Decentralize The Government


From health care reform and transportation to education to the environment, the Obama administration has--from the beginning--sought to expand the power of the central state. The president's newest initiative to wrest environment, wage and benefit concessions from private companies is the latest example. But this trend of centralizing power to the federal government puts the political future of the ruling party--as well as the very nature of our federal system--in jeopardy.

Of course, certain times do call for increased federal activity--legitimate threats to national security or economic emergencies, such as the Great Depression or the recent financial crisis, for example.

Other functions essential to interstate commerce--basic research, science education, the guarantee of civil rights, transportation infrastructure, as well as basic environmental health and safety standards--also call for federal oversight. Virtually every modern president, from Roosevelt and Eisenhower to Reagan and Clinton, has endorsed these uses of centralized government.

But what is happening now goes well beyond the previously defined perimeters of the federal government's powers. Obama seems to possess a desire not so much to fix the basic infrastructure of the country but to re-engineer our entire society into the model championed by liberal academia.

There also seems to be a conscious design to recreate the country as a European-style super-state. Forged by an understandable urge to minimize chaos after a century of conflict, the super-state generally favors risk management through centralization of authority. This has traditionally been accomplished by ceding regulatory powers to national capitals, though lately more and more powers have been ceded to the European Union.

Initially the administration had hopes of imposing similar controls through acts of Congress. However, with the shifting political mood, this seems less and less possible. With its latest action the administration sends the message that it will now impose the desired results through the bureaucracy. Under the proposal, private firms that do not raise wages will be bullied into doing so through the manipulation of federal contract awards.

This marks a departure from our basic traditions. For most of our history the burden of expanding opportunity has rested with the private economy, albeit in conjunction with often necessary protections for workers and consumers. Now the overall control of the economy is shifting to Washington--from government contracts to ownership shares in companies like General Motors and much of the financial sector.

This new order would transform the very nature of American capitalism. Now the economic winners will not be those working for the most agile or profitable companies, but those who gain the blessings of the federal overlords. In some senses this extends the corrupt, largely failed political economy of Chicago politics to a bastard American form of French dirigisme.

Climate change provides another critical and necessary rationale for the expansive federal role. With the "cap and trade" system all but dead, the administration now wants to regulate energy and land use through the gentle graces of a largely unaccountable EPA apparat. As a result, we may see energy use, land use and transportation--as is increasingly the case in California--controlled by the whims of the unelected bureaucracy.

Such command and control approaches have their advantages in making people do what the mandarins demand. This is one reason there are so many admirers of Chinese autocracy now. In that regime, unlike our messy democracy, you can be forced to be green in precisely the way they tell you. There are always firing squads for those who go off the program.

Of course, even the most passionate centralists don't advocate adopting the Chinese model. But the notion of an enlightened super-state has long appealed to those disgusted with American-style muddling through. In some ways, the current fashion recalls Americans' attraction for the Soviet Union or even fascist Italy during the troubled 1930s.

Fortunately, most Americans do not appear ready for unbounded autocracy. This is particularly true outside the coastal urban centers. The Tea Party may have some cranky--even ill-advised--ideas, but they reflect a genuine--and broader--American preference for solving problems at the state or local level.

Indeed, Americans, including some on the left, are instinctive decentralists. We express this tendency physically, first in our decades-old movement to the suburbs, and increasingly to smaller towns and cities as well as rural areas. Even in cities like New York or Los Angeles, local neighborhood identity trumps ties to more grandiose visions of City Halls or regional bodies. The rise of the Internet and social networks has enhanced this decentralizing trend by providing instant linkages and helping ad hoc organization among neighbors.

Economic evolution mirrors this trend. Over the past few decades U.S. employment has shifted not to mega corporations but to smaller units and individuals; between 1980 and 2000 the number of self-employed individuals expanded 10-fold to include 16% of the workforce. The smallest businesses--the so-called micro enterprises--have enjoyed the fastest rate of growth, far more than any other business category. By 2006 there were some 20 million such businesses, one for every six private sector workers.

America's entrepreneurial urge, in contrast to developments elsewhere, has actually strengthened. In 2008 28% of Americans said they had considered starting a business--more than twice the rate for French or Germans. Self-employment, particularly among younger workers, has been growing at twice the rate of the mid-1990s.

The remarkable volatility within even the largest companies has exacerbated this trend. Firms enter and leave the Fortune 500 with increasing speed. More and more workers will live in an economic environment like that of Hollywood or Silicon Valley, with constant job shifts, changes in alliances between companies and the growth of job-hopping "gypsies." Although hard times could slow new business formation, historically recessions have served as incubators of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Much of the most dynamic and meaningful change takes place under the radar of both big business and government. The shift to greater localism can be seen in the growth of local, unaffiliated community churches, regional festivals and farmers markets. Bowling clubs and old men's clubs may be fading, but volunteerism has spiked among millennials and seems likely to surge among baby boomers. In 2008 some 61 million Americans volunteered, representing over a quarter of the population over 16.

No other major country exhibits this kind of localized, undirected activism. Such vital grassroots may become even more important as the country becomes more diverse. In the coming decades we will have to accommodate an expanding range of locally preferred lifestyles, environments, ethnic populations and politics. One size determined by mandarins in Washington increasingly will not fit all. South Dakotans and San Franciscans will prefer to address similar problems in different ways. Within the limits of constitutional rights, we should let them try their hand and let everyone else learn from their success (or failure).

Ultimately, we do not want to recreate the expansive mandarin state so evident in many foreign countries. Instead, we should focus more on family, community, neighborhoods, local jurisdictions and voluntary associations--what Thomas Jefferson called our "little republics"--as the most effective engines driving toward a better future.

This article originally appeared at

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.

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Decentralize The Government

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Just when I thought that I had you figured out.....

It's been clear for quite some time, that to get elected to a federal government position required corruption. I've often thought that politicians should be required to wear their sponsors clearly emblazoned on their three-peice suits. That, would make C-SPAN much more interesting.

Now, I have to call you on a couple of things. You fail to take into account what happens when the drive to encourage businesses, interferes with the rights of workers, the tax burden, and environmental protection factors. Without a set standard, for these items, business is encouraged to migrate, and lower the standard of living, in places of relaxed legislation. This can cause a race-to-the-bottom mentality that actually is very damaging for families and communities. It encourages less-than responsible business practices, that are rewarded by lax or corrupt local officials.

We're experiencing much of this on a global level currently. Manufacturing moves to the far east, Mexico, or south America, to avoid paying living wages, or maintaining environmental standards.

I hear ya, Portlander...

I hear ya, man. Joel definitely raises some good points. If this were a patch of grass in Golden Gate Park, I'd say his ideas sound a bit groovy, man.

But the more and more I read Joel Kotkin, the less I think he actually understands the political ideologies he talks about. Or, being more generous, the less I think he understands he's actually advocating an ideology he seems to despise. Kotkin is at times an "oppositional" columnist; he spends less time promoting a particular policy approach (say, the war in Iraq, tax relief, and so on) than he does criticizing another one. This is not to say he lacks as political viewpoint, or that he's merely a critic. He clearly embraces a concept of yeoman Jeffersonianism, dabbled with neoliberal economics and topped off with a sense of suburban nostalgia, as far as I can tell. Nor does he leave this viewpoint out of his columns, he makes sure to mention it and justify it when he's finished trotting out the evil empire or liberal elitism or whatever.

Where his arguments get really interesting, to me, is when he tries to take on environmentalism, or say, the ideologies of the hippie "counterculture." And he does this often. This is usually a fascinating area of debate with conservatives because it usually descends into one of three strange places that I'll try to examine more at some length:

First, it leads to one bizarre place: a ridiculous argument about the science of climate change among laymen. This is, I think, the best place for libertarians to try to go, as an attempt to roll back our scientific realizations of our interdependence with the environment might call into question our more ideological opinion of the same. It remains problematic, though, because it's intellectually disingenuous. Few politically-educated libertarians or environmentalists are scientifically-educated; neither side can agree because they can't really understand the evidence of their opponent, one way or another. It's mostly chemical equations and the theories of thermal physics, all stuff the day-to-day policy wonk really can't safely get into.

On top of this, it's often not the intention of the people in Joel's camp to reach any conclusion on scientific theory. Their intention is merely to have the conversation, and by so doing, to generate doubt. This lasts a little while, but it's not a sustainable place for this argument to go. Doubts are resolved gradually with more evidence, and fewer skeptics exist as our scientific understanding is expanded with new theories and more data.

Climate science has become part of the mainstream understanding of physical science, as evolution has become part of the mainstream understanding of biological science. Progressively, future generations, as they are educated by their parents in physical sciences, will probably come to see this whole argument as more and more insane. This is a test, that, largely, time will tell.

Second, it lends to a total misunderstanding of the environmentalist argument. There's a tendency to assume today's conservationists are no different than the Marxists of left-wing past; and in many cases, I'm sure this is true. But when confronting an issue like cap-and-trade, you see how this runs smack into an intellectual brick wall. Cap-and-trade (a market-based, innovation-motivated approach that opposes a command-and-control strategy) is a totally different animal than they're used to.

They attempt to slay this new beast as they would socialized medicine, the welfare state, or tax-and-spend bureaucracy. They conjure the Soviet-style images of Big Brother watching over your gulag-slaving shoulder. In so doing, they buy into all kinds of strange assumptions - that the capping of carbon emissions means, without fail, the control of energy, for example. Or that it will "kill jobs everywhere." Or that it centralizes control of the power supply, of transportation, and of energy in a few hands. It rings weirder than a bad trip to cap-and-trade's supporters.

In the end, this whole approach fails to persuade those it cannot viscerally terrify for one simple reason: cap-and-trade is not Marxism and it never will be. You could argue Medicare is Marxism, that food stamps are Marxism, even that progressive taxation is Marxism. But cap-and-trade is something entirely different, and until they start talking about what it actually is, they're going to keep reaching some crazy impasse with the environmentalists.

Joel and his ilk tend to then pass off this impasse - which is largely created by the fact they've built their argument to defeat a position that few environmentalists actually hold - as a environmental "religion" or "hysteria." It makes it seem like they don't spend enough time listening to their interlocutors on the issue of cap-and-trade, or on environmental issues in general, they just assume they're the same interlocutors they're talking to about other things like socialism, race, or inequality. They often do so at their argumentative peril.

And third, it often lands Kotkin and the environmentalists in unintentional agreement. This might be the weirdest place, but Joel - and others like him - often seem to echo the same decentralist, back-to-the-land tirades you hear in coffee shops from hipster poets. Granted, I'm pretty sure Joel spends little if any time in a coffee shop listening to hipster poets, as I can only assume he disdains this 'urban' and 'elitist' phenomenon (I don't know). If he did, he'd maybe be surprised to hear a crapload of ideas there that are just like his.

This last point might explain why he contradicts himself on this subject so readily. He goes after "San Francisco" (in concept) like a vulture circles the dead, but then, in virtually the same breath, lifts up "Silicon Valley" as a beacon of hope for American enterprise. It just baffles the mind.

He praises innovations like the internet, the "buy local" movement (though he won't dare call it that, sounds too smart-growthy. notice: 'localism'), and the return of self-employed craftsmanship. Where he stops short is in realizing that these innovations are driven, sustained, marketed, socialized and inspired in large part by the underlying philosophies of environmentalism, a philosophy he himself might accidentally adhere to.

They are manifestations of attempts to move away from volume-based systems of mechanical production toward decentralized, more advanced, and perhaps more spiritual understanding of how human beings should relate to their surroundings and their 'products.' They are ideas suggested out of the concept that heavy, centralized technology can't and won't fix every problem, and has, at times, ravaged the Earth in so attempting. But it's an underlying philosophy that, at the exact same time, contends we will always remain part of a larger, interdependent whole - "the human network," so sayeth one Silicon Valley powerhouse that happens to be named for San FranCisco - and that local problems and solutions cannot be accurately perceived in a individualist vacuum.

As a result of all this, we end up with columns like this one. Almost literally "half-baked" ideas. He's frequent to assertions that suburbia (the "Garden City") and New Urbanism are oppositional movements when their inspiration has always been one and the same: a progressively growing consciousness and appreciation of how we, the human race, depend on, are part of, and relate to, nature...


The more that I read of Joel

The more read of Joel's writing, the more that I believe his writings reflect the desires of his corporate handlers. That may be why they often seem conflicted, inconsistent, or just plain schizophrenic. I looked up on youtube®, and found a couple of video clips of Joel at speaking engagements. I had hoped to see his point of view, a little better. Unfortunately, they were clips of him talking about points of data, that didn't seem entirely accurate.

Easy to Have an Impact Locally

Good article, Joel. In my experience with local politics, I've found it's also far easier for citizens to have an impact on their state and local officials than on Federal officials, much more than you'd expect even given differences in number of constituents and budget authority.

State and local issues aren't being yelled about every night on Fox or MSNBC, and there's no cult of personality "did he have a good week?" analysis of a governor or state delegate. As a result, few people have any idea what's going on, and these elected officials, not their staff, respond quickly to any inquiry you make of them - they're often excited someone actually cares.

A friend contacted a state senator who sponsored a major budget reform bill, and got a call back in 10 minutes. Meanwhile, contact your US senator and see if you even get a form letter back in a week.