Where’s the power, the White House or the State House?

My column in the current print edition of America (“The Downside of Devolution”) looks at the question of whether public welfare is best served by national or local government. Since press time, there have been a couple of interesting news items about this tension.

First, President Barack Obama has made a push for standardizing and streamlining occupational licenses throughout the 50 states. The New York Times’ Eduardo Porter notes, “almost three out of 10 workers in the United States need a license from state governments to do their jobs, up from one in 20 in the 1950s.” One study suggests that state licensing requirements have the result of eliminating 2.8 million jobs. Porter writes that each state has a different list of occupations that can’t be trusted to common civilians (locksmiths must be licensed in 13 states, shampooers in five) and the requirements within a state don’t seem to make sense. (“An athletic trainer must put in 1,460 days of training to get a license in Michigan. An emergency medical technician needs only 26.”)

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In his annual budget proposal, Obama includes $15 million for states to conduct cost-benefit analyses of their licensing laws and $500 million to develop industry-recognized credentials that could supplant licensing laws and be granted by community colleges.

It’s odd to think of a president trying to go over the heads of governors and state legislatures—but good taste dissuades me from coming up with an image that better describes the acrobatic power play here. In this case, a Democratic president is trying to pressure mostly Republican governors and legislatures to reduce barriers to entering such fields as midwifery, accountancy, and funeral services. But one could easily imagine a Republican president challenging Democratic-run states to do the same thing. Professional organizations that lobby for licensing laws (which can keep down practitioners and drive up prices) are generally not ideological. They’re happy to work with whoever’s in power. So Obama is not likely to make quick progress with this initiative. The question is whether the next president, Democratic or Republican, also takes up the cause.

In a similar challenge to state government, Obama wants to make it easier for municipalities to offer their own (possibly free) broadband networks to residents, in pursuit of his State of the Union pledge “to protect a free and open Internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks.” As Letitia Miranda reports in Pacific Standard, many states prohibit municipal  Internet service, thanks to lobbying from cable companies and to many conservatives’ belief that the government (at any level) should stay out of the telecommunications business. In any battle between state rights and city rights, it’s usually wise to bet on the state, and it’s unclear whether Obama can change those odds.

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Andrew Russell
2 years 10 months ago
This is a great case to examine the balance between subsidiarity and the obligation to promote the common good. For example it would be beneficial to the common good for teachers in cities like Chicago or New York to be able to cross state lines and teach in a neaby state. Schools would have a larger pool to draw from. Teachers would be able to exchange knowledge and work closely within regions. But, some states may want to add other requirements for teachers, e.g. Wisconsin requires a course in Native American history. A teacher from bordering states; Illinois, Iowa, Minn., or Mich. would not have that course.

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