There were a few large cities in the United States in the 19th century, but the nation was largely agricultural, and towns were the basic unit of government.  Then rural Americans left their farms and small towns by the millions for better jobs, and the 20th century became the era of big cities.

Now Americans are on the move again, often out of cities into adjacent suburbs and far into the countryside to distant subdivisions and booming regional cities.  We are becoming a nation of huge metropolitan clusters.

Yet, as retired American broadcast legend Tom Brokaw points out in a recent New York Times article, the small, local government units inside those clusters - police and fire departments, school and library systems, water and sewer boards, planning agencies and so forth - remain.  Even sparsely settled rural states like Brokaw's native South Dakota support dozens of independent state universities rather than centralizing operations under a single entity.  

He notes that the relatively small, [145,000-square-kilometer or 56,000-square-mile] neighboring state of Iowa maintains 99 separate county governments and therefore 99 county bureaucracies.  And Brokaw believes that a large state like New York could save its residents more than a billion dollars a year by consolidating some of its more than 10,000 separate government entities.

Such ideas never get very far, however.  Efforts to create mega-government units - no matter how much more efficiently they might run - are vigorously opposed by government workers, police, firefighters and their unions.  Politicians do not agitate these people if they want to get re-elected.

And lots of other Americans like their small, hometown government agencies.  They feel that they can keep a closer eye on them and have greater influence over government affairs than they would over some mammoth bureaucracy far away.  As one Florida resident wrote the Times, "Sometimes inefficiency is the price we pay for democracy."

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.