Changing the Power Structure

Byy On

One of the underlying currents of the recent discussions around health care is the role of the federal government. I thought it would be interesting to see how much is spent per person by our local, state and federal governments. I took the budgets for the City of Bellingham, Washington State and the federal government and converted them to a per person basis, then broke them out into categories (when information was available). The results of that analysis are in the above graph. Combined, all governments spend about $21,000 for every person in their jurisdiction, with the federal government, in large measure, controlling about 61% of the funds (arguably there are some funds like education that are a pass-through to local governments). The question becomes whether there would be a different total if the pyramid were reversed and local governments controlled the majority of government spending with the states controlling about the same amount they do now. Would this dramatically reduce federal costs?

In looking at the details, three obvious areas jump out where money could be collected and controlled locally for potentially better results. The three areas are social services, housing/commerce, and the environment. In all three cases, almost all the funds are controlled by the federal government with very little influence from local governments. The second table (see below) shows what sort of impact that would have on spending per person. In this scenario, decisions around health care and other social service programs would be decided at the local level, not at the national level. The reality is, all of these are actually local issues and better solved by local people and organizations. Currently, the funding mechanism is complicated and controversial; localizing this would put the money and control where it would better serve individuals. In the case of the environment, the standards would be set nationally, but enforcement authority and the ability to exceed the national standards would be controlled locally, as would funds to clean up existing environmental problems.

It is easy to confuse those who set the standards with those who have the responsibility and funds to meet the standards. In many cases they are both done by the federal government, but in most cases they are also done ineffectively. The other solution is to let the federal government set the standards, but then allow each community to figure out how to utilize their resources to meet those standards. This would allow more innovation, more local input, smaller organizations (less bureaucratic), and better results.

Obviously, the answers are not as easy as I am trying to portray in this blog, but eventually it is the conversation we need to have if we really want to solve our problems. Power needs to be in the communities, and it resides with those who control government spending. It is time to reverse the tide of power flowing up to the federal government and push power and responsibility back into local communities.

About Craig Mayberry

Closed Account • Member since Jan 17, 2008

While writing his articles from 2008 to 2011, Craig lived near Lynden and taught at both Whatcom Community College and Western Washington University. He was active in politics and ran for public [...]

Comments by Readers

Tom Pratum

Sep 24, 2009

I appreciate the ideas to get a conversation going, but I don’t quite buy into this. Let’s take a look at education as an example. Currently the feds play a small role, as the information you present indicates. And the result: we have a vast array of educational “qualities” in the US. We have a pretty good educational system here, but in some states, local control amounts to a woeful situation.

I can only imagine the result if all environmental enforcement in say Mississippi, were handled at the local level…......


Craig Mayberry

Sep 25, 2009


You bring up the ultimate dilemma that we face.  When we try to centralize power we end up with the lowest common denominator and we end up with tremendous inefficiencies because the size of the organization stifles innovation and ignores the customers (all discussed in an earlier post).  If you decentralize you do run the risk of some local governments being a miserable failure (as you point out), but you also allow other local governments to flourish and be very innovative.  My premise is that overall we would still be better off having more local control, knowing the some will succeed and others fail, then having everyone on the verge of failure.

Education is one example where there is still a fair amount of local control (although most school boards will say they have very little control because of state and federal restrictions).  I think the more interesting conversations are around poverty, employment/unemployment, infrastructure, and health care where the programs are much more centralized in state and federal hierarchies and local governments have far less influence and responsibilities.



Craig Mayberry

Sep 25, 2009

I would also add that if you believe the local governments are less efficient and may lead to poorer service (per the Mississippi environment example) then why don’t we have all businesses centralized into large corporations.  Why not centralize agriculture, retail, construction, manufacturing, etc.  The answer is if we did that there would be no more innovation and local communities would be completely disenfranchised and at the mercy of large corporations that pay little attention to communities.  We strongly advocate local businesses and agriculture because they are important to our community, so why not have that same level of advocacy for things like poverty, employment, health care, and other “government” services that are predominantly centralized into state and federal bureaucracies.

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