David Brooks’ Brain Fart on Decentralization

          By Mike Koetting                 August 5, 2018

I have, generally speaking, become a David Brooks fan. But his July 30 column in the New York Times was so outstandingly wrong-headed that I am devoting today’s post to rebutting it.

The gist of this column is that politics in America have become too “Washington-centric” and, since national governance is grid-locked by partisan politics, we should embark on a “radical decentralization of power” to other units of government.

Brooks is wrong in his diagnosis of the problem and even further off in his proposed solution.

His Diagnosis

He seems to rest his argument on the fact that while Americans have very low and declining levels of trust of national government and large institutions, the country seems to retain a relatively high level of confidence that local areas are moving in the right direction.  To me this is like arguing that the Chicago Cubs should play the schedule of the Chicago Bears since the Cubs lead their division while the Bears haven’t contended for years.

Brooks offers a superficial historic argument that circumstances have changed since the emergence of the Washington-centric power structure during the New Deal:

In those days and for decades after, the country was pretty homogeneous, trust in big institutions was high and the federal government worked more effectively than state and local governments to build a safety net and break up local economic oligarchies.

I am not sure the degree to which either of the first two assertions is true. Regarding homogeneity the percent of the population that were immigrants during the New Del was only slightly lower than it is now—although it was declining due to serious restrictions on immigrations enacted in the 1920’s. African-Americans were 10% of the population, slightly below their current share, but they were heavily concentrated in the South. Regarding trust in big institutions, there certainly wasn’t any trust in banks or the railroads. Virtually every major industry was in the throes of a fierce struggle over whether workers could unionize. It is true that, as far as we can measure these things, there was dramatically less political polarization than now. Still, it seems like this description might be more a Garrison Keillor nostalgia—fond remembrances of a place that, in fact, you have never been.

In any event, the drift toward centralization of power at the national level didn’t happen because of homogeneity or trust in government. It happened—per his acknowledgement– because the nature of the economy and the resulting society had changed and a national government was more effective at building a safety net and breaking up economic oligarchies. (Actually, his use of “local economic oligarchies” is disingenuous. The larger-than -local economic oligarchies were just as much a problem and those could be addressed only at the national level.)

The problem for Brooks’ argument is that this reality hasn’t changed. The federal government could more effectively build safety nets and break up economic oligarchies if it chose to do so. That it has chosen to retreat from those chores is a function of the partisanship created by those who want to roll back the safety nets and demolish any limits on their ability to make and retain staggering wealth. The federal government hasn’t stopped working because people have lost faith in it; people have lost faith because it has it has stopped working. And it has failed to work because an important, monied portion of the population doesn’t want it to.

Government Closed

His Proposal

His proposal for “radical decentralization” is a bad idea stemming from faulty diagnosis.

I will readily concede there are a huge number of problems in our society that can be much more effectively addressed at the local level. Indeed, there are certain things will simply never get fully resolved until they reach the local level. For instance, I don’t believe gay marriage became legal simply because the Supreme Court said so. I believe gay marriage became legal because the underlying social attitudes changed enough that the Supreme Court was willing to ratify. But, importantly, it is still clear that it is not sufficient to rely on local governments to protect the rights of gay people without continued intervention from a centralized government. The same is true of other civil rights issues—except magnified.

Brooks’ tries to avoid that chink in his argument by imagining “constitutional localism” where the federal government would protect civil rights, but decentralize other things.

Unfortunately, without a robust federal effort, many local entities will try no end of disenfranchising maneuvers. In fact, things such as voter suppression and gerrymandering are both important tools in fanning the flames of partisanship and a recognition of how central the opposition to racial equality is for a significant slice of the electorate.

But even if one were to grant Brooks this idea that a federal government would protect civil rights while engaging in “radical decentralization”, his idea would still be off base. The most crucial issues facing America are simply too national—too global—to be decentralized. Let me review just a few.

Economic Policy. Yes, of course, there are many crucial steps localities can and should take to make their local economy conform to their desires. And those might not be the same in every community. But the major outlines of economy policy must take place at the national level. (In fact, much of economy policy carried on at the local level is counterproductive—for instance, contests involving the largest governmental give-aways to attract corporations.) Local government cannot regulate communication, or transportation. One of the nation’s greatest needs is to upgrade its electricity grid, something that, while it has local components, is such a mess now because there is no national plan. On a greater scale, national tax policy is far more important in determining the outlines of the economy than local tax policy—and accordingly has a much greater impact on the degree of inequality in the nation. Trade policy, as I have noted in previous posts, inevitably creates winners and losers in different parts of the country. Until Ohio can demand payments from Texas for jobs that went there, only the federal government can address.

Environmental Policy. Some of the most significant environmental activities are being undertaken by state and local governments. They are crucial in spurring innovation and attracting attention. But they cannot replace national efforts. Do we really want 50 states making their own pollution standards for cars? And what exactly happens to emissions from Gary, Indiana when the wind is blowing from the East? Do we really want to create situations where various localities find they can best achieve short term objectives by offering a haven for polluters? And, who should negotiate the global aspects of climate change? While, frankly, I would rather have California do it than the federal government, I can’t see that as a sustainable solution.

Education. This is the most historically local function. Again, inevitably, much of this does spin out at the local level. But to pretend that is it is not a national issue if some large states decide to forego meaningful science education is foolish. What do we think happens if Oklahoma continues in its headlong urge to destroy meaningful public education? First, what happens to the kids who are the real victims? But then what happens when those kids grow up and immigrate to some other state? Are those states going to undertake remedial education? Or does the national economy take a hit? There is no other country in the developed world that lets its educational system—the lifeblood of a society—get run so much by the happenstances of the local elections.

I could go on, but you get the point. David Brooks is frustrated with the national situation and sees rays of hope in local government. The latter should be nourished. But not at the cost of fixing the former. We will, bit by bit, turn into a backwater country unless we figure out how to make our national government work. We live in the 21st Century; Brooks needs to take off his 18th Century Jeffersonian rose-colored glasses.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

4 thoughts on “David Brooks’ Brain Fart on Decentralization”

  1. Haven’t followed Brooks, but you’ve got me interested now, and I’ll have to look into this. Sounds like a very, very, very bad idea!


  2. George Wendel would approve! What are steps we can take, in your mind, and that of your readers, to help us… “figure out how to make our national government work.”


  3. I am not sure it can ever be recovered. Too many people want it to not work and the whole system is set up to make action more difficult than inaction. Maybe with demography and luck there will be large enough Democratic majorities that, for a while, things get done and then the sane Republicans join with more conservative Democrats (if the Democrats get large majorities they will sooner or later overplay their hand) to create a middle that essentially freezes out the Republican’s loony fringe. Absent that, Republicans are wedded to their fringe which will give them the imperative and the ability to block most things Democrats will try. Conversely, faced with that Frankenstein GOP, Dems will have little choice but to block most things Republicans want to do and are likely to have enough votes to do it in Congress. The Supreme Court, however, may be a different matter. I don’t see a happy future any time soon.


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