Opinion » Ted Rall

States Mights

The incredible shrinking federal government

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BOISE, IDAHO--The Bush administration's refusal to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina reflected the intertwined phenomena of incompetence and systemic racism. It also spotlighted the radical decentralization of the United States government.

Local, state and national agencies have always had different priorities and approaches to governance. In recent years, however--and this was almost as true under Democrat Bill Clinton as it is today--the federal government is increasingly abdicating its regulatory role over such issues as safety and living standards, leaving states and municipalities to pick up the slack.

No, Virginia, the federal government isn't shrinking. It employs more people, under more departments, than ever before. It spends more money than ever, too: "Spending has exploded under Bush--as have budget deficits," reported The Washingon Post. "The government spent $2.3 trillion and ran a $412 billion deficit in 2004, compared with the $1.8 trillion it spent and the $86 billion surplus it ran in the final full year of the Clinton administration."

But the federal government isn't spending any of that loot on helping American citizens. The feds' money is going to two areas: domestic surveillance and war. If current trends continue, the only thing it will be good for will be giving us a hard time at the airport and dropping bombs on foreigners.

The minimum wage, initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of the New Deal, has been frozen since 1997 at $5.15 an hour, or $10,712 per year for a full-time worker. If Congress had acted to protect workers from the 26 percent increase in the cost of living during those nine years, it would be $6.50 today. But Congress, controlled by Republicans who depend on campaign contributions from employers, continues to sit on its hands. Inaction has softened upward pressure on wages, even for non-minimum wage workers, all the way up the salary scale.

The states are picking up the slack. The District of Columbia and 23 states have passed minimum wages higher than the federal government requires. If ballot measures pending in six additional states--one raising the rate to as high as $6.85--pass on Election Day this November, a majority of states will require higher pay than the feds for the first time in 70 years. "I expect to see most or all of them pass," says Jennie Bowser of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "I imagine it's going to be a pretty popular subject."

The trend has gone local. Chicago's city council recently passed a "living wage" ordinance that would have required "big box" stores like Wal-Mart to pay their workers $10 per hour, above Illinois' state minimum wage of $6.50. Mayor Richard Daley vetoed the measure, but proponents have a fighting chance to override his veto.

More and more, Americans are turning to the states to protect them from rapacious corporations. All 50 states have enacted milk safety and restaurant safety standards that are stricter than their federal counterparts. Federal regulations lag behind 16 states on shellfish safety and 15 on food additives. Eleven states require employers to give more generous family emergency benefits to workers than the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

Defederalization even extends to issues of lesser significance, such as the Do Not Call rules designed to limit annoying calls from telemarketers. Under the federal statute, companies can call you even if you've registered on the Do Not Call list if you have an "existing business relationship" with them--i.e., you've bought something from them before. The more than 80 million people who have registered as Do Not Call Me's, it's safe to say, don't like this exception. Indiana's state representatives, enforcing their constituents' opinions, have closed the loophole. Four more states have tightened the lax federal law. For example, the feds allow automated calls; Florida doesn't.

We ought to be worried about defederalization. States do some things better than Washington bureaucrats, but regulating the economy, which is greatly affected by wages, isn't one of them. Air pollution hurts Tennesseeans just as much as New Yorkers. They ought to be just as protected. But the threat is as philosophical as well as material.

As modern nation-states go, the United States has always leaned too far in favor of state and local control. An absence of centralized federal oversight and funding, for example, has led to vast disparities in the quality of education received by schoolchildren living in the same country. Now, with the federal government doing less and less, ordinary people are turning to states and towns to address their needs. As Washington becomes less relevant, so does the idea of America itself.

Although federal-centric states can turn oppressive, highly decentralized societies almost invariably turn feudal. Outside of Kabul, the government of Afghanistan has little to no impact on people's daily lives. As a result, Afghans don't call themselves Afghans. Those who live in Paktia province say they're Paktians; those from Takhar are Takharis. They turn to local government--chiefs and warlords--for help. Iraqis identify themselves by tribal and clan affiliation. Poverty and war, constant afflictions in both countries, are bad enough. What's worse is that their citizens can't even agree that because they live in the same nation, they're essentially the same people with similar problems and common interests.

Individualism is at the heart of the American spirit. Our preference for little, and local, government, is its result. Henry David Thoreau, possibly quoting Thomas Paine, famously asserted that "that government is best which governs least." But Thoreau never saw life in Afghanistan. With luck, neither will we.

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