on a map anyway.)
Using fear rather than facts, politicians, the media and others in the early 21st century convinced too many voters that economic survival required the country to close its doors to immigration and to enact barriers to foreign imports — albeit with a few exceptions such as televisions, video game consoles and oil. The latter of which the government subsidized in order to offer voters continued cheap gasoline, which allowed the nation’s political leaders to avoid addressing the need for new styles of urban design as well as transportation systems.
High debts from the growth of government and wars launched during the Bush administration eventually required higher taxes. Public education at all levels saw funding decline. Without immigrants or home grown educated people, innovation fell. Without global competition, and partially because of subsidies, production costs escalated. Soon, the USA wasn’t producing much that anyone else in the world wanted, and global investors became uninterested in the US dollar, dumping them on the market. By 2012 it took $5 US dollars to buy one Euro and the dollar fell to parity with the Chinese Yuan.
City governments meanwhile were trying to offer better services to citizens, in order to create isolated pockets of prosperity. However, replacing the aging road, water, sewer and electrical infrastructure was proving almost impossible. The federal and state governments had no funds to offer and because of trade barriers and protection measures, US cities had to pay twice what those in other countries did for steel, copper, and cement. Without drastically increasing property taxes and/or introducing other levies US cities could not maintain their infrastructure nor improve upon education systems. The few cities — such as Eugene Oregon and Austin Texas — that managed to convince residents and voters that the tax hike was the only way, saw their populations decline drastically.
Meanwhile, infrastructure was decaying and collapsing, everywhere. The most notable events were: the super-earthquake of 2012 that destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge along with numerous highways in the Bay area. A less severe shaker in 2014 took out so much freeway and opened a large fault line such that it split the Seattle metro area in half, with those in Northern suburbs like Redmond and Bellevue virtually unable to reach downtown Seattle by car. A tornado took out two sections of freeway in Dallas in 2013, cutting off the airport . Five Chicago area overpasses simply collapsed in 2014. FEMA collapsed when faced with so many disasters (and decades of mismanagement).
The federal government helped with initial rescue and clean up efforts, but quickly recognized that they could not afford to help rebuild everything and make payments on the debt and continue to fight for oil abroad. Private enterprise helped in some places — it soon cost $50 to cross from Redmond to Seattle on the one repaired section of freeway.
Whether fleeing taxes or escaping from dead infrastructure (or looking for health care), the most talented and hardest working Americans fled — almost one million Americans departed for Canadian cities in 2015 alone (creating both a strain and a tremendous economic boost in Edmonton, Montreal, Toronto, Kitchener, Calgary and Vancouver in particular), and nearly as many departed for other major cities around the world that year. Microsoft moved its global headquarters from Redmond Washington to Vancouver and Richmond BC. American Express went to Toronto from New York. The Bay area also saw an exodous of corporations and their talented workers: Google for example relocated its global headquarters to Kitchener-Waterloo just outside of Toronto, merging with Research in Motion in the process.
Desperate to revitalize their cities, urban political, business and community leaders along with ordinary citizens began proposing solutions.
The Mayor of New York held secret meetings with many of the city’s business and political elite for several years and on July 4, 2016 issued a Declaration of Independence to be voted on in November and take effect January 1, 2018. Although it was uncertain whether the federal government would acknowledge the results, over 80 percent of New Yorkers voted in the referendum and 75% voted in favour of independence.
Bogged down fighting for oil in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan the government in Washington decided it couldn’t fight a war against Americans as well and allowed New York to separate. The city of New York would now have its citizens income taxes and businesses corporate taxes with which to operate the city. Surrounding areas in Pennsylvania, New Jersey quickly voted to join New York. By 2020 the New York metro area had morphed into an independent country. Los Angeles and San Francisco soon followed, first amalgamating the many city-suburbs into one super-metro region, and then enacting independence in 2022 and 2023 respectively.
Able to control their own immigration policies, these cities immediately invited anyone to come, having lost thousands and even millions of people over the previous decade. They also had no reason to restrict trade as they needed cheaper steel, concrete, and other products to rebuild and move forward. Thousands decided to return, lured by cheap real estate and a chance to come home to the cities in which they grew up. Establishing universal health care coverage was also a lure in convincing many aging generation x’ers and millennials to relocate to their former home towns, or a new one.
Why did Canadian cities do so well initially, and then collapse much later? In Canada in the early 21st century a series of minority parliaments meant that governments had to play to cities’ needs in order to gain the urban vote. Numerous effective band-aid solutions occurred, typically in the form of cash infusions to major cities. Major metro areas improved their transit, air quality, and lifestyle amenities such as parks, recreation and entertainment facilities. The federal early childhood education strategy emerged that offered money but delegated management to metro areas. Public education received further funding, and top global test scores that Canadian students were achieving helped to draw people from around the world who wanted to give their children opportunities. This kept Canada together through 2025 while the US split into city-states.
However once the massive (re-)migration south began in 2020, Canadian cities struggled to compete for talented workers , and the corporations that hired them. Begging for federal dollars and grants to build and maintain infrastructure was highly inefficient in comparison to city-states like San Francisco and New York that could budget and plan based on income and sales taxes.
In 2023 when the former US-cities proposed a new federation agreement, modeled after the European Union and Euro currency system, residents in many Canadian cities saw this as a solution. The Greater Toronto Area, which by this time included much of the Golden Horseshoe–followed the New York model and succeeded from the Canadian federation in 2024, joining the Federation the same year. By 2027 the remaining major metro areas of Canada had followed suit and joined the Federation.
Residents of satellite cities and hinterlands gradually voted to join one city-state or another.
What was remarkable in this period was how fast North American cities were transformed into sustainable entities when unshackled from a slow, conflict ridden federal government.
The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.
- Alexis de Tocqueville in 1840