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  • Using State and Local Policies
  • Joel Rogers (bio)

I share my fellow symposium authors' commitment to making the United States a more socially equitable, sustainable, and democratic society than we now have, achieved in part through much more widely distributed citizen-ownership claims on its residual surplus and commons and the encouragement of more cooperative ways of producing wealth.1 My reasons are also about the same as theirs: moral outrage and prudential consequentialist concern about America's current economic and political equality, crony capitalism, political dysfunction, and degradation of public goods of all kinds; interest in reviving or creating new institutions and customary practices to energize a thinking democratic public; hope that wider citizen ownership and more cooperative production can get us both greater dynamic market efficiencies and social equity with deep political support. I think in particular that dividend returns to wide ownership, and the efficient supply of more public goods in necessities of all kinds, would be welcome antidotes to declining labor market incomes. I believe that wider ownership of capital would encourage more socially responsible business, both directly through shareholder power and via the competitive threat to irresponsible capital that investment in responsible business could provide. And I believe that, in America's Lockean rock 'n' roll political wilderness, an "ownership society" that was more than rhetoric might have great popular appeal. So it could be that rare and beautiful thing—a radically democratic political project with real legs. [End Page 91]

I'll skip over national politics in this essay. Not because it is unimportant, but because of doubt about the near-term possibility of finding much comfort there. I hope I'm wrong. Naturally, there are any number of potential federal guarantees and drivers one could imagine. Thad Williamson imagines some of the desirable constitutional supports. To his list I would add something on preemption. I'd like to see a "progressive federalism." This would limit it to state law actually contrary to the aims or minimal requirements of federal law, not to action consistent with its aims but exceeding requirements—a "floors not ceilings" approach to federal limits on state power—that also broke with the notion that federal "occupation" of some field closed off all further possibilities. It would explicitly seek to harness state innovation to improving policy.2

And along with such changes in constitutional understanding, I can imagine all manner of desirable acts of Congress, or Secretarial guidance to agencies, or changes in regulation, or Presidential executive orders: to provide credit enhancement or technical assistance and evaluation to any of the new institutions and projects we'd like to build; or more demanding performance requirements on many of the projects the federal government now supports; or reserving a pool of taxpayer money and regulatory forbearance for worthy "reverse RFPs" from groups of localities seeking to partner with the feds on something useful; or simply more of the competitive grants in areas of desired innovation for which the Obama administration is already famous, but with transformative ends.

It would be great if all or any of this happened. But I want to concentrate on what might be done absent such support, and that probably needs to be done if that is ever to be forthcoming, viz. action at the level of state and local government. Here too, however, a broad, intentional, organized popular politics for transformation politics is largely absent, though not from a lack of capacity.

In the United States, state and local government is by far the largest and most active part of government, and arguably the most important part. Largest since, as compared to federal government, it employs seven times as many civilians (19.8 million vs. 2.8 million); accounts for four times the [End Page 92] share of government non-defense consumption and investment (81 percent vs. 19 percent); and, excluding military and mandatory spending, spends almost seven times the share of GDP (11.1 percent vs. 1.6 percent).3 Most active since state and local government enacts far more regulations and law than national government. State legislatures alone (so, not counting our 3,000-plus counties or 30,000-plus cities and towns) enact...


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