The American people have chosen four more years of partisan gridlock in Washington. There is a remote chance that President Obama and a Republican-dominated House of Representatives will reach a grand compromise to put the country back onto a fiscally sustainable path, but I’m not holding my breath. I foresee four more years of tribal animosity between the Donkey Clan and the Elephant Clan leading to sub-par economic growth, annual trillion-dollar deficits and a nation hurtling at an accelerating rate toward Boomergeddon. I pray that I am wrong.
Obama managed to persuade many voters that the anemic state of the economy was his predecessor’s fault. Personally, I think that he bears much of the blame for the economy’s under-performance. But reasonable people can disagree. There is only one federal government, so there are no counter factuals to prove competing claims to be right or wrong. Obama can assert, for example, that his policies “pulled the economy out of the ditch” without fear of contradiction. We cannot re-run the last four years to see how it would have performed under a different set of policies.
One place where we can conduct experiments and gain more clarity about which philosophies work is in the realm of state governance. We can say, for instance, that the Blue State governance model of higher taxes, heavier regulations and the embrace of public employee unions in places like California and Illinois drives away jobs and investment. Conversely, we can say that most economically dynamic metropolitan regions in the United States hew to the Blue State cultural model regarding culture-war issues and the environment, leading to the conclusion that culturally conservative regions lag in attracting human capital and generating new enterprises.
Die-hards at both ends of the philosophical spectrum will concede no philosophical point, but the facts on the ground will speak for themselves. If California and Illinois collapse into fiscal insolvency while states hewing to the Red State model do not, there is little left to argue about. If Alabama and Mississippi remain two of the poorest states in the country, no sophistry can wish that fact away.
Thus, the ideological battle will move to the 50 states. The laboratory of democracy is as vital as ever as a Darwinian process sorts winners from the losers. My hunch is that the most successful states will couple a Red State governance model (limited government) with a Blue State cultural model (greater sensitivity to diversity, tolerance and the environment). But that’s just a hunch. We shall see.
Many Virginians — about 49% of all voters– will be demoralized by the prospect of four more years of President Obama. We don’t have the luxury of wallowing in self pity. We need to think long and hard about what it takes to make Virginia a winner in a globally competitive knowledge economy as part of a dysfunctional nation state. We cannot cling to the past. We cannot revert to the status quo. We should focus on perfecting our very flawed governance model.
Many of the core functions of state and local government in Virginia are broken, just as they are in other states. K-12 education is not up to the task of educating all of our children with the skills they need to prosper in the knowledge economy. Higher education is increasingly unaffordable and faces an existential threat from online learning. The health care system is plagued with endemic problems that can be solved only through a focus on productivity and quality. Land use and transportation are adapted to the post World War II era of suburban sprawl, not to the economic demands and consumer preferences of the 21st century. The tax code is antiquated and riddled with loopholes. And our economic development strategy, built around corporate recruitment and tourism, is adapted to the world of the 1970s, not the 2010s.
These are not problems that can be solved with more money. We don’t have more money, and we won’t in the foreseeable future. We must re-think these institutions from the ground up. If we can resist the temptation to bog down in debates over baggy pants and trans-vaginal ultrasounds, we can revitalize these core functions of state and local government. If we do, Virginia will prosper whatever happens (or fails to happen) in Washington, D.C.