One bummer about getting most of your news consumption on the Web is missing out on those gem articles you notice paging your way through the physical newspaper. Such was the case last night, when I ran across a copy of the Sunday Post's Outlook section at a friend's house, and in particular this article by Joel Kotkin:
No longer a jumped-up Canberra or, worse, Sacramento, [Washington] seems about to emerge as Pyongyang on the Potomac, the undisputed center of national power and influence. As a new president takes over the White House, the United States' capacity for centralization has arguably never been greater. But it's neither Barack Obama's charm nor his intentions that are driving the centrifugal process that's concentrating authority in the capital city. It's the unprecedented collapse of rival centers of power.
This is most obvious in economic affairs, an area in which the nation's great regions have previously enjoyed significant autonomy. But already the dukes of Wall Street and Detroit have submitted their papers to Washington for vassalage. Soon many other industries, from high-tech to agriculture and energy, will become subject to a Kremlin full of special czars. Even the most haughty boyar may have to genuflect to official orthodoxy on everything from social equity to sanctioned science.
At the same time, the notion of decentralized political power -- the linchpin of federalism -- is unraveling. Today, once proudly independent -- even defiant -- states, counties and cities sit on the verge of insolvency. New York and California, two megastates, face record deficits. From California to the Carolinas, local potentates with no power to print their own money will be forced to kiss Washington's ring.
Americans may still possess what the 19th-century historian Frederick Jackson Turner described as "an antipathy to control," but lately, they seem willing to submit themselves to an unprecedented dose of it. A financial collapse driven by unrestrained private excess -- falling, ironically, on the supposedly anti-Washington Republicans' watch -- seems to have transformed federal government cooking into the new comfort food.
The prose is florid, as is the Pyongyang comparison, but the overarching point that circumstances have contrived to center national attention and power in D.C. is a provocative one. There are plenty of counter-examples, of course, and arguably much of the damage that resulted in the circumstances Kotkin describes emanated from federal policies put in place by previous administrations -- does anyone believe that, if proper steps had been taken to address the housing bubble, financial derivatives regulation, and income inequality, the current recession would be as bad as it is? But of course hindsight is perfect.
In any case, one of the great things about the United States is the cultural and political diversity of our cities and states, a diversity under inevitable decline due to encroaching modernity (see the slow death of the regional accent, for one) and its bureaucratic demands -- I won't traffic in the naive belief that everything would work better if we returned to old ideas about federalism or that a modern nation state with challenges as broad as those we face today could be effective without strong central authority. Kotkin's assertion that the changes he observes will be "bad for much of America" isn't right, either: The new administration is much more likely to take into account the common good than financial elites in New York City, and aid to states from the federal government will prevent major drops in quality of life in states facing economic crisis across the country. His suggestion that the "new science apparat" will be somehow as susceptible to lobbyist pull as the, um, lobbyist-run Bush administration is just laughable.
Culturally, though, it would be sad if Kotkin is right and D.C. joins London and Paris as cities that exemplify their country's ideal, since American life is so much more than simply its politics. On that front, though, the challenge for the Obama administration is in recognizing the greater-than-normal influence they have and being smart about working with local- and state-level actors to ensure that federal policies have the necessary flexibility to be effective. There was some of that in Obama's post-election meetings at the National Governor's Association in Philadelphia, and hopefully we'll see more.
-- Tim Fernholz