Magazine article The American Prospect

Fed Up with Federalism: How America's Commitment to States' Rights Is Undermining Our Economic Recovery

Magazine article The American Prospect

Fed Up with Federalism: How America's Commitment to States' Rights Is Undermining Our Economic Recovery

Article excerpt

By accident of its birth--a collection of separate colonies that slowly came together to form an independent union and revolted against the remote power of the British government--the United States has an enduring bias toward localism, an aversion to centralized government that is part of its DNA. For some on the left, this has been seen as a positive. "It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country," Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote.

Even though progressives such as Brandeis have celebrated our federalism, it's important to remember that Brandeis lived and worked at a time when the federal government was ice-bound in conservative orthodoxy and the cause of social justice could be advanced only in a small number of states and cities. Segregationists like George Wallace and Richard Russell have celebrated our federalism, too, arguing for states' rights at a time when the national government was moving to abolish the Jim Crow laws throughout the South.

Conversely, liberals have argued for the right of the nation to move beyond its federalist constraints during those periods when they controlled the national government (the 1930s and, especially, the 1960s). And during the late, lamentable Bush presidency, conservative justices on the Supreme Court frequently forbade the states from enacting stricter regulations on business than those that Bush's administration had put in place.

The love of federalism is a sometime thing; its critics and champions switch places depending on who is in power at which level of government. But the problem with our allegedly ingenious federal system is not simply that half the time, if not more, it is an effective way to protect all that is biased and unfair in the American nation. The problem is also that federalism inherently subverts a coherent national response to many fundamental challenges the United States faces, at a time when other major nations--our competitors in an increasingly global economy--face no such structural impediment.

Given the sheer size of America and the distinct cultural identity of its many regions, federalism has always made a certain amount of sense. The abolition of the slave trade and the legalization of gay marriage had to begin somewhere. As the rise of national government, transportation, and media have eroded regional identities, traditions, and isolation, however, more conservatives than liberals have found a refuge in federalism.

But even though federalism is more often the refuge of reactionaries than of visionaries, it has an even deeper flaw: setting the nation at cross-purposes with itself, and never more so than during a recession.

THERE IS A CLASSIC algebra problem in which water pours into a bathtub from the tap at a specified rate but also exits the tub at a different rate because someone has neglected to stop the drain. If you know the rates, you should be able to figure when the water will rise to a certain level. During a recession, the United States becomes a version of that bathtub. The federal government is the tap. The state and local governments are the drain.

That's no way to fight a recession. When investment, production, and consumption are all in decline, the only way to keep the economy from shrinking is for the federal government to deficit spend and create a stimulus. But while the federal government pours money in, the state and local governments, which cannot deficit spend, see their tax revenue shrinking, so they cut spending, raise taxes, or both--taking money out of the economy. America's distinct brand of federalism inherently impedes an economic recovery.

Consider the state with the biggest tap and the biggest drain: California. The sum total of the federal tax cuts for Californians included in last year's Bush administration stimulus legislation and this year's Obama administration stimulus came to $15. …

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