Last week I wrote about the forces that, in my opinion, are contributing to an increasingly polarized America. I mentioned three such key forces: the structural changes and employment challenges our economy is going through; the changing demographics and emergence of a kind of new establishment in US society; and the technology-amplified, free-for-all conversations taking place through our multitude of information and communication channels.
How should government evolve to better adapt to these forces? Are there innovative government models that might work better than our present ones? Can we look at the evolution of organizational models in business over the past twenty years for inspiration and guidance?
Companies, especially large, global companies have been going through dramatic changes in the last couple of decades, driven by a combination of advances in information technologies, the Internet, the fast-changing market environment, and the heightened competitive pressures brought about by globalization. In particular, companies have had to move away from the hierarchic, centralized management models that prevailed in much of the last century and embrace a more distributed organizational style.
But, such top-down governance models do not work so well today, especially for global companies that need to react fluidly to dynamic market conditions all over the world. It is hard for people back in headquarters, no matter how competent and committed they might be, to stay on top of what is happening all over their company.
It is even tougher for them to have the proper understanding of the changes underway in all the various cities, countries and communities where they do business. The expertise is out in the field, where the rubber meets the road, as it were. That is where people know what is really going on and what they should do about it. The experts in the organization are those people closest to their products and services, their clients and their markets.
For a few years now, I have been wondering how this business shift from a centralized to a distributed organizational style might apply to government. While business and government have clearly different objectives, many of the challenges involved in managing a complex, fast changing organization are similar. If large global companies have had to embrace a more distributed management style, why not large, complex governments? Could such a shift in style help governments derive some of the benefits that have been working well for business?
As I was researching these questions, I realized that that these issues regarding centralized versus distributed government are not new. They have been debated in one form or another ever since the birth of the Republic. The early days of the US government saw fierce political battles between the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton who advocated a strong national government, and the Democrat-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who favored states’ rights and a strictly limited federal government.
I came across this letter written by Jefferson in 1800, whose arguments could just as well have been part of a recently published OpEd:
“Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single government. Public servants, at such a distance, and from under the eye of their constituents, must, from the circumstance of distance, be unable to administer and overlook all the details necessary for the good government of the citizens; and the same circumstance, by rendering detection impossible to their constituents, will invite the public agents to corruption, plunder, and waste. . .”
“The true theory of our Constitution is surely the wisest and best, that the states are independent as to everything within themselves, and united as to everything respecting foreign nations.”
In the years between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, states’ rights became closely associated with segregation. The federal government was the chief protector of civil rights for all, especially with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
More recently, a political philosophy called New Federalism has emerged, which aims to devolve back to the states some of the autonomy and power which they lost to the federal government in the decades since the New Deal in the 1930s. Supporters of New Federalism and related initiatives have generally been conservative politicians like presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, as well as others who shared Jefferson’s views that a large central government would become too bureaucratic, corrupt and wasteful.
Generally, those with more centrist or progressive views have shied away from the New Federalism philosophies, mostly because of its associations with segregation and with culture war issues like reproduction rights, freedom to marry, and the separation of church and state. Yet, many in these same groups are suspicious of powerful, large institutions, and are quite comfortable with the notion of power to the people.
I was surprised to find that few in the moderate/progressive camp are even discussing these issues. A major exception is Jonathan Taplin, a Professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and Director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab. I referenced his writings in a blog on distributed, collaborative government which I posted in September of 2008.
At the time, I did not know Jon Taplin. I subsequently met him when I spent a week in November of 2009 as Innovator in Residence at the Annenberg School. I did not associate Jon with his writings on New Federalism, because our discussions since we have known each other have been totally focused on technology-based innovations in the communications and media industries. We have remained in close touch ever since, and I serve as a member of the Advisory Board of the Annenberg Innovation Lab.
Jon has continued to be among the few moderate/progressives who are thinking about the merits of having a more distributed style of government. In a recent blog, - New Federalism Revisited, - he wrote:
“I run an Innovation Lab at USC. It is supported by some of the most innovative companies in the world. I can tell you one thing with certainty - the truly innovative companies have learned to devolve power and flatten organization structures. If the United States is to survive as the design and innovation hub of the digital world, it is going to have to have a government structure designed for a 21st Century World. And that means that power and funding is going to need to devolve from the Federal level to the State and City level. I have been writing about this idea for almost five years, but I’m more convinced than ever that some sort of New Federalism is the only way out of the grinding political gridlock that is destroying our country. Democrats cannot fight this notion that power that is closer to the customer, is more efficient power.”
Jon's views are pragmatic, not at all idelological. He believes that a number of key responsibilities must remain with the federal government, including Social Security and Medicare benefits.
“. . . the problem with giving the states more responsibility is that you need to encourage mobility in America, not discourage it. If my 2050 version of Social Security is being managed at the state level, it’s just harder to move. The beauty of a Federal social insurance system is that there is never any impediment to get up and move to where the work is. Your social security number is good anywhere.”
In his blogs and various other publications, Jon discusses which powers should be preserved at the Federal level, and which should devolve to state and local governments. I don’t know if he is right, but it does not matter. These are extremely complex issues that will take decades to resolve. We will never get it right. It is a matter of adapting to a changing environment. The key is to get the discussions going among all interested parties. In particular, moderates and progressives need to actively join the discussions rather than assume that a strong Federal government is always the right answer just because conservatives generally take the opposing view.
What happens if some states pass laws that we strongly disagree with? Jon’s response is quite sensible, harking back, in my opinion, to free market capitalism and the power of the invisible hand.
“Now of course many of my peers, raised on the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960′s, view the whole idea of Federalism with distaste. Federalism, in their mind means “states’ rights” and George Wallace standing in the school house door. They say to me, “what is to prevent Kansas from passing draconian laws banning abortion and threatening the freedom of women?” And I reply: “Mobility”. If Kansas wants to go back to the 1950′s then only people who want to live in the 1950′s will stay there. You can go coast to coast on a bus for $200. You can move to the next state for $30. As Richard Florida has shown, creative people will flee to locations that are open and modern.”
I am sure that many will not be satisfied with this answer, but it is a very reasonable, rational position. And, in any event, we need fresh thinking on the subject. These days, the US Congress looks more like the United Nations General Assembly, than the legislative body of of the most powerful country in the world. It is hard for Congress to get anything done because the America they represent is almost as balkanized as the world at large.
It is not surprising that the approval rating for Congress is at an all time low. Congress is about as popular as Hugo Chavez, and only a few percentage points ahead of Fidel Castro. And, for a variety of reasons, I don’t expect the situation to change anytime soon barring an improbable, high impact black swan event.
We need to be realistic and explore innovative approaches to keep the country moving forward. Even though we are one nation, it has never been easy for the different factions in the country to agree on major issues, and it seems to be getting even harder now and well into the future. So, let different regions and states adopt those policies that they feel will advantage them in economic matters, and in raising the standard of living and overall quality of life of their citizens. In many areas, including national security and natural disasters, the federal government will continue to get involved and collaborate with the states as appropriate.
And, every so often, lines in the sand will be crossed by a state that will require federal troops to intervene, as was the case in the conflict between Alabama Governor George Wallace and President John Kennedy in June of 1963. Hopefully, such events will be very rare.
In our daily lives, we all care most about what happens in our communities, our cities, our regions, and our states. It is also where we have the most shared interests and will thus be more likely to reach consensus on issues and get things done. As Jon Taplin observed, those who strongly disagree with the general views of their community can always move to another town or region that best reflects their values. Most of all, it is time to stop the same, old, tired political debates and begin to apply fresh, innovative thinking to how to best move the country forward in the 21st century.