Who Needs Washington?????

14, January 2014

On Sunday, the New York Times ran an interesting series of graphics. While the focus of the article was on how fast campaign finance money was changing the face of state and local elections, the article made me think of two themes that have been on my mind for awhile that stem from my view that paralysis at the Federal Government level is here to stay and that this paralysis will lead to a slow but steady delegitimization of this government.

The article discusses how state governments in 36 states are wholly in the control of one party of the other. In the majority of the cases it is the Republican party which did a much better job of using out of state money to offset Democratic demographic advantages.

What is IMHO much more interesting is the fact that in these “one party” states, governments have been much more able to take action on a host of issues than at the federal level. Thirteen states (Ironic) including Republican strong holds of Arizona, Florida, and Montana have passed legislation setting the minimum wage above the federally mandated $7.25 floor. With eleven more states looking to do the same in 2014, the federal minimum wage may soon be irrelevant.

We are seeing similar activity on a host of issues, some of which have been highly divisive. These issues include abortion and same sex marriage which are the two social issues that engender the most passion on the right. Even immigration which has always fallen within the purview of Federal law is now the subject of state laws in places such as California and Arizona. As you could imagine, states with Democratic rule are liberalizing laws that govern these issues while Republican dominated states have passed laws increasing restrictions. Not surprisingly, states with divided government have seen much less legislation passed on hot button issues.

Rather than do a detailed list of issues in which state governments have moved to the forefront of action, I’d rather discuss the whys and what it means. These are some of my not fully formed thoughts and I’d love to now what others think.

So It has become clear that ANY action of significance is unlikely to occur as long as one party sees itself as the opposition and the rules round making law allow this MINORITY to just say no without proposing any alternatives. This process has been building for some time. What we see happening in the states is a natural reaction to the inaction. I believe that there are good and bad elements to this.

It is clearly a good thing that people/states are moved to action. While I may not personally support some of the decisions made in various states, at least there is some resolution on important issues, and heck you could always move to the state that best reflects your views. Also, I would expect that over time the Federal government would move toward some of the ideas, especially those that gain a large consensus across the states. I also hope that contrary to the NY Times article that both sides will become better at targeting their campaign money to the races they can win. Assuming that then maybe we could just have a good old voter registration drive to get participation up. I still don’t understand why ANYONE who loves this country has a desire to make voting more difficult for any citizen.

There is a downside. The continued delegitimization of the government will lead other actors to fill the void. While these could be state and local governments, non profits, or even multilateral organizations, the most likely actor to step into the void are large corporates. As it is now, I believe that the only two governments that can act to counterbalance the power of corporations such as GE or EXXON are China and the United States. This is largely due to the size of their markets. If the relative power of the US Government declines, it is unlikely that smaller entities will be able to act as a counterbalance to corporate power. A return to the pre-Progressive Era where corporates operated unfettered would not be a good thing for most Americans.

My other thought is this. For most of my life I thought that the US style of democracy (representative) was superior to the type of democracy practiced in places like Canada and Europe (parliamentary). I no longer believe this to be the case. Our kind of democracy, in which we strongly seek to protect minority rights depends on a certain element of civility in legislation and debate. Unfortunately, with each successive term of congress, we move further away from the ideal. Additionally, our legislators have found ways to arbitrage the process to ensure that no agenda gets enacted, ensuring that the status quo will prevail. The fact that legislation does get enacted in state legislatures where the majority is not constrained by supra or extra majority rules I believe bears this out.

I know that these arguments are not particularly fleshed out. I welcome any comments, debates, etc to help think about this.



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