Mandarins and Apparats

05/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The generally positive reviews of Joel Kotkin's latest book have not improved the urban futurist's mood any. As has become his tendency in "analyzing" the missteps of the Obama administration, Kotkin's latest piece for Forbes (reprinted on his disorienting New Geography blog) warns that the iron grip of totalitarianism, the freedom-crushing mechanisms of central planning, and resurrected bureaucrats of the Soviet Union have seized control of the White House. The pod people are here and we don't even know it.

Kotkin paints a grim picture: Obama's desire to centralize power in the federal government has made the United States into a European-style super-state underpinned by a belief in French dirigisme and controlled by apparats and mandarins. The American people, in contrast, prefer problems to be solved at the state and local level and have maintained an entrepreneurial spirit "under the radar of big business and government."

Beyond his vivid comparison of the Obama administration to the worst of the autocratic worst -- Europeans, Chinese, French, Chicagoans -- Kotkin forgets to provide evidence that the administration is actually obsessed with centralizing authority. In fact, in important instances the Obama administration seems more interested in devolving authority to state and local governments than in concentrating power in the White House.

Kotkin's primary example of centralizing authority is the recent revelation that the administration is considering evaluating applicants for government contracts based on the wages they pay and the benefits they offer. Yet, far from being an idea cooked up in the secret offices of federal apparatchiks, it is state and local governments that have pioneered such fair contracting rules, including laws in cities and states across the country that mandate paid sick days and living wages and weed out irresponsible contractors. The federalization of these rules is more a process of learning from than undermining locally developed rules.

In other areas, as well, the Obama administration has demonstrated deference to state and local authority. The Office of Management and Budget released a memo last May reversing President Bush's tendency to preempt state regulations with federal laws. That is, Obama administration policy is to defer to state law when possible. Additionally, the Obama proposal for financial reform made clear that federal consumer financial protection rules "would serve as a floor, not a ceiling. The states should have the ability to adopt and enforce stricter laws for institutions of all types..."

Several significant stimulus programs, too, were designed to permit states and localities to innovate using federal money. Though the federal government determined the criteria for which applications they would accept, the Race to the Top fund for education reform and the TIGER grants for transportation projects both rewarded ingenuity at the local level that would likely not have been possible without federal assistance. Similarly, the administration's urban policy has thus far been driven much more by publicizing -- and, at times, funding -- local initiatives (the Harlem Children's Zone, for instance) than by mandating that any city adopt a ready-made program concocted by the administration. And for all the cries that the federal government will take over health care, the Senate bill that the administration has expressed support for and which is now the only game in town empowers states (not the federal government) to run the bill's health insurance exchanges.

The administration certainly believes that the federal government has a role to play in setting minimum, robust standards for the protection of consumers, the environment, the financial system, and in a host of other areas. But to suggest this belief comes at the expense of local ingenuity -- or with the price of totalitarian authority -- is simply wrong. Instead of examining how the Obama administration contradicts the instincts of "most Americans," perhaps Kotkin should begin examining how it is aligned with them.