Sunday, January 23, 2011

Musings on localism

Last week I was sent Christina Romer’s thoughtful Op-Ed in the New York Times, in which she outlines her hopes for the President’s State of the Union, as well as some broad prescriptions for managing the federal deficit in the long-haul (prescriptions much more deserving of consideration than the Republican Party’s promise of cuts, cuts and more cuts—cuts that Romer shows would make the faintest of dents in the deficit in the short term).

Hers is largely a recognition that greater oversight can remake our system of providing social services (a necessity) it in a way that makes it simultaneously more democratic and more cost-effective (and there’s clearly a link between the two that Romer doesn’t fully pursue). Perhaps most importantly, Romer puts the deficit in perspective:

“Republicans in Congress have pledged to cut nonmilitary, non-entitlement spending in 2011 by $100 billion (less if recent reports are correct). Such a step would do nothing to address the fundamental drivers of the budget problem, and would weaken the economy when we are only beginning to recover […]

“Finally, the president has to be frank about the need for more tax revenue. Even with bold spending cuts, there will still be a large deficit. The only realistic way to close the gap is by raising revenue […]

“None of these changes should be immediate. With the unemployment at 9.4 percent and the economy constrained by lack of demand, it would be heartless and counterproductive to move to fiscal austerity in 2011”.

Romer is asking us to recognise that the austerity to which Congressional Republicans, urged on by the thugs of talk radio, have committed themselves, ought to be a means rather than an end. Austerity comprises a set of political-economic measures to be implemented when the time is right. This stands in stark contrast to the Republican Party’s approach. Their party is committed to replacing democratic government by what amounts to corporate rule. Someone will continue to provide services in education, healthcare and welfare. But those services will be structured around what is profitable for the self-interested industries that will have a free rein in deciding how to provide them rather than the needs of people.

Romer’s challenge to knee-jerk austerity should give pause to the coalition government in Britain as well. David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, has assailed the waste and interference supposedly associated with social democratic governance in Britain since 1945 (not entirely coincidentally, the period of full democratisation, of the rise of standards of living, of real gains for the working- and middle-classes, of the creation of a National Health Service and of a more democratic education system).

Cameron’s counter-proposal is something he calls ‘The Big Society’. This is framed as an answer to Britain’s economic crisis, and goes something like this: the massive deficit in Britain necessitates enormous cuts across whole swathes of public services. These cuts will cause huge economic and material damage to large numbers of middle- and working-class people, and will push unemployment up. But even as government retreats from its responsibilities to its people, affluent individuals, companies with sound bottom lines, neighbourhood organisations and “local people” will step into the breach and create new chains of communication and modes through which they can maintain these services.

At root, the Big Society is a return to a kind of Victorian paternalism. Social services are no longer the rights that Liberals, Social Democrats and Socialists once fought for, but are a charity. The reversion to this paternalism, a key part of the Republican Party’s philosophy, introduces greater uncertainty into the lives of people who are most affected by any economic downturn. It makes them reliant on the goodwill of their wealthier neighbours, who have not always been willing to make even small sacrifices for the welfare of society at large in the past. This paternalism is both an abdication of responsibility on the part of government, and a call for localism.

Left-wing orthodoxy demands a knee-jerk rejection of the Localism peddled by the Conservative-Liberal coalition in Britain. But there is something alluring about the promise of localism in government—not necessarily the type peddled by the high command of a Conservative Party that is nearly as committed to dismantling the state as its Republican Party counterpart in the United States (although it has to be much more cautious about its rhetoric).

Indeed, anti-globalisation efforts and many environmental justice movements deliver stinging critiques of industrial capitalism as a web that ties people—without ever asking them what they think—to something called a ‘global economy’ which has a knack for preying on the weak, exacerbating inequality both between and within nations, and destroying large swathes of land across the planet. A version of localism, it is argued, is lower-impact, means that production is controlled by a local community, and curtails the inequitable distribution of resources that seems inherent in virtually all societies today.

If localism appeals to people who, because of environmental, cultural and philosophical-political reasons, are troubled by a concentration of power in the hands of highly-centralised national governments, it also has relevance to the debates about the function and role of government that plague U.S. politics today.

Much of the alienation that lies at the root of the anti-government mood behind the Tea Party (to take but one example) stems from the distance between the formal structures of governance and the people who do double-duty as the electors and the governed. It is this sense of being governed—ruled almost—from a distance, by an often-unresponsive, frequently-unaccountable government, which angers people.

And it is certainly true that in many respects the federal government in the United States is highly unresponsive and undemocratic—though in this respect the energies of the Tea Party and associated movements seem bizarrely misdirected, attacking most vociferously, as they do, social democratic members of Congress and state government. It was, after all, a series of right-wing administrations that rolled back protection for working people, both from the vagaries of economic life in a capitalist republic, from the predations of financial and industrial interests, and from the malpractise of insurance and energy industries. Similarly, it is the political right that has traditionally ramped up military spending and sent a volunteer army off to depose (often-democratic, sometimes dictatorial) governments across the world, at the same time that it disinvested in education, public transportation and international development.

Our system of elections fails to inspire much confidence either. The President is chosen in a vote which discourages more than two candidates, and allows a candidate with fewer votes to walk away with the election. It is a system which favours the influence of wealthy interests whilst decrying the rights of the politically marginal to organise. It relies, for arbitration, on a Supreme Court which unabashedly declared that money is a form of free speech.

Taking these ills into account, it makes a great deal of sense to locate the levers of power as close to electors as possible, allowing them greater oversight of the people who have been elected to do their bidding, as well as insight into the process. What is local, it seems reasonable to assume, will be more transparent, accessible and responsive. It holds out the promise of reinvigorating democracy and civil society more generally.

The real problem with localism is that in the context of a nation-state it subverts the universalism that many of us hold dear. California’s current predicament is a good illustration of the conundrum. Jerry Brown has long (in spite of being labeled a traditional social democrat by the Republican Party) held to a ‘small is beautiful’, low-impact, or even non-governance version of state politics (unlike his father, a genuine social democrat who invested in state infrastructure and higher education).

Brown has seized his return to the governorship as an opportunity to put his ideas into practise. His proposals for addressing California’s economic woes depend heavily on cutting the state’s provision of welfare and support for education—on rolling back, that is, the state’s commitment to any provision of universally-accessible services of equal quality. The solution, in Brown’s mind, is the devolution of responsibility for service provision and revenue raising to local governments. The idea is that this will motivate people to see how much damage Prop 13 has done to the capacity of local government to look after its people, and that if people are seriously committed to providing social welfare (whether that be healthcare, education or support for the less-well-off) they will be faced with the reality of the need to raise revenue more immediately than they are when the process is removed to the level of state government.

The trouble is, of course, that not all communities are created equally. There might conceivably be crowded communities much in need of social welfare services, who are committed to providing them, but who are faced with a small revenue base. Local resources, land and property values, accessibility to and responsiveness of local government—these all vary dramatically from one community to the next. If equality is something that we believe is valuable to promote in our society, localism poses a troublesome set of questions that asks us to think long and hard about who the ‘we’ is, and about the most practically useful and philosophically necessary level at which governance is most effective in promoting quality of life, social welfare and equality.

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