The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

"The Direct Line"- Winter 2006

Article Type 

Rockefeller Center Director Andrew Samwick provides commentary on a variety of issues in the Direct Line, which is published at the start of each term.

Like many people safely removed from the events, I watched the images of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and wondered how every layer of government could appear to have failed so resoundingly in serving the residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Many answers to the question of “What went wrong?” have suggested that an important part of the explanation is, in fact, that we have a layered government—our federalist system in which sovereignty is shared among the national, state, and local levels. As of this writing, a Google search for “Katrina federalism” generates over 250,000 results.

We should not take such charges lightly. Along with the separation of powers among the three branches of government and explicit protections for civil rights, federalism is one of the key elements of our constitutional republic. The presence of a multi-layered government is a strong impediment to abuses of freedom by any one of those layers. If breakdowns like the one we witnessed in September are symptomatic of federalist systems, then the greater centralization—less federalism—needed to protect the welfare of citizens would come at the high price of weaker protection of individual liberties.

I do not believe that federalism is an important explanation for the failures of government in the preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina. The underlying problem is a bloated government generally disdainful of both entrepreneurship and accountability at every level. In this case, the presence of multiple layers of government compounded the critical lack of communication and coordination that was also present in each separate layer of government.

In February 1962, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller delivered the Godkin lectures at Harvard on “The Future of Federalism,” which were subsequently published in a book of the same name. He identified three pervasive attitudes that were damaging to the process of government in his era: political aloofness, in which the need to engage in active and aggressive political debate is evaded by a condescension and contempt for political life; an obsession with political labels, which substitute slogan for thought and the false label for the serious goal; and a timidity in the exercise of political leadership, particularly at the state level of government.

He could have been describing equally well the obstacles to effective government today, and until those obstacles are overcome, our society is susceptible to continued breakdown of government in the most critical times. The policy response to Hurricane Katrina should not be less federalism, but better federalism—more reliance on elected rather than appointed officials to make decisions and implement policy and greater citizen participation in the political process. Elections and the people who stand for them matter. They bring with them the accountability and entrepreneurship that are required to provide the solutions to deal better with the challenges we face, both natural and man-made.

Andrew A. Samwick is the Director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences, the Sandra L. and Arthur L. Irving '72a, P'10 Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College, and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. In 2003 and 2004, he served as chief economist on the staff of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. 
Since joining the Dartmouth faculty in 1994, his scholarly work has covered a range of topics, including pensions, saving, taxation, portfolio choice, and executive compensation. Professor Samwick has been published in American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Journal of Finance, Journal of Public Economics, and a number of specialized journals and conference volumes. He graduated summa cum laude with a degree in economics from Harvard College and received his Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He blogs about economics, politics, and current events.

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