Anti-Intellectualism and Magical Thinking

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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84 Responses

  1. Avatar J.L. Wall says:

    Thanks for writing a better concise description of my thoughts on the matter than I think I could have written.

    And I think you’re getting at this already when you mention that the U.S.’s population is at about 300 million people and counting — sheer numerical scale is going to have to complicate our understanding not just of how to apply the Constitution (for this, once, I was called “hopelessly post-modern,” which made me strangely happy) but of how we look at — and, in the end, look to apply — what any political lens/theory/what-have-you that doesn’t (or, temporally, couldn’t) take into account this matter of scale.

    I mean, for my point: The Google tells me that in 1776, there were about 2.5 million people in the United States, or slightly fewer people than the population today of Chicago proper.

    And with population growth like we’ve seen over the last century or so — even with this sense of homogenization of general culture that gets thrown out every so often — there are going to be greater pockets of diversity that, through the weight of sheer numbers, are going to create a case to do certain things in their own way that has to be heard out, at least.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to J.L. Wall says:

      Exactly. And actually not only is the lens distorted, but I think the unintended consequences of legitimately good ideas are amplified in ways that become more and more difficult to parse out.Report

  2. Don’t call it decentralization, that’s the catchphrase for the dishonest “small government okay, not really, but we’re going to pretend that’s the case” crowd.

    Use polycentrism instead. It’s more accurate a term for what you talk about, E.D., and it has, yanno, a recent Nobel in Economics to back you up for empiricism when the whole “magical thinking” accusation gets broken out.

    http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/2009/ostrom_lecture.pdfReport

  3. Avatar Kyle says:

    I didn’t notice this until this post but this bit,

    “According to Jay Matthews of the Washington Post, the number of elected school boards in America has declined from more than 80,000 in 1950 to less than 14,000 today – all the more stunning because it has happened unnoticed. It’s just so much easier to let Arne Duncan call the shots, especially when he’s willing to pay you for it.”

    is a little misleading. The statistic might be accurate enough for elected school boards but its also approximate for the number of school districts a large number of which consolidated starting mid-century. This shouldn’t come as a particular shock considering changes in demographics, living and housing patterns and particularly a move away from the one-room/one-neighborhood schoolhouse towards the more modern, more professional structure we have today. I’m not sure what point, if any is being made by implicitly connecting the consolidation and ED’s incentives for reform.

    In any case and that bit aside there’s a lot to be sympathetic to and agree here. I think the thing I’d be curious about are the implications of scale inherent. I mean you’re right that decentralization makes regulatory capture harder by single actors. However, it also makes it easier for capture by regionally dominant firms, middle-sized firms, and national associations.

    Take for example the public employee unions. In Washington they are powerful…ish, but they practically run Albany and Sacramento. So while I can see that the national war on drugs has contributed to an increase in federal criminal law, my experience with the prison guards union’s role in maintaining California’s “tough on crime…with long prison sentences” regime leads me to believe that regulatory capture and the distortion of the public good (particularly the information used to determine the public good) is affected more by the operational environment than by scale and consolidation.

    In essence, I like what you’re saying, I’m just not entirely sure we’re not just adjusting the scale of problems rather than mitigating them. Which might just be the point you’re making but in that case isn’t it something of a half dozen on in hand and six in the other? Or perhaps put more accurately does the scale of the federal government actually amplify the problems of bad and good policy beyond what their localized analogues would be in aggregate? Or does that even matter?Report

    • Avatar Kyle in reply to Kyle says:

      Ok so the shorter bit is, in terms of tradeoffs, exchanging Washington for Sacramento or Denver (state-wise or city-wise) might just exacerbate regional and local power differentials and result in a larger degree of policy making/problem solving input on the relatively unimportant margins but on critical issues actually result in a net loss of political power and even independence. I’m on the fence on this one.

      I guess the larger question (and this relates to 62 across’ point about trending towards centralization) I have is how much relevance can geographic based localism have in a world that is increasingly mobile and increasingly reliant on a platform where geography has little to no meaning (the internet)? Is localism/polycentralism/decentralism/ a good idea whose time is passing? Or perhaps still relevant but less tethered to human geography?Report

      • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Kyle says:

        Kyle –
         
        But these disparities already exist. Federalizing public schools, for instance, will not magically level public education. Simply centralizing authority doesn’t result in balance of power or outcome. Dispersing authority doesn’t result in best-case-scenarios either, it simply mitigates risk and makes democracy more tangible. I think the effects of the internet and other communications technologies are hard to understand just yet, but I wouldn’t put too much weight in them at this point. They can have, however, both centralizing and decentralizing effects – a leveling, for instance, of the barrier to entry in news media, comes at the same time as increased access to organizational tools for grassroots groups but also increased privacy risks.

        P.S. glad to see you around these parts again.Report

  4. Avatar 62across says:

    E.D. –

    “There is no magical thinking here, at least no more magical than those who advocate centralized solutions.”

    I wouldn’t argue with your premise that local control is sometimes best, especially the way you’ve framed your method as starting from the neighborhood and working outward until you find the optimal. But, your thinking here remains magical, I believe, until you stop explaining why it SHOULD be this way and start explaining how it COULD be this way. How does a neighborhood reclaim control now held by the county, how does a county reclaim control now held by a state?

    The historical trend seems to be toward greater centralization in most systems and the impetus does not only come from the center grabbing greater control. To take your cultural de-centralization as an example, there are abundant local cultural organizations – from neighborhood bands to community theaters. Some will be satisfied to thrive as a big fish in these small ponds, but others will choose to migrate to the cultural centers in order to make it big. Companies merge in order to continue to grow. Programs get federalized. If the predominate tendency is away from the local, then you need some apparatus to force things to the local level, do you not?Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to 62across says:

      62across –
       
      I don’t think there is a single easy answer to this question. How could we decentralize public schools? Well, that’s an easy one. Quit trying to get the feds involved in the first place. Credit card regulations I’ve already tackled. Mainly, though, it’s about resisting further centralization rather than moving toward a more decentralized system in general. I’ll have to read up on polycentrism to get a better grasp on those concepts. I mentioned the Swiss also. They place a great deal more of the taxation (both revenue and spending decisions) in the hands of cantons rather than the central government.Report

      • Avatar 62across in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        Please, E.D., give a little more than “there’s no easy answer” when you’re the one proposing a massive shift from the historical trends.

        Decentralizing schools is the easy one? The elimination of the Department of Education has been threatened since the day the department was created and it is still there. As your blurb from Smith makes clear, local school boards are ceding control to the feds because it is easier. You are proposing to somehow get local school boards to make the harder choice.

        Credit card companies all ended up in South Dakota because it is the easiest state in which they can do business. They will fight tooth and nail any attempt to redefine “local” in the National Bank Act and the current make-up of the SCOTUS will be hostile as well.

        Oh, and let’s see how far “America should be more like Switzerland” will get you.Report

        • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to 62across says:

          62across –
           
          The trend toward centralization is exactly why there are no easy answers. You’re absolutely correct about that trend, and that’s why actually coming up with ways to decentralize is difficult. The political reality is not on the side of decentralists. Big business wants government as centralized as possible because it’s more efficient for them and it’s more easily captured.Report

          • Avatar 62across in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            E.D. –

            I’m not arguing with your central premise, so forgive me if I’ve given you that impression. Your desired end result is admirable.

            What I’m trying to help you understand is how some would characterize your thinking as magical, including me. It is because it isn’t just hard to go the direction you propose, but exceedingly so. When you say, it’s more about resisting centralization, then you are making a more reasonable case, but in the end you are still wanting to swim against the tide.

            I’d suggest that resistance to centralization is warranted, but only marginally so. It would be a better use of your energy (and less magical) to look to ways to optimize the ways we centralize and, per Francis, to recognize that the extent to which the federal government interferes with your ability to live a localized life is somewhat overblown.Report

  5. Avatar Francis says:

    I think you’re creating disagreement where none exists. I reiterate the question I posed earlier: what federal laws adversely affect you personally? The big federal programs are: defense, soc. sec., and medicare/medicaid. Everything else is pennies on the dollar.

    In terms of regulatory bite, different lawyers will have different views. Probably the big regulatory agencies are EPA plus USFWS (clean air, clean water, toxics, and the Endangered Species Act), the SEC, the new banking regulator, Department of Education (NCLB), Department of Labor (OSHA), the FCC (communications) and the IRS. While lots of lawyers make a fine living working in that regulatory environment, I’m not sure how many taxpayers are all that inconvenienced. (yes, we all have to pay our taxes. you’re a citizen, now be a grownup.) More to the point, I’m not sure whether the responsibilities of any of the agencies could be delegated effectively to the states, except educational policy.

    So largely I see this mostly libertarian concern about this overarching, overreaching federal bureaucracy to be overblown. And I read The Agitator almost daily; almost all of the outrages Radley writes about are problems at the state and local level. Yes, Radley makes a powerful argument to keep law enforcement decentralized, so we don’t all suffer from the kind of corruption he writes about. But I don’t see anyone seriously arguing for increased consolidation of law enforcement authority. To the contrary, liberals like myself would prefer that the federal government would be more activist in overseeing and punishing corrupt local agencies.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Francis says:

      All good points, Francis. What about federal anti-unionization laws? And actually I’ve written a lot about local abuses. No doubt most of the bad regulations are state and local bit really that’s just an argument to keep regulation at that level for the same reason you note re: law enforcement.Report

      • Avatar Francis in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        I know very little about labor law. My understanding is that, like environmental law, fed. law sets a floor. States can then adopt their own more stringent requirements. I think that’s probably needed, in order to avoid 13th amendment violations. Also, one of the key factors in the Fed setting interest rates is the unemployment rate (as to avoid wage-price spirals). So there is a strong national interest in unemployment.

        Add the Fed as an agency with tremendous, but largely unseen, powers at the federal level.
        (ftr, my comment below was on my own post.)Report

    • Avatar Francis in reply to Francis says:

      OK, the DOJ’s persecution and prosecution of anyone who gets near any chemical on the Controlled Substances Act schedules totally sucks. Unfortunately, that appears to be a bi-partisan idiocy.

      No, I don’t feel like getting into Dept. of Homeland Security. That’s a special issue, where our federal-level legislators of both parties seem to be doing their best to alienate anyone who wants to travel internationally.Report

    • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Francis says:

      I’d like to mention that what I will term the Balko issues(police power/abuse and drug war stuff) are probably the biggest issues in terms of freedom destruction and moral outrage.

      I really wish that those were what the national media spent their time on instead the non-troversy of the day.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Francis says:

      what federal laws adversely affect you personally? The big federal programs are: defense, soc. sec., and medicare/medicaid. Everything else is pennies on the dollar.

      Defense is very expensive. Much of our defense spending makes us less safe. To the extent that it does, I am affected personally, both in my personal finances and in my relative safety.

      I could easily devise a more effective retirement savings plan for myself than Social Security. True, some people genuinely need assistance. We can give them that. Even if we subtracted a percentage for a straight-up welfare program, I bet I could beat the status quo. Retorting that “some people can’t” isn’t an argument against my claim, either. This is how it affects me… personally.

      Medicare/Medicaid? The hardest of the three. I suspect, though I don’t expect you to believe, that much waste lurks within them, and that fundamentally, they are patches to a system that began breaking when health insurance was first coupled to employment.Report

      • Avatar Francis in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        SS — we’ll have to agree to disagree. I think SS has done more to mobilize labor, provide for elder dignity and encourage risk-taking than any other program in our history. It used to be that no one saved for retirement; they just moved in with their kids. Now, people’s kids can move to where there’s work, and people who have worked most of their lives have at least an assurance of a basic income upon retirement. That’s a great idea.

        M/M — sure there’s a lot of waste. But dollars don’t vanish into the air; they go into someone’s pocket. Health care dollars go into a lot of pockets. I have much impressed by the writing over at the Incidental Economist. (Click on the Health Care Cost word bubble on the right.) Reducing waste means reducing a revenue stream to someone who’s gotten used to it. As Ezra Klein points out, the PPACA actually tries to do something about that issue.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        By the way, wouldn’t privatized Social Security the same sort of unconstitutional mandate as health insurance is?Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Francis says:

      While I mostly agree with this, it seems worth pointing out that a lot (though by no means all and perhaps not even most) of the abuses Balko describes can be directly traced to federal grant money and the pursuit thereof. Certainly, federal funding has played an outsized role in the militarization of the police.Report

      • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        Absolutely.

        I don’t really see much use in paying federal money to police departments so that they can shoot peoples pets and the people themselves in overly militarized raids.

        Do you see any light at the end of the tunnel because I have to say I am having a hard time of it.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

          I see a lot of parallels between the War on Drugs and Prohibition.

          The current parallel, as it seems to me, is that people are having serious public discussions about ending it.

          I think that this Mencken quote is appropriate:
          Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.

          We’re talking about this seriously again. Now, Prop 19 did fail in California… but it was close (and, for a while, polled as if it would pass). There is talk of a new and better-worded Proposition and, heck, maybe that’ll pass.

          That’s the light that I’m seeing.

          Insert caveat that it may be a train here.Report

          • Avatar 62across in reply to Jaybird says:

            I agree that ending the War on Drugs is a real possibility, though I imagine it will come with as a generational shift.

            And “usufructs” is the Expand Your Word Power entry of the day. Had to go look that one up and I’ll have to find some point to use it. Mencken sure could wield the mighty pen.Report

          • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Jaybird says:

            I’m not sure that will be enough to reverse the militarization. It would really help but would it reverse the damage…I’m not as optimistic as I would like to be.

            Worse this prohibition has lasted 50 years the other ended in 5.Report

      • Avatar Kyle in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        To build on this is true of education.

        We talk about centralizing education – which is still in incredibly decentralized area of public interest/law/industry. NCLB gets a deservedly bad rap but the education you get on the upper west side is different from queens, let alone secaucus or seattle. There remains and is a remarkable degree of experimentation and difference in education, not solely defined by the affluence of a community.

        What is the same, is the collective freakout states and districts had when NCLB threatened less money if they didn’t do certain things. Amounts of money which are relatively very small, but exceptionally critical because localities seem more often than not trapped in budget crisis mode.

        So I mean the thing that’s increasingly interesting here to me is the role played by local collaborators who take federal money and can’t resist building bridges to nowhere or getting snazzy new anti-crime toys.

        So is the answer a paternalistic “no more federal money for you, it’s for your own good?” Or the exceptionally difficult goal of empowering local governments to resist the bait?Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird says:

    One thing that rarely gets noted as important, for some reason, is personal preference.

    When it comes to things that don’t arguably make things better or worse, why shouldn’t personal preference get a say?

    The school vouchers argument, for example. Most places that vouchers have been instituted have not resulted in appreciable improvement nor in appreciable harm. It’s more or less the same numbers for before/after.

    I’ve seen this given as an argument for why we shouldn’t use vouchers: “they don’t do anything!”

    But, it seems to me, the ability to exercise personal preference is a positive good and serious weight ought to be given towards persons being able to exercise it. (And I use education because it’s an easy example… this argument easily stretches out to cover most any kind of governance.)

    Shorter version: Let Tulsa be Tulsa, Newark Newark, and Vegas Vegas.Report

  7. Avatar gregiank says:

    E- I think you’ve made about the best case for localism or decentralization that can be made. I don’t agree with some of it, but you make the case well. I think you downplay the waste of having 14000 school districts all do the same thing or overstate the ability of small units to avoid being bought.

    There was an article in Inc. about the high degree of entrepreneurship in Norway. As a lefty country the assumption that a strong social security net and high taxes should lead to less entrepreneurship doesn’t hold up. One of the points made by one of Norwegian businessmen is that regulation in the US is like working in 50 different countries since each state has its own regs. That is not a recipe for efficiency.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to gregiank says:

      greginak –
       
      Let’s flip the Norway example on its head for a moment. Norway is efficient and well-managed because it is a small country. Scale Norway up fifty times over. Could they as effectively manage fifty Norways the way they run the one they’ve got? No, fifty sets of regulations is not efficient, and it’s especially inefficient when things like health insurance can’t be sold across state lines, but neither is trying to run the USA like Norway.Report

  8. Avatar rj says:

    Matt Yglesias writes a great deal about the ANCs in Washington, D.C. If you’re not familiar, they are neighborhood boards that have advisory power over things like liquor permits and such, though an ANC’s say-so is in practice the last word. Very few people know who their ANC reps and as a result, it’s a bunch of busybodies who win with the help of the busybodies who bother following the candidates. The result is that unrepresentative boards serve to protect incumbent interests and often deny anything that would cause a change in the neighborhood, even if it’s something most people would want, like a restaurant.

    The ANCs are an example of devolution/localism gone wrong. Allegedly growing centralization aside, state, county and municipal legislators have a far greater impact on your day-to-day life than does the president (unless, perhaps, you’re a soldier).

    This means that there is an inverse relationship between how much a politican’s actions matter to your average individual and how well they are known. With news sources now untethered to geography, this is simply getting worse – the busybodies whine and moan on little-trafficed local blogs, but the traffic still goes to sites that talk about Obama, Reid and Boehner.

    So what does a decentralized, more local system produce? Classical-style debates in the public square, or a bunch of 70-year-olds “keeping active” by telling me that I can’t have a new pizza joint within walking distance?Report

    • Avatar RTod in reply to rj says:

      A fair enough argument, though I would toss back 2 Q’s:

      “Very few people know who their ANC reps and as a result, it’s a bunch of busybodies who win with the help of the busybodies who bother following the candidates.”

      That’s different from a federal bureaucracy (or other distant centralized overseer) how?

      Or are you arguing against localism AND centralization, and some third thing?

      “The ANCs are an example of devolution/localism gone wrong. ”

      I’m not sure I get your point. If local representation is elected because almost no one cares enough about where a pizza parlor should go to vote, how is it that the people who represent those that cared enough to vote are out of line busybodies?Report

      • Avatar rj in reply to RTod says:

        “That’s different from a federal bureaucracy (or other distant centralized overseer) how?”

        Because the odds are greater that I don’t know my local bureaucrat OR my state rep/city councilman. Bureaucrats are always the faceless scapegoat, no matter the level. It’s the elected officials that have power over the bureaucrats, so they’re the ones who matter.

        “Or are you arguing against localism AND centralization, and some third thing?”

        I’m arguing against localism as a solution in and of itself.

        “I’m not sure I get your point. If local representation is elected because almost no one cares enough about where a pizza parlor should go to vote, how is it that the people who represent those that cared enough to vote are out of line busybodies?”

        I’m arguing that lots of people care about the pizza parlor, but for a variety of reasons (the news media, the fact that more people move to a different town than a different country, the dominant meme about centralization of power), it’s harder to follow local politics, and thus hold it accountable. If you have a national media, it’s increasingly hard for non-niche publications to give local issues the attention they deserve. As a result, local politics is a niche interest.

        The busybodies, an overbroad term perhaps, have the power because they pay attention. It’s a “squeaky wheel gets the grease” situation, made worse by the fact that the non-squeaky wheels have no clue as to what’s going on.Report

        • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to rj says:

          Localism isn’t a solution in and of itself and nobody is saying that.Report

          • Avatar rj in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            “Localism isn’t a solution in and of itself and nobody is saying that.”

            Yes you do:

            “There is no magical thinking here, at least no more magical than those who advocate centralized solutions. I believe that diverse, decentralized systems are less prone to catastrophic failure and widespread infection/corruption/etc.”

            You then go on to argue for this by stating that a bad policy applied at a higher level of government has a larger effect than the same policy on a smaller level, without addressing whether or not such a poor policy outcome is more or less likely on a centralized level.

            I simply have not heard a convincing argument that smaller units of government are more accountable and less prone to corruption and policy failure. As far as I can tell, the bad local jurisdictions are mind-blowingly bad and the good ones are amazingly fantastic. Does this “average out” to a better level of governance than the one provided by a larger unit of government? I’m not convinced.

            That being said, I thought your post was thought-provoking and though I may disagree on this issue, I enjoy reading everything you write.Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to rj says:

              > I simply have not heard a convincing argument
              > that smaller units of government are more
              > accountable and less prone to corruption and
              > policy failure.

              That’s not precisely the argument.

              The argument is scale of catastrophe. A local government may or may not be equally prone to corruption as a larger entity (fwiw, IMO it’s more prone to certain types of corruption and less prone to other types).

              The difference is scope of the corruption. Two organizational entities can be equally prone to corruption, but the larger one will generally have greater consequences (more far reaching, etc.) than the smaller one.

              Think the BLM and the regulatory lack of teeth that we saw that led to the oil spill. While it’s certainly possible that regulatory capture *could* have occurred at the level of all the Gulf states (should oil regulation have been implemented at that level), having it all at the federal level did mean that once you got the BLM you bypassed all the security.

              AH! But you’re about to argue: but the economy of scale you get in the larger solution offsets the exception scenario of the greater scope of corruption – i.e., the centrally managed Dept of Foo manages Foo so much more efficiently than several lower-level Depts of Foo that they payoff covers the exception scenario.

              Doesn’t always work out that way.

              Certain types of regulations at the state level have demonstrably changed national corporate behavior without having to be implemented at the federal level (California’s adoption of car safety standards, for example, drives the rest of the nation).

              On the other hand, certain types of regulation at the state level have been ineffective at changing national corporate behavior (the aforementioned credit market driving all the credit companies to South Dakota).

              It’s actually a security problem (who watches the watchers). Generally, it’s more effective to have the policemen closest to the crime area, and have the federales operate in the role of auditors.Report

              • Avatar gregiank in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

                Regarding the BLM/Oil Spill issue, since any potential harm would be spread across many states, it seems to require the Fed’s to oversee and settle differences. How can one state be solely responsible for Oil Rig regs when the potential damage is spread across several states? Also see Acid Rain, which required a Fed level intervention.Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to gregiank says:

                > Regarding the BLM/Oil Spill issue, since any
                > potential harm would be spread across many
                > states, it seems to require the Fed’s to oversee
                > and settle differences.

                Does it? Automobile safety harm is spread across many states, as is emissions harm. But routinely automobile manufacturers have exceeded federal regulatory requirements to meet California’s Air Resources Board requirements. Why? We’re higher, and harder to meet.

                Well, because we’re a big market (for one).

                Ah, but you’ll say, “California has a big presence in the automobile market, that’s what drives the industry to respond to it; that won’t work for smaller states.”

                Well, if Louisiana, Florida, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama all had regulatory requirements for offshore drilling operations, in order for you to execute regulatory capture, you’d have to get some/most/all of them, instead of just the MMS.

                Now, there are issues of course, particularly with this single instance. This is only to illustrate a point.

                What if the role of the MMS was not to set policy, but merely to be an enforcement arm of the individual states’ policies, for example? Would this lead to generally better or worse regulatory outcomes?

                What if the individual states set their liability requirements for large oil spills, and the MMS was only responsible for providing the bludgeon of compliance if a spill on a BP platform hit Alabama’s coastline?Report

              • Avatar rj in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

                What gives you any reason to believe they won’t work at cross-purposes? Institutional capture of any one gulf state busts up the scheme, as wells do not conform to state borders.Report

              • Avatar Aaron in reply to rj says:

                Do the states really have an incentive to work together on something like that? If Florida has really stringent guidelines for how oil wells operate, doesn’t that just encourage Texas to set up lax standards in order to capture more of the offshore oil drilling pie? Of course, the governments have an interest in making sure that their coastlines aren’t inundated with oil, but that posits a kind of rational decision making and obvious primary good that I don’t think always exist in these kinds of conditions. It only takes one state to bow out of this kind of scheme to make the whole thing collapse.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to rj says:

                that posits a kind of rational decision making and obvious primary good that I don’t think always exist in these kinds of conditions.

                Drill, baby, drill!Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to rj says:

                > Institutional capture of any one gulf
                > state busts up the scheme, as wells
                > do not conform to state borders.

                It does and it doesn’t. Sure, Arkansas can pass a bunch of regulations that restrict your ability to put a refinery or dock a oil tanker there, and Texas can pass, and all the oil companies can just dock and do business in Texas.

                That’s the carrot end of the regulatory mechanisms: do what we want or you don’t get a cookie. Those admittedly don’t work if some other entity also has a cookie.

                But there’s another end of regulatory mechanism: do what we want or we take all your money and throw you in jail. Imagine if there was no post-Exxon Valdez oil law at the federal level, and each state enacted its own set of penalty laws. “If you have a deepwater spill and your spill gets to our state waters, we are going to make you pay for the cleanup, arrest everyone holding a CxO position in your company for felony negligence with a minimum 5 year sentence in the hoosegow, and impose a $20 billion dollar fine on top of everything else to fund reparations for damaged industries like fishing. Or just ’cause we feel like making you hurt.”

                Sure, I *could* ignore that. Indeed, I might. But that’s awfully hard to *capture*, and while we might still have spills, we certainly wouldn’t have the aftermath we have now.

                Ask the federal government to enforce the stick, instead of putting all the carrots in a bucket and asking the federal government to dole it out.Report

        • Avatar RTod in reply to rj says:

          “Because the odds are greater that I don’t know my local bureaucrat OR my state rep/city councilman.” Is it? We create self insured groups in our state, and I know folks from the State insurance division, the local Dept. of Consumer & Business Services and my tri-county oversight body pretty well, and get to meet with them when I want. I doubt if I called someone on the fed level to talk about changing an administrative rule for the HRC bill I could even get a return phone call, and that’s leaving aside the distance issues. I have never been to a Portland City Council meeting, but I certainly could – and even ask them questions, on the record. I certainly do attend me local school board meetings when there is an issue.

          As I said in the previous post, I pragmatically believe that some oversight is best centralized and some better local. But I’m not sure how you measure a bureaucrat that’s a mile away and will probably take a meeting with you is more faceless than someone a few thousand miles away.

          “it’s harder to follow local politics, and thus hold it accountable”

          I disagree with this as well. It may be less interesting, but part of why it’s less interesting is that it allows folks to deal with more concrete (and therefore more mind-numbingly dull) tasks and issues. On the national level, we can talk about (for example) abortion till we’re blue in the face, and we do because it inspires passion and it’s kind of sexy and righteous to do so. But you’re just one voice in a sea of Rs v. Ds looking more for donations and ratings than solutions. Now, if on the other hand you want to chime in on whether or not to fund a refit on an old bridge in your town, I guarantee you can have a say, a voice, and even a one-on-one dialogue with the people who are in charge. But people rarely want to, because they don’t care enough to be bothered.

          But not having a voice and choosing not to be heard are two different things.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to rj says:

          Because the odds are greater that I don’t know my local bureaucrat OR my state rep/city councilman.

          This is no doubt true… but I am pretty danged sure that it’d be a lot easier for you to get on the calendar of one or both of them. I know this because I have, in fact, shaken the hand of my local guy. I met him at the Caucus.

          If I wanted to meet with the head of the TLA? Fuggitabowdit.Report

          • Avatar rj in reply to Jaybird says:

            Let’s take the flipside to your argument. If you have more of a voice in local politics, your voice might not necessarily be louder in comparison. Think of the entities a local government might serve as a regulator of. Big business, of course, and large developers. They didn’t get any smaller, but the government enforcing the rule sure is. Think bond vigilantes, but real.

            I agree that local and national governments are more susceptible to different kinds of corruption, mostly because they do different kinds of things.Report

            • Avatar RTod in reply to rj says:

              This is of course true. As is the historical ability of a small government to not allow you a voice because you were black, or jewish or poor. And it’s why I don’t favor either as a blanket rule. But I do believe in always weighing the need for greater oversight to protect citizens (usually federal) over efficiencies/personalization of a smaller system (usually local), and making decisions on a case-by-case basis.Report

  9. I have to admit I was waiting for a follow-up post because the first post left such a terrible after-taste in my mouth given Smith’s tirade against ‘grad-school elites’ and ED’s own comments about how “grad school elites should be making a difference locally”.

    As a grad student in policy studies, daily interacting with both the embryonic and former/professional “grad school elite” (at least in a policy-making sense), I find the types of attacks placed on policy-analysts to be nothing short of astonishingly wrong-headed and unfair. Even the shot at Arne Duncan I think is a bit gratuitous and silly. If anyone actually understands the challenges of running a local school system, it’s him, given that you know he was actually running the Chicago Public Schools system for 7 years and it’s not as if he was actively plotting how he was going to use his CPS position to centralize power when he’d somehow become secretary of education.

    Empirically what tends to happen is that there’s significant disillusionment with municipal/state government and people “move up” to where they can “make a real difference.” If anything the case of Obama is probably most instructive. In ED”s ideal world, he would never have made the leap from Community Organizer to state politician, then state politician to national politician.

    But local politics tends to be extremely byzantine and difficult to change, especially from a policy-analyst’s perspective. There’s labyrinthine local interest groups, small scale parochialism et cetera. There’s an ease that comes with working in larger scale organizations simply because they tend to be more diffuse in the influence of “petty” interests, and instead are more influenced by big moneyed interests.

    On the other hand the way global governance and policy structures are changing, having knowledge of how local structures work will become increasingly important in getting best practices forward. At the same time, as institutions and entities emerge that are bigger than the grasp of a single or even multiple local entities to contain there’s gonna be a need for more global governance structures like IGOs to fill in certain gaps. In short we’re really in a situation where there’s going to be both larger scale institutions and smaller scale governance, and the centralization/devolution dichotomy doesn’t really capture the full sense of that challenge, either.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      I really think y’all are taking the ‘grad school elite’ comment a little too literally. It’s not an attack on people with advanced degrees; it’s a comment about hubris, and the false faith in federal solutions to every problem. Yes, local politics are often fraught with special interests – so are federal politics. Local politics are just much, much less glamorous. And no, nobody is saying that nobody should ever aspire to higher office. If I were saying that I would be decrying the institution of president or claiming we should not have a federal government at all, which I am most certainly not arguing.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        I think the frustration you are hearing comes from formulating your idea as: Your ( insert policy preference here) means you have ( insert negative personality feature here). People who are more inclined to federal level solutions might actually have evidence for why they think that it is a good idea. This is not one of those ideas, like most, where there is one side that is objectively correct while the other side is clearly factually wrong.Report

        • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to greginak says:

          Well that’s certainly not my intention, and I did try to clarify that in this post. I don’t think there’s inherently anything wrong with preferring more centralized or decentralized solutions; indeed, I’d say it really depends on the situation. What worries me are the trends, especially in education, toward what I think is a mistake.Report

          • Avatar greginak in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            FWIW way back in the 90’s when i was in an Ed. Psych grad program it was taken for granted by all the professors and students that the thousands and thousands of school districts made any national level ed. reform well nigh impossible.Report

          • “I don’t think there’s inherently anything wrong with preferring more centralized or decentralized solutions; indeed, I’d say it really depends on the situation. “

            Well, I’m glad we have you on the record on that, E.D.Report

          • Avatar rj in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            From:

            “I believe that diverse, decentralized systems are less prone to catastrophic failure and widespread infection/corruption/etc.””

            To:

            “I don’t think there’s inherently anything wrong with preferring more centralized or decentralized solutions; indeed, I’d say it really depends on the situation. ”

            That argument got narrow quickly.Report

            • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to rj says:

              Right. why don’t you read both posts again and find where I say no to all centralization. I know you want to have a gotcha moment here but it’s not working.Report

              • Avatar rj in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                It’s not a gotcha moment per se, I just think that your statement that “diverse, decentralized systems are less prone to catastrophic failure and widespread infection/corruption/etc.” doesn’t hold up and you don’t bother to defend it.

                If you wrote that “decentralized education systems are less prone to catastrophic failure and widespread infection/corruption,” we would have a different argument.

                In the previous post, you write that you “embrace a liberalism that emphasizes autonomy and voluntary association, civil society and local empowerment over the unwieldy central state apparatus and its corporate favoritism.”

                Nothing here on education. No distinction, really, between functions of government. No explanation why corporate favoritism is any less likely in towns where one developer owns most of the land or one factory provides most of the jobs.

                It’s just a blanket preference. That’s the sort of statement that sounds to a lot of people like magical thinking.Report

              • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to rj says:

                I could be wrong but I think this post was an attempt to go into more detail than the last. So I’m not following you here.Report

              • Avatar rj in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                You don’t seem to go into more detail – that sentence I keep quoting about “diverse, decentralized systems” is just as broad as what you write in “Little Republics.”

                What your critics (generally) say is that, yes, different levels of government are suited to different functions and unsuited to others. It’s the general preference for localism as less corrupt and more effective that strikes many as overly romantic and unconnected to actual experience.Report

              • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to rj says:

                I used education and credit card regulation as examples and quoted both Smith on the environment and Konczal on preemption.Report

              • Avatar rj in reply to rj says:

                Neither of which prove your point that local governments are less corrupt and more effective or support your blanket statement.

                We’re kind of deep in the comments to get back to the substance of the post, but:

                1) The credit card issue evinces an issue with either the full faith and credit clause of the constitution or the lack of meaningful federal regulation, not the benefit of localism.

                2) The large number of environmental prosecutions say nothing about the content of those prosecutions. How many were NIMBY-motivated? How many were filed under federal laws that allow local participation but not local modification?

                3) The first statement on eduction (aside from a statement of your preferences), is a quote about how there are fewer school districts. Issues of why that decline took place aside (rural flight, urban consolidation, etc), that fact is not tethered to any argument on outcomes.

                4) The second statement on education asks us to imagine a situation in which the Texas textbook board runs federal eduction policy. All you’ve done is take a bad outcome of a state government, grafted it on to an example about the feds and used it to prove what’s wrong with the feds.

                What you’re left with is a romantic notion of local citizen-government and little else.Report

              • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to rj says:

                I would like to note that for many states the Texas text book board DOES run national educational policy. This is due to the economic incentives of the companies issuing the books and the sheer size of Texas.

                It is not an accident that the creationist movement spent so much time in Texas. They knew this when they started.

                Thus we have today’s scenario where we have a de facto national decision made by strategic nutters who most people do not have the standing to oppose.

                Sometimes localism ain’t localism.Report

              • Avatar Scott in reply to rj says:

                TPG:

                You can say the same thing about CA being the liberal giant in the textbook market.Report

              • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to rj says:

                Perhaps?

                I’m definitely willing to believe that there is some non-sense being put in their by California but I know that there is some education destroying non-sense being forced into the Texas books.

                If you don’t know about evolution you are not an educated person. If you have been taught lies and misrepresentations of it you are mis-educated which is worse than merely being ignorant.

                I am happy to learn about the troubles caused by California’s text book decisions especially if they are like Texas.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        I really think y’all are taking the ‘grad school elite’ comment a little too literally.

        Yeah, it’s like when someone says that libertarians as arrested adolescents whose mental development got stunted by an overdose of Ayn Rand. It’s not meant as a criticism.Report

  10. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    rj – starting a new thread as the other has apparently run dry:
     

    Neither of which prove your point that local governments are less corrupt and more effective or support your blanket statement.

     
    I’ve never said local governments are less corrupt; I’ve said that the corruption at the local level does less damage and cannot spread as far and wide as it can at the federal level. I’m quite certain local governments are often among the most corrupt governments (the police abuses in this country help illustrate this point) but this is also at least partly due to the fact that people aren’t paying close enough attention to local politics and instead blame the president for everything.
     

    We’re kind of deep in the comments to get back to the substance of the post, but:
     
    1) The credit card issue evinces an issue with either the full faith and credit clause of the constitution or the lack of meaningful federal regulation, not the benefit of localism.

     
    The credit card example shows how decentralized regulation can work for the American consumer and can disadvantage big business which lobbies for one set of rules and regulations. Localism may be incidental to this argument, but I’m not merely arguing localism here, I’m arguing for a decentralized regulatory framework.
     

    2) The large number of environmental prosecutions say nothing about the content of those prosecutions.  How many were NIMBY-motivated?  How many were filed under federal laws that allow local participation but not local modification?

     
    This is a good question. I’m not really sure to be honest with you, as this was lifted from Smith’s piece and I did not independently research it. Do you know?
     

    3) The first statement on eduction (aside from a statement of your preferences), is a quote about how there are fewer school districts.  Issues of why that decline took place aside (rural flight, urban consolidation, etc), that fact is not tethered to any argument on outcomes.

     
    Well I’ve written a great deal about education, and I think NCLB is evidence enough that federal mandate/subsidy programs are too blunt and often too punitive and ineffective to be worth a damn. I think a better way for the feds to be involved in education is the Pell Grant. I think the system of standardized tests and “race to the top” reforms are well-intentioned but severely flawed.
     

    4) The second statement on education asks us to imagine a situation in which the Texas textbook board runs federal eduction policy.  All you’ve done is take a bad outcome of a state government, grafted it on to an example about the feds and used it to prove what’s wrong with the feds.

     
    Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve done. When people think of federal solutions they imagine they’ll be somehow better and less stupid than the states. But what is stopping the Texas school board from capturing federal education? Former Texas Governor George W Bush brought much of his Texas charm to the White House. This is exactly what I mean by centralized systems being more fragile and prone to catastrophe.
     

    What you’re left with is a romantic notion of local citizen-government and little else.

     
    I think what we’re left with is not seeing eye-to-eye, honestly.Report

    • Avatar rj in reply to E.D. Kain says:

      I’ve never said local governments are less corrupt; I’ve said that the corruption at the local level does less damage and cannot spread as far and wide as it can at the federal level.

      “I believe that diverse, decentralized systems are less prone to catastrophic failure and widespread infection/corruption/etc.”

      Can we agree that the above statement is an overgeneralization unsupported by experience?

      The credit card example shows how decentralized regulation can work for the American consumer and can disadvantage big business which lobbies for one set of rules and regulations. Localism may be incidental to this argument, but I’m not merely arguing localism here, I’m arguing for a decentralized regulatory framework.

      …except for the fact that the decentralized regs that benefited Californian consumers were undone by decentralized regs that benefited South Dakotan banks. The full faith and credit clause stands as a roadblock to true local autonomy beyond the occasional race to the bottom, yet it’s hard to imagine a functioning nation without it.

      This is a good question [re: environmental suits]. I’m not really sure to be honest with you, as this was lifted from Smith’s piece and I did not independently research it. Do you know?

      Smith lists one number from nearly two decades ago and doesn’t list his sources. I don’t have numbers, but I do know that environmental law is a line of defense used by many NIMBYs.

      Well I’ve written a great deal about education, and I think NCLB is evidence enough that federal mandate/subsidy programs are too blunt and often too punitive and ineffective to be worth a damn. I think a better way for the feds to be involved in education is the Pell Grant. I think the system of standardized tests and “race to the top” reforms are well-intentioned but severely flawed.

      Is NCLB too blunt and punitive because it’s a federal law, or is it too blunt and punitive because it was passed in an era in which the solutions in vogue revolved around shutting down bad schools and testing students to death? Were the pathologies plaguing bad school systems pre-NCLB the result of federal overreach?

      As for Pell Grants, they are for higher education. For primary education, do you propose Pell-like vouchers? If so, the feds have a variety of decisions to make on things like creaming the best students, funding religious instruction and determing which schools are simply diploma mills pocketing the federal money?

      But what is stopping the Texas school board from capturing federal education? Former Texas Governor George W Bush brought much of his Texas charm to the White House. This is exactly what I mean by centralized systems being more fragile and prone to catastrophe.

      I think the problem with your scenario is that it’s far less likely on the federal level compared to the states and it highlights a problem with the imperial presidency and the lack of congressional oversight.

      If Congress gave Bush authority to name a curriculum board not subject to confirmation or even an up-or-down vote on its proposals, we have a seperation of powers problem, not a government-is-too-distant-from-the-people problem.

      Right now, as other commenters have pointed out, we have all the problems of decentralization with none of the benefits because Texas and California’s textbook budgets dwarf those of other states. The only solution would be to get even more local – take the buying power of big states out of it. In that case, the LA, Chicago and NYC school systems would be calling the shots to the publishers.

      I think what we’re left with is not seeing eye-to-eye, honestly.

      Who does?Report

      • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to rj says:

        I’m sorry, Erik, I was a bit unfair. However, the statement, out of context, seemed mugwumpy enough to be obvious if not unnecessary.

        Surely some functions are best [or only possible] at the national level, like beating Hitler and Tojo or landing on the moon. But one could have a disposition toward local-is-better [“subsidiarity”] yet still recognize when it’s sensible to make an exception to the rule.Report

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