The press has planted a phrase in our heads – dysfunctional government. It’s hardly a phrase the man on the street would invent. Yet, it has overtaken the economy as voters’ biggest concern. Sounds like a problem we should try to solve, doesn’t it?
There’s a central truth to this issue that most are missing. The government was designed to be dysfunctional. If you were designing a system to function efficiently, would you come up with this?
Indeed, if one were to design a government system to function efficiently, one might choose the British Westminster system. In the UK, elections can be called at irregular intervals to throw the bums out and the leader of the party who achieves a majority appoints the ministers (from among those elected) who run the bureaus of government.
No separation of powers, no process of advice and consent, no oversight committees or any of the other nonsense that clogs up the works in D.C.
In the midst of all this federal Sturm and Drang, many states have stepped into the breach. And, why shouldn’t they? In a nation that is geographically larger than all of Europe, it makes sense that we would have diverse cultures with different values. Continental Europe certainly does.
Former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels forged a new path by selling some of the state’s assets – including highways -- to pay down their debt and balance their budget without raising taxes. It was a bold move. What can we learn from Indiana’s experience?
In California, new/old Governor Jerry Brown chose a different direction. He raised taxes on the wealthy to address the state’s budget issues. Unlike Indiana, California benefits from thriving entertainment and technology industries and geographically important seaports like Long Beach and Oakland. A recovering economy has boosted state revenues and balanced the budget. The very wealthy haven’t abandoned the state to move to Indiana or even to Arizona or Texas.
Texas pursues a different model. A no-income tax state, it benefits from a booming energy industry and low costs of living and doing business. Want to move from high-tax states like California, Illinois or New York? No problem. You’ll be welcomed.
That Texas and California can pursue such different models and both thrive is an expression of the diversity of our economy. There’s no need for the federal government to be involved.
Last June’s Supreme Court ruling allowed each state to make its own decision about gay marriage. And, each state is doing so. Easy? For some yes and for others no. But, the decisions made at a local level are more likely to reflect local values.
Mississippi will never have it. Vermont always will.
Contrast that to the 40-year-old Supreme Court ruling on abortion. Proponents and opponents are still marching in the streets.
Enter the nation’s mayors.
More than 80% of the population now lives in or near a big city. So, our mayors are likely to have an increasing impact on society.
Many focus on economic development. Denver has established a Business Incentive Fund that has attracted large national companies like Southwest Airlines to its environs. Raleigh, NC has a well-educated workforce and has attracted financial companies like Fidelity, Credit Suisse and MetLife. Seattle benefits from a resurgent Boeing and has also attracted technology companies like Amazon and Google to build new operations there.
But, it’s not all about economics. Cities may also serve as laboratories for social experiments. New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, ran on a platform of taxing the rich to fund universal pre-K. If he receives the necessary support of the state government, we’ll get to see if that experiment works before liberals in Washington take a crack at it. Will Wall Street big shots relocate their HQ’s to White Plains, Princeton or Greenwich? It will be interesting to find out, won’t it?
Seattle’s city government considers raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Will the rise in incomes lift local businesses and cause the city to thrive or will it drive out local employers who reckon they can’t carry that burden? Will Seattleites be buying Tex-Mex from Taco Bell or from Burrito Box?
Conservatives point to the first principles of economic freedom as drivers of prosperity. The elected governments of California and Seattle have chosen a different direction. Liberals see the divergent incomes at the top and bottom of the economic ladder as a challenge they must address directly. The elected governments of Indiana and Texas have chosen a different direction.
I don’t know about you. But, I would rather see how these many experiments work on a small scale before imposing them on the entire nation.
The accretion of special interest lobbying and its impact on the federal taxes and regulations violate Americans’ sense of fair play. The decentralization of American governance can only serve to make elected officials more responsive to the electorate and the results better aligned with our values and beliefs. The folks in Washington will not endeavor to slow the momentum of our central government. Change must be driven from outside the system and it’s more likely to be driven by political, social and economic forces at play in our states and cities than by those who pretend to represent us in Washington.
WHO WILL LEAD?