Trickle Down Government and the Role of City Planning

In the October 3rd US Presidential debate between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney criticized the current state of the federal government by using the term “trickle down government”.


The turn of phrase is a striking one because means two things; first that the political right in this nation is willing to abandon “trickle down” as having an association with policy that is effective (whether policy proposals will abandon the theory or simply the phrase is another matter), and second that the meaning behind the rights rhetoric against big government is shifting away from an “all government is bad” echo chamber, and moving toward the much more palatable appeal of decentralization… or rather as I like to see it “local government is good”.

Despite the sentiment coming from a candidate I chiefly disagree with, the idea of trickle down government struck a chord with me because it clearly states something I’ve been wrestling with as a left leaning activist and an urban planning professional for years; the inefficacy of centralized decision making in building resilient communities.

As planners we need to be cautious in the face of Centralized Decision-making and mindful that local government is best to take many actions.

The structure, size and distance of the federal government (in particular the unelected money granting cabinet positions of the executive branch) makes it relatively unconcerned with the well-being of an individual place. And despite being an elected office, the strength of a communities voice in demanding accountability is diminished at the federal level. Well, unless you live within a Swing County in a Swing State some analysts argue that there are only 10 such communities that will decide the 2012 election.

Federal officials are mostly concerned with the aggregate of the numbers, the measurable results of the multiple actions in the multiple communities that they fund.  Technocrats and wonks, when designing a system to meet a measurable result, are unable to ask the question of if the result of the index being measured is the actual agent of change that an individual community needs.

As planners we need to remember that our role is to understand the statistics, to use the indexes and indicators in the decision making process, but also to make sure that the details relating to an individual communities needs do not get lost in the shuffle.

Local Government on the other hand has proven to be able to both handle the nuance of local detail and still remain mindful of its role in the global context.

While it should be noted that too localized of a government may lead to the creation of short sighted NIMBY Fifedoms. I believe that in general local governments have proven themselves far from being parochial, local politics are typically not as divisive as national politics when it comes to issues of economic well-being, the environment, and community health.

Mitt is often criticized for his stance against Obamacare, while not backing down from his success instituting a similar program at the state level in Massachusetts. But this has never bothered me. Because what some people see as an inconsistency in policy, I see as a positive vision in the way that government works.

Would the Romneycare model  have worked in Oklahoma, or what if a Single Payer system is better for Vermont? Under the current structure states are offered little flexibility and little room for experimentation. And while I believe some health care is better than no healthcare, a period of decentralized experimentation is what is needed both to explore new ideas, and to ease the divisiveness of a divided electorate.

We need to remember and acknowledge that local governance has proven to be better at long term strategic planning than the Federal government. In the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, over 500 cities across the country effectively signed onto the Kyoto Protocol after the U.S. Government, with Democrats in charge refused to take any action. Additionally the UN’s Agenda 21 has been embraced worldwide as a strong tool for local sustainability initiatives (after all… they don’t fight you unless you are a threat).

As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis stated, local governance can act as a great “Laboratory for Democracy”. I believe in the power of many local governments making many local discoveries and unlocking the power of diversity and nuance in what can typically be a stale system… this is of course similar to the arguments in favor of capitalist innovation, but it holds a more noble distinction because, unlike the rational self-interest espoused by libertarians, local government diversity offers opportunities to strengthen our common wealth, and to be part of a larger community.

As planners we need to embrace the idea that good governance comes from the bottom up. So I say let your decentralist flag fly, and embrace the term “Trickle Down Government” as a valid criticism from people we should try to find common ground with wherever we can.

Photo courtesy Flickr infoeduc8r

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One Comment on “Trickle Down Government and the Role of City Planning”

  1. jessicafain October 6, 2012 at 10:21 am #

    Thoughtful post. I was also struck by that phrase, if nothing else that it is a brilliant branding “zinger” by the GOP. There is one part of the argument that I see a little differently. You wrote: “…local politics are typically not as divisive as national politics when it comes to issues of economic well-being, the environment, and community health.” Is this really true? It seems to me that local issues (school boards, real estate taxes, controversial stadiums…) have the potential not only to be extremely divisive but also personal, emotional and can often get downright nasty. They often involve the guy next door, not a suit far away in Washington. The intensity associated with local issues is is what makes local planning all the more relavant. During the election season im struck by the fact that while national politics often seem more significant (I.e. the direction the country is going), its worth keeping in mind that local politics and policies are often the ones felt more directly by communities and where individuals can wield influence.


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