The Center Cannot Hold

When William Butler Yeats put the phrase I’ve used as the title for this week’s post into the powerful and prescient verses of “The Second Coming,” he had deeper issues in mind than the crisis of power in a declining American empire.  Still, the image is anything but irrelevant here; the political evolution of the United States over the last century has concentrated so many of the responsibilities of government in Washington DC that the entire American system is beginning to crack under the strain.

This is admittedly not the way you’ll hear the centralization of power in America discussed by those few voices in our national conversation who discuss it at all. On the one hand are the proponents of centralized power, who insist that leaving any decision at all in the hands of state or local authorities is tantamount to handing it over to their bogeyman du jour—whether that amounts to the bedsheet-bedecked Southern crackers who populate the hate speech of the left, say, or the more diverse gallery of stereotypes that plays a similar role on the right.  On the other hand are those who insist that the centralization of power in America is the harbinger of a totalitarian future that will show up George Orwell as an incurable optimist.

I’ve already talked in a number of previous posts about the problems with this sort of thinking, with its flattening out of the complexities of contemporary politics into an opposition between warm fuzzy feelings and cold prickly ones.  I’d like, to pursue the point a little further, to offer two unpopular predictions about the future of American government.  The first is that the centralization of power in Washington DC has almost certainly reached its peak, and will be reversing in the decades ahead of us. The second is that, although there will inevitably be downsides to that reversal, it will turn out by and large to be an improvement over the system we have today.  These predictions unfold from a common logic; both are consequences of the inevitable failure of overcentralized power.

It’s easy to get caught up in abstractions here, and even easier to fall into circular arguments around the functions of political power that attract most of the attention these days—for example, the power to make war.  I’ll be getting to this latter a bit further on in this post, but I want to start with a function of government slightly less vexed by misunderstandings. The one I have in mind is education.

In the United States, for a couple of centuries now, the provision of free public education for children has been one of the central functions of government.  Until fairly recently, in most of the country, it operated in a distinctive way.  Under legal frameworks established by each state, local school districts were organized by the local residents, who also voted to tax themselves to pay the costs of building and running schools.  Each district was managed by a school board, elected by the local residents, and had extensive authority over the school district’s operations. 

In most parts of the country, school districts weren’t subsets of city, township, or county governments, or answerable to them; they were single-purpose independent governments on a very small scale, loosely supervised by the state and much more closely watched by the local voters. On the state level, a superintendent of schools or a state board of education, elected by the state’s voters, had a modest staff to carry out the very limited duties of oversight and enforcement assigned by the state legislature.  On the federal level, a bureaucracy not much larger supervised the state boards of education, and conducted the even more limited duties assigned it by Congress.

Two results of that system deserve notice.  First of all, since individual school districts were allowed to set standards, chose textbooks, and manage their own affairs, there was a great deal of diversity in American education. While reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic formed the hard backbone of the school day, and such other standards as history and geography inevitably got a look in as well, what else a given school taught was as varied as local decisions could make them. What the local schools put in the curriculum was up to the school board and, ultimately, to the voters, who could always elect a reform slate to the school board if they didn’t like what was being taught.

Second, the system as a whole gave America a level of public literacy and general education that was second to none in the industrial world, and far surpassed the poor performance of the far more lavishly funded education system the United States has today.  In a previous post, I encouraged readers to compare the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 to the debates in our latest presidential contest, and to remember that most of the people who listened attentively to Lincoln and Douglas had what then counted as an eighth-grade education.  The comparison has plenty to say about the degeneration of political thinking in modern America, but it has even more to say about the extent to which the decline in public education has left voters unprepared to get past the soundbite level of thinking.

Those of my readers who want an even more cogent example are encouraged to leaf through a high school textbook from before the Second World War. You’ll find that the reading comprehension, reasoning ability, and mathematical skill expected as a matter of course from ninth-graders in 1930 is hard to find among American college graduates today.  If you have kids of high school age, spend half an hour comparing the old textbook with the one your children are using today.  You might even consider taking the time to work through a few of the assignments in the old textbook yourself.

Plenty of factors have had a role in the dumbing-down process that gave us our current failed system of education, to be sure, but I’d like to suggest that the centralization of power over the nation’s educational system in a few federal bureaucracies played a crucial role.  To see how this works, again, a specific example is useful.  Let’s imagine a child in an elementary school in Lincoln, Nebraska, who is learning how to read.  Ask yourself this:  of all the people concerned with her education, which ones are able to help that individual child tackle the daunting task of figuring out how to transform squiggles of ink into words in her mind?

The list is fairly small, and her teacher and her parents belong at the top of it. Below them are a few others:  a teacher’s aide if her classroom has one, an older sibling, a friend who has already managed to learn the trick.  Everyone else involved is limited to helping these people do their job.  Their support can make that job somewhat easier—for example, by making sure that the child has books, by seeing to it that the classroom is safe and clean, and so on—but they can’t teach reading. Each supporting role has supporting roles of its own; thus the district’s purchasing staff, who keep the school stocked with textbooks, depend on textbook publishers and distributors, and so on.  Still, the further you go from the child trying to figure out that C-A-T means “cat,” the less effect any action has on her learning process.

Now let’s zoom back 1200 miles or so to Washington DC and the federal Department of Education. It’s a smallish federal bureaucracy, which means that in the last year for which I was able to find statistics, 2011, it spent around $71 billion.  Like many other federal bureaucracies, its existence is illegal. I mean that quite literally; the US constitution assigns the federal government a fairly limited range of functions, and “those powers necessary and convenient” to exercise them; by no stretch of the imagination can managing the nation’s public schools be squeezed into those limits. Only the Supreme Court’s embarrassingly supine response to federal power grabs during most of the twentieth century allows the department to exist at all.

So we have a technically illegal bureaucracy running through $71 billion of the taxpayers’ money in a year, which is arguably not a good start. The question I want to raise, though, is this:  what can the staff of the Department of Education do that will have any positive impact on that child in the classroom in Lincoln, Nebraska?  They can’t teach the child themselves; they can’t fill any of the supporting roles that make it possible for the child to be taught.  They’re 1200 miles away, enacting policies that apply to every child in every classroom, irrespective of local conditions, individual needs, or any of the other factors that make teaching a child to read different from stamping out identical zinc bushings.

There are a few—a very few—things that can usefully be done for education at the national level. One of them is to make sure that the child in Lincoln is not denied equal access to education because of her gender, her skin color, or the like. Another is to provide the sort of overall supervision to state boards of education that state boards of education traditionally provided to local school boards. There are a few other things that belong on the same list.  All of them can be described, to go back to a set of ideas I sketched out a couple of weeks ago, as measures to maintain the commons.

Public education is a commons. The costs are borne by the community as a whole, while the benefits go to individuals:  the children who get educated, the parents who don’t have to carry all the costs of their children’s education, the employers who don’t have to carry all the costs of training employees, and so on. Like any other commons, this one is vulnerable to exploitation when it’s not managed intelligently, and like most commons in today’s America, this one has taken quite a bit of abuse lately, with the usual consequences. What makes this situation interesting, in something like the sense of the apocryphal Chinese proverb, is that the way the commons of public education is being managed has become the principal force wrecking the commons.

The problem here is precisely that of centralization. The research for which economist Elinor Ostrom won her Nobel Prize a few years back showed that, by and large, effective management of a commons is a grassroots affair; those who will be most directly affected by the way the commons is managed are also its best managers.  The more distance between the managers and the commons they manage, the more likely failure becomes, because two factors essential to successful management simply aren’t there. The first of them is immediate access to information about how management policies are working, or not working, so that those policies can be adjusted immediately if they go wrong; the second is a personal stake in the outcome, so that the managers have the motivation to recognize when a mistake has been made, rather than allowing the psychology of previous investment to seduce them into pursuing a failed policy right into the ground.

Those two factors don’t function in an overcentralized system.  Politicians and bureaucrats don’t get to see the consequences of their failed decisions up close, and they don’t have any motivation to admit that they were wrong and pursue new policies—quite the contrary, in fact.  Consider, for example, the impact of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, pushed through Congress by bipartisan majorities and signed with much hoopla by George W. Bush in 2002. In the name of accountability—a term that in practice means “finding someone to punish”—the NCLB Act requires mandatory standardized testing at specific grade levels, and requires every year’s scores to be higher than the previous year’s, in every school in the nation. Teachers and schools that fail to accomplish this face draconian penalties.

My readers may be interested to know that next year, by law, every child in America must perform at or above grade level. It’s reminiscent of the imaginary town of Lake Wobegon—“where all the children are above average”—except that this is no joke; what’s left of America’s public education system is being shredded by the efforts of teachers and administrators to save their jobs in a collapsing economy, by teaching to the tests and gaming the system, under the pressure of increasingly unreal mandates from Washington DC. Standardized test scores have risen slightly; meaningful measures of literacy, numeracy, and other real-world skills have continued to move raggedly downward, and you can bet that the only response anybody in Washington is going to be willing to discuss is yet another round of federal mandates, most likely even more punitive and less effective than the current set.

Though I’ve used education as an example, nearly every part of American life is pervaded by the same failed logic of overcentralization. Another example?  Consider the Obama administration’s giddy pursuit of national security via drone attacks.  As currently operated, Predator drones are the ne plus ultra in centralized warfare; each drone attack has to be authorized by Obama himself, the drone is piloted via satellite link from a base in Nevada, and you can apparently sit in the situation room in the White House and watch the whole thing live. Hundreds of people have been blown to kingdom come by these attacks so far, in the name of a war on terror that Obama’s party used to denounce.

Now of course that habit only makes sense if you’re willing to define young children and wedding party attendees as terrorists, which seems a little extreme to me. Leaving that aside, though, there’s a question that needs to be asked:  is it working?  Since none of the areas under attack are any less full of anti-American insurgents than they have been, and the jihadi movement has been able to expand its war dramatically in recent weeks into Libya and Mali, the answer is pretty clearly no.  However technically superlative the drones themselves are, the information that guides them comes via the notoriously static-filled channels of intelligence collection and analysis, and the decision to use them takes place in the even less certain realms of tactics and strategy; nor is it exactly bright, if you want to dissuade people from seeking out Americans and killing them, to go around vaporizing people nearly at random in parts of the world where avenging the murder of a family member is a sacred duty.

In both cases, and plenty of others like them, we have other alternatives, but all of them require the recognition that the best response to a failed policy isn’t a double helping of the same.  That recognition is nowhere in our collective conversation at the moment. It would be useful if more of us were to make an effort to put it there, but there’s another factor in play.  The center really cannot hold, and as it gives way, a great many of today’s political deadlocks will give way with it.

Eliot Wigginton, the teacher in rural Georgia who founded the Foxfire project and thus offered the rest of us an elegant example of what can happen when a purely local educational venture is given the freedom to flower and bear fruit, used to say that the word “learn” is properly spelled F-A-I-L. That’s a reading lesson worth taking to heart, if only because we’re going to have some world-class chances to make use of it in the years ahead.  One of the few good things about really bad policies is that they’re self-limiting; sooner or later, a system that insists on embracing them is going to crash and burn, and once the rubble has stopped bouncing and the smoke clears away, it’s not too hard for the people standing around the crater to recognize that something has gone very wrong.  In that period of clarity, it’s possible for a great many changes to be made, especially if there are clear alternatives available and people advocating for them.

In the great crises that ended each of America’s three previous rounds of anacyclosis—in 1776, in 1861, and in 1933—a great many possibilities that had been unattainable due to the gridlocked politics of the previous generation suddenly came within reach. In those past crises, the United States was an expanding nation, geographically, economically, and in terms of its ability to project power in the world; the crisis immediately ahead bids fair to arrive in the early stages of the ensuing contraction. That difference has important effects on the nature of the changes before us.

Centralized power is costly—in money, in energy, in every other kind of resource.  Decentralized systems are much cheaper.  In the days when the United States was mostly an agrarian society, and the extravagant abundance made possible by a global empire and reckless depletion of natural resources had not yet arrived, the profoundly localized educational system I sketched out earlier was popular because it was affordable.  Even a poor community could count on being able to scrape together the political will and the money to establish a school district, even if that meant a one-room schoolhouse  with one teacher taking twenty-odd children a day through grades one through eight. That the level of education that routinely came out of such one-room schoolhouses was measurably better than that provided by today’s multimillion-dollar school budgets is just one more irony in the fire.

On the downside of America’s trajectory, as we descend from empire toward whatever society we can manage to afford within the stringent limits of a troubled biosphere and a planet stripped of most of its nonrenewable resources, local systems of the one-room schoolhouse variety are much more likely to be an option than centralized systems of the sort we have today.  That shift toward the affordably local will have many more consequences; I plan on exploring another of them next week.