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09.09.09

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Phaedra

Welcome to New Bohemia

Imagining a Bay Area freed from the rest of California.

By P. Joseph Potocki


"We are the modern equivalent of the ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta. California has the ideas of Athens and the power of Sparta."

--Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

"California is like an artificial limb the rest of the country doesn't really need. You can quote me on that."

-- Saul Bellow

PERHAPS Schwarzenegger and Bellow divined what's now painfully clear to everyone: Arnie's California is Humpty-Dumpty, the Hindenburg and some kind of sociopolitical Holocaust all rolled up into one overstuffed exploding burrito. It's an ungovernable, near-criminally impotent and outdated mess. Remedying California's woes requires draconian cutbacks to essential services and infrastructure. Anyway, that's what we are told, grand allusions to Athens and Sparta notwithstanding. Others insist the fix lies with the feds, that the U.S. Treasury needs to bail California out at the begrudging consent of Congress.

But another still largely muted scenario is slowly gaining traction. California's two megaregions, the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California, may fulfill the governor's histrionic vision in an entirely unintended fashion. They well may reinvent themselves as the Athens and the Sparta of an emerging city-state-dominated world--and they'd leave California in order to do so.

Little Big 'Un
To be fair, California never was truly governable. Long before it housed one of every 200 souls alive on the planet today, California was a mulligan stew of incompatibly brutal self-interests. The discovery of gold instantly transformed California from a sleepy backwater frontier into a madcap magnet for the wildest, freest, most antisocial and avaricious individuals each corner of the world could ever want to say good riddance to. And so it remains today. Just as a powerful economic elite began to emerge, divergent regional and personal interests were already hip-deep in state secessionist conspiracies, duels to the death and all manner of off-color connivery. Things have always been bad here, but California's ungovernability has only plummeted from terrible then to untenable today.

California remains the most populous, least represented state in the union. Politically speaking, consider this: California's House congressional delegation outnumbers those of 21 states combined, yet California has but two senators representing it in the upper chamber--exactly as many as Wyoming, a state with a quarter-million fewer people than reside in the 47 square miles of San Francisco. These 21 mostly red states send filibuster numbers to the U.S. Senate. A lot of the legislation they chloroform could benefit both California and the Bay Area. Then there's the stream of federal tax revenues heading to D.C., dwarfing what California receives in return.

But no matter the unfair taxes and machinations of the upper house of our nation's Legislature, the bottom line is this: we're just too damn big to be a state. California's population equals Canada's with Ireland thrown in for good measure. Tally up the populations of 57 sovereign nations, and their combined sum total is less than that of our state. In fact, California's population exceeds that of--count 'em!--189 nations. It's often said that were it a sovereign country, California's economy would rank it anywhere from the fifth to the eighth largest in the world, depending on where France is on any given day. Impressive as that is, it's just a fraction of the story. In fact, were our Bay Area a nation, it would rank as number 18.

So, what if an inertia-bound California should break into pieces? In a 2007 international report titled "The Rise of the Mega-Region," researchers from the United States, Canada and Sweden found that rampant globalization eliminates the traditional need to rely upon one's nation-state for economic markets, supports and protections, thereby making even dominant nations like the United States open to sovereign fragmentation. Subsequently, national borders, once jealously guarded, are likely to fade to dim recollections of pre-transcorporate yesteryears. "Capital can now be allocated freely around the globe," they write, "seeking maximum returns wherever they may be. Even labor, particularly highly creative and productive labor, can be reallocated globally in a way that would once have been impractical."

The report ranks "NorCal" 14th in worldwide economic muscle. Their NorCal includes the sweet center of the Central Valley, shotgun-wedded to the entire Bay Area. But NorCal sounds more like a diet beverage than a region, and the San Francisco Bay Area is as worn a label as California itself, so henceforth we'll give our megaregion a spiffy new sobriquet. We'll call it New Bohemia.

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A Proud Tradition: New Bohemia wouldn't be the first Northern California territory to throw off the shackles of a government it didn't like. In 1846, Sonoma's Bear Flag Republic sprang from settlers' dissatisfaction with California's Mexican government.

Mistress of the Pacific
Sean Randolph is the president of the Bay Area Council, a partnership of business, labor, government and higher education. Randolph points out that New Bohemia's enormous lead in worldwide venture capital is almost eight times per capita that of second place Singapore, while surpassing New York's 10 times over. The Bay Area Council's own nine-county version of New Bohemia contains the nation's highest concentration of leading research universities, matched with an equally high concentration of top-flight national, corporate and independent laboratories. In addition to that, it leads the nation in Top 10-ranked engineering, law, business and medicine graduate programs. New Bohemia doubles the U.S. average in economic productivity and boasts the highest per capita economy in the entire world. And it even has good wine.

There are 40 could-be sovereign megalopolises worldwide, the prerequisite being that each generate at least $100 billion in annual revenues. These city-state-like units, which make up just 18 percent of the world's population, produce fully two-thirds of its global economic activity and nearly 85 percent of its technological and scientific innovations.

The suggestion is, of course, that each of these 40 megaregions is poised to evolve into 21st-century city-states. The logic is that city-states, being far more economically focused, compact and efficient, will inevitably replace nation-states and empires, like the United States and the former Soviet Union. These megaregions are described as "integrated sets of cities and their surrounding suburban hinterlands across which labor and capital can be reallocated at very low cost."

That sounds a lot like what one Bay Area scholar calls a "contado." In his now classic polemic, Imperial San Francisco, author and UC historical geographer Gray Brechin depicts how 19th-century would-be imperial families envisioned their San Francisco as extending east through the fertile Central Valley and deep into the enormously profitable mines and mountain waters of the Sierras. It would stretch from the city of San Francisco across the Pacific Ocean. This "Mistress of the Pacific," was, according to its designer's plans, destined to eclipse New York as the nation's center of finance and shift much of Washington, D.C.'s political capital here. It would conquer and dominate realms west, penetrating its power and influence deep into Asia. For that they needed every resource their outlying regions could provide them.

"Like the Roman concept of the contado," Brechin writes, these lands would provide "the city with its food, resources, labor, conscripts and much of its taxes, while its people (the contadini) received a marketplace."

San Francisco never realized its seat of empire. But now, more than a century later, a newly configured New Bohemia independent of both Sacramento and D.C., and competing on an infinitely enhanced global marketplace, may accomplish far more than its 19th-century forebears could have possibly imagined.

Contado Confab
Envision a state--or even a sovereign nation--extending from the Monterey Peninsula up through Sonoma County, east to the Altamont pass and west to the Pacific. This New Bohemia is an 8-million-person-, 11-county Bay Area contado formed from the outlying suburbs, exurbs and rural hinterlands which supply the urban Bay Area core with talent, resources and materiel.

This New Bohemia still has a population larger than nine states and the District of Columbia combined. While these nine states make up well over one quarter of our nation's land-mass, this New Bohemia is a megaregion and a sovereign city-state. Its fortunes have increasingly little to do with whatever remains of California, and even less to do with the former United States of America.

Lest we paint an inordinately appealing picture, let's consider downsides to city-statedom. First, megaregion city-states risk transforming into medieval-like fiefdoms dominated by economic elites. As the Medicis controlled the Republic of Florence and Venice, New Bohemian billionaires would concentrate and consolidate power within a much smaller, far more malleable geographic and governmental unit than ever before. Their power base would no longer be diluted by the demands of an American imperium.

Freed of empire, their enhanced powers could be severely leveraged, advantaging the interests of the transcontinental corporations these elites control. In other words, emerging city-states, brilliantly promising as high-tech incubators, innovators and cross-discipline dynamos, may serve primarily to enhance the powers and fortunes of the already too rich and too mighty.

The March 2008 issue of Forbes magazine listed 47 billionaires who call the Bay Area home. A Forbes article titled "America's Greediest Cities" places the real estate that would become New Bohemia at the very pinnacle of the country's greed heap. According to Forbes, the San Francisco Bay Area has the "highest concentration of the super-wealthy relative to other locations" in the entire nation.

This wouldn't be so bad were it not for an ever-growing disparity in wealth and incomes. A report published this past June by the California Budget Project details just how severe the inequities have become. The report recounts state figures placing California's personal income at close to $65 billion between the years 2006 and 2007. "A full 30 percent of AGI (adjusted gross income) gains went to the top 1 percent of taxpayers," according to the report. Crunching numbers even more finely, it concludes, "This means that the top 1 percent of taxpayers received 25 times their proportionate share of AGI in 2007, while middle-income taxpayers received half of their proportionate share of income."

Author Paul Starobin confirms suspicions of enhanced class warfare should city-states ascend. In his new book After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age, Starobin seems to view these matters through a social Darwinian lense when he writes, "There would be tremendous opportunities for global elites--for architects, artists, business executives, university presidents, political leaders, global-health specialists and others who tend to live in big cities and who already are starting to think of themselves as a superclass."

And for those who don't pretend to the superclass? One frightening prospect is that an updated medievalism would advance itself, with accelerating wealth and opportunities proffered to the elite superclass, and neoserfdom pressed upon the masses.

Tender Loving Care
All this could be dressed up in fashionable propagandistic apparel and trotted out with great fanfare by elite-controlled media whores. Think Roman bread and circuses. One can envision, particularly here in the relatively progressive Bay Area, that by resurrecting the ancient custom of noblesse oblige, plebes would feast on generous crumbs swept from their lords' tables. These might come in the form of universal single-payer health care, free higher education, the right to marry whomsoever one chooses, repealing drug prohibitions--hell, they might go so far as to guarantee food on every table and a roof over every head.

Such gifts do, of course, come with price tags, though they be shilled as free of charge. Underlying such programs would be a pragmatic rationale having little to do with munificence. These programs would, in fact, be designed with a demand for higher purpose. In order that it may flourish, New Bohemia will require at the very least a steady trickle of educated immigrant minds and fit, disciplined bodies. New Bohemia will, after all, be competing with scores of worldwide city-states in the global marketplace.

The more generous and enlightened the ruling class portrays itself, the better it is for business. What better way to attract talent than to guarantee unlimited educational opportunities and a comfortable domestic existence? As any mafia don would say, "Don't take it personally. It's just good business." As long as the plebes stay out of meaningful political discourse, the facade of prosperity will obscure the underlying reality: that denizens of such a construct remain happy serfs, entirely at the mercy of their corporate masters.

Secede!
This nation's history is rife with secessionist movements, the most notorious being the Civil War. Political economist Gar Alperovitz, writing in a New York Times op-ed in 2007, asserts that "the United States is almost certainly too big to be a meaningful democracy." Moreover, Alperovitz writes, "Sooner or later, a profound, probably regional, decentralization of the federal system may be all but inevitable." A Zogby poll taken last year showed more than one in five Americans believe that "any state or region has the right to peaceably secede and become an independent republic."

Even New Bohemia has its antecedent. Evidence the 1846 Bear Flag Republic. William B. Ide, the singularly sober and duly elected president of the soon-to-be-aborted republic, did nonetheless manage to put pen to paper before U.S. forces marched into the town of Sonoma. Ide proclaimed "that a government to be prosperous and happifying in its tendency must originate with its people who are friendly to its existence." Hardly Shakespeare, but Ide's sentiment makes perfect sense. While we Americans tend to believe our nation is imperishable, more than half the 200-plus nations in existence today formed as breakaways following World War II. Perhaps we are unique, but in those many cases governments indisputably failed to "happify" their people. Some claim the same is already happening here.

While ideas lead to struggles, and struggles to new nations, many more do not. Ecotopia, a country comprising Northern California, Oregon and Washington, was a lucid and wonder-filled 1970s countercultural pipe dream drawn from an Ernest Callenbach novel of the same name. Another, the declared state of Jefferson, straddles Northern California and southern Oregon. In contrast to Ecotopia's ultragreen philosophy, Jefferson would secede largely because the two states refuse to mine local copper deposits. Jeffersonians claim this "gross neglect by California and Oregon deprives us of necessary roads to bring out the copper ore."

In an article published in the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2003, former Wall Street Journal writer and New York Times columnist G. Pascal Zachary addressed the issue of a New Bohemia forthrightly. "We, the people of the Bay Area," he writes, "need to leave the United States." It is Zachary's fanciful belief that New Bohemians are being held back against our will by an alien civilization. His remedy is to "require cultural and social self-determination. Zachary concludes his piece with hope-filled insight regarding national defense and security. "The United States would surely insist on a demilitarized Bay Nation, but such a condition would gladly be accepted by our people."

As for now, many questions need to be answered. How long can we afford to keep California on its fiscal respirator? Do we just let the burrito explode and see how many counties stick to the wall? Does California devolve into a cluster of autonomous regions, or does it instead seek its sovereign independence? Or is the last best solution to consolidate California's powerhouse megaregions and break off our own New Bohemia from both state and union, turning our gaze westward, reassuming our birthright as Mistress of the Pacific, our backs against an old dream that became a noble experiment once called America?


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