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Could California Lead a Global League of Big Provinces?

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Opinion: Maybe Bigger is Better After All

AFP/Getty Images

Villagers listen to a speech by village leader Lin Zulian at a rally after he met with a senior government official and reached an agreement over illegal land grabs and the death in custody of a local leader in Wukan, Guangdong Province on December 21, 2011. Chinese authorities have agreed to release three villagers detained for leading September protests against land grabs, a community spokesman said December 21 after meeting a senior official.

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News item: The Canadian province of Quebec has joined California's new climate-change regime.

What this means is that when carbon trading credits are sold later this year, purchasers will be able to buy and sell them interchangeably.

Whatever you think of climate change and trading emissions permits, there's something intriguing about this partnership between two large states from different countries.

California has very little in common with most U.S. states, which are a tiny fraction of our size. But we have much in common -- much more than we realize -- with other large states and provinces around the world.

I've been reading up on the world's largest "sub-national" entities. They have different names in different places: states, provinces, prefectures, divisions, regions. But reading about them will put you in mind of California.

These big places tend to be highly diverse in all kinds of ways (by race, religion, economic status). They tend to be large in area, with a variety of climates.

These mega-states, for all their problems, tend to be huge economic engines for their countries. And almost all of them have reputations as places that are famously hard to govern. Sound familiar?

And in almost all cases, there is a long history of tension between the large states and the national government.

These states are large enough that their interests, particularly in economic matters, often don't line up neatly with the interests of small states and national leaders. And they also are so large that there is talk of splitting them up into smaller states.

Californians don't think about this; we're as obsessed with our own problems as people in these other mega-states are.

But as I learn more, it's hard not to think that we should be comparing notes with them. Indeed, the world's mega-states have enough in common that an organization of such states could be fruitful, leading to cooperation on trade, education, and environment.

What places would be in such an organization?

Certainly a lot of Chinese provinces (16 have populations equal to or greater than California, with Guangdong the largest with 120 million people) and Indian states (11 have populations greater than California, led by Uttar Pradesh, which, with a population of 200 million, is the biggest state in the world, and has as many people as Brazil).

Wikipedia has a handy list of the top 100 sub-national entities in the world by population.

If that were the list, some of the group's leading members, in addition to California, would be Pakistan's Punjab province, North Rhine-Westphalia State of Germany, the Dhaka division of Bangladesh, the West Java and East Java provinces of Indonesia, Sao Paulo state in Brazil, and England. U.S. states in top 100 include Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, and North Carolina.

Meetings could be held in Paris (part of Ile-de-France, which makes the list) or Milan (the Italian region of Lombardy makes the list).

California is perfectly positioned to lead this effort, as the world's richest -- and most famously dysfunctional -- mega-state. Maybe we could put Schwarzenegger in convincing other mega-states to join up; at least it might keep him from making more movies with Sylvester Stallone.

An organiation like this would bring new energy and ideas about governance into a state that desperately needs new ideas. And it would remind us that, in our troubles, we Californians are not alone.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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