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An Interview with Ryan Streeter, Director of Domestic Policy Studies at AEI

Ryan Streeter is the director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, for which he oversees research in education, American citizenship, politics, public opinion, and social and cultural studies. Before joining AEI, Mr. Streeter was executive director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the University of Texas at Austin. Mr. Streeter formerly served as senior advisor and director at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (2003-2005), special assistant to President George W. Bush at the White House Domestic Policy Council (2005-2007), and deputy chief of staff for policy to Indiana Governor Mike Pence (2013-2014).

The Politic: Before we dive into 21st century localism, can you provide a brief description of its heritage and main tenets?

Ryan Streeter: There are traces of it in Tocqueville, Robert Nesbit, Kirkpatrick Sale, and Chesterton and Belloc over a hundred years ago in England. In more contemporary parlance, both Joel Kotkin and Richard Florida, have been sparring partners, or advocates, of this basic approach. Its tenets are pretty simple: we, as human beings, react with more energy and interest to things that are close to us, and we ought to have a renewed effort on situating more decisional authority at the local level for big problems. 

Those are the basic, simple tenets, but, they do have quite a history, and some of this history has been borne out more in the social sciences. James Q. Wilson and others have shown that human beings are social creatures. This social capacity expresses itself in the sense that when we feel responsibility for things, we actually react in a way that leads to innovation, compassion, and those sorts of things. When we don’t feel responsibility for something, then we don’t innovate, and we don’t have compassion. So, the idea is, how do you situate more responsibility? This isn’t really an argument about resources, or shifting resources, or making a resource responsibility purely at the local level. It really has to do with where the flexibility and authority for solving problems is situated. 

If I understand correctly, 21st century localism should be a new and improved return to localism. So, what do you think went wrong along the way?

The trajectory has been increasing concentration of power in layers of government above the local level. Over the last 48 years or so, for a lot of decision-making, that trajectory affects local communities even at the federal level. As the growth of the administrative state has continued, that’s where political power is, and so that’s where the national bait tends to go– that’s where money goes, and that’s where the focus is. And so, as a result of often well-intentioned attempts at solving problems as matters of national concern with national instruments, you then created a culture within which all the power, money, and conversation happens at the national level. 

In some ways, there were steps in the 1990s to do some serious thinking about devolution, or returning decision making power to communities. There was even some success in that regard. And then, from the 1990s until now, we’ve just seen these other changes, primarily due to technology, which have driven the national debate into all these divaricated forms, but mostly about national issues. And we’ve seen the hollowing out of local newspaper industries, and all that stuff, as a part of this shift. I think that, now, the effort is to continue these discussions about how to devolve actual policy authority and resources to the local level. But, the second-order problem–which I think is important–is just to get talking about local issues again and to find ways to do that.

One example you just mentioned is the fall of local newspapers– it seems like a lot of the institutions that once bound local communities together are now evaporating with the rise of technology. If that’s the case, how do you successfully return power and focus to communities that might have lost their glue?

Some of that disintegration has been uneven, and it’s not the same everywhere. I think in some cases, a renewed effort by philanthropy to bolster local media and local ways of getting people organized and gaining their attention is something that could be done and, in some places, is being done. This is purely anecdotal, but I know a couple of people that own families of local newspapers. Actually, in smaller communities, a lot of these local newspapers are actually doing fine. It’s the city papers–the main papers of places like Indianapolis, Indiana; Columbus, Ohio; Tulsa, Oklahoma; or whatever–that seem to have taken a real hit in this environment. This is an environment in which people often still subscribe and pay for the real local stuff. So, I think a renewed effort, certainly by philanthropy, could be helpful.

As to the more serious question of declining civic institutions at the local level, one way to renew them is to involve them in problem-solving. Some devolutionary work can actually do that: it can at least bring resources to them so that they can help solve problems. I can give examples of how this resource devolution has worked before. But, you actually invite some organizations to essentially renew by doing this work. That being said, in some communities, it’s bad: the decline in civic institutions is so bad that I have to say–honestly–that it’s not clear there’s a source of internal renewal that’s actually possible. 

I think there’s a practical distinction between civic institutions that are business entities, local newspapers for example, and those that are ideologies or ways of life, such as marriage and religion. Philanthropy might help reinvigorate local newspapers, but how do you combat the whittling away of these historically important, civic ideologies?

The reality is that–as you rightly pointed out–with delayed childbearing, delayed and diminishing marriage rates, and decline in religious observance, there isn’t any sort of external philanthropic source that can change that. These are deeply cultural institutions, embedded in our history and our way of life, that have their own rationale and have been–for a long time–self-perpetuating

Now, we’re witnessing these trendlines. The only way I’ve seen–analogously–that we can reverse them, is just by talking about them more and creating new cultural expectations about them. We’ve seen that in cultural mores on everything from the hot-button issues like same-sex marriage or even abortion. The changing views that people had about those things compared to 25 years ago weren’t really predictable 25 years ago.

I think that same thing could happen if people start actually connecting the dots. Just as we started understanding back in the ’80s that smoking was actually bad for you and led to all these problems, as more people understand these social and cultural antigens, and the potentially serious fiscal and demographic problems for the country associated with their continued existence, then maybe we’ll see more renewal. But, right now, these issues are not really talked about in a matter of urgency like other issues. So, I think talking about them and organizing around discussion is the best way to shift the trend lines.

You mention the general lack of immediacy with which people approach declining civic institutions. On the topic of immediacy, it seems like the recent IPCC report–which sets 2030 as the deadline to stop climate disaster–is first and foremost on everybody’s mind. How do you see a return to localism as playing a role in solving climate change?

Cities are absolutely critical: they are a major part of the issue, and they must be a major part of the solution– especially given where emissions happen and where all the world’s people live. I think, by that date, 70% of the world will live in something defined as a “dense urban area.” We have to expect that a lot of this innovation is going to come from cities and even require cities. I think there was a global conference, just this year, with the IAPC; it was a cities conference where delegates from all over the world came to talk about the issue of climate change and what cities were doing to prevent it. When it comes to innovating, both with respect to emissions reduction and also mitigation strategies, cities are where we should focus. Are they doing enough? I think we would always say that no one’s ever doing enough– isn’t that what we always say? On this particular issue, I don’t know how you actually get there without a cities-first focus. 

What do you think people should be doing to revitalize cities and incorporate them more in decision-making?

As a matter of federal policy, I’ve been a long-proponent of “super wavers” to federal programs, where you allow much greater flexibility and potential for innovation at the urban level. In other words, you have these overlapping programmatic areas, some from the Department of Labor, some from the EPA, some from the Department of Health and Human Services, where a mayor or a governor would, with very little time delay and process problems, be able to actually combine those resources on plans that are approved on the federal level. So, I think situating responsibility at the local level matters. One of the best examples of this, I think, is welfare reform in the 1990s. What’s been divisive about that as a policy, and where people have disagreed before and after its implementation, is the requirement for people receiving cash assistance to work. The work requirements were kind of the big thing. 

What hasn’t gotten as much attention was the devolutionary impact of welfare reform in the 1990s. This hasn’t been studied a ton, but from the research that we do have, we know that second-order devolution was successful. Some states really managed those TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) dollars at the state level, and county welfare agencies collaborated with employers to get people to work. Some other states actually actually passed those funds through to their major urban areas too. Everywhere you had that second-order devolution, you actually had better income gains, faster attachment to work, and the like, because those low-income people were in their communities and now they had responsibility for using those funds to do job training, work preparation, supportive services, and more. Second-order devolution from 1990s welfare reform worked well. That’s the spirit of what I’m talking about– it’s only an example, but it showcases the idea of getting as much flexibility as you can while also holding people accountable. They have to be held accountable for how they use those funds, and there are various ways to ensure that.

How do you hold people accountable in that way?

By making sure that there’s a serious investigatory power of the regulatory agency and that there are consequences for not doing what you said you were going to do in your plan. For example, by withholding funds from the next year or something like that. They didn’t have to do that a whole lot in this case because the policy wasn’t enforced everywhere, but it worked pretty well, and there was a strong economy back then which helped. So, I think the first step would be to situate responsibility at the metropolitan level and doing so in a way that allows people to come up with plans for the use of multiple resources.

Could you provide some more detail on what a world of decentralized power, in which people are still held accountable, really looks like in practice?

I think that one important element to add is just the role of technology. By that, I mean there’s a lot we could be doing in terms of getting people to work that has to do with using better data–that we actually have–on how labor markets are changing in real-time, relaying those market signals back to job training providers and community colleges right away, and then funding those providers which actually offer skills training that the market demands. 

We should be doing that now, and there are a number of reasons that we’re not– most of them because of clunky policy that we have. It’s a world in which you’d say, take these Department of Labor resources, and the federal government could even make technology-adapting grants for people to get some of this technology in place. Within a five-year period of time, school teachers, school counselors, and parents should be able to get real-time information about which areas–which types of jobs and skills–have been growing in demand in the greater Nashville area, for instance, and where they can actually go to get training in those areas. That technology would be really useful for economists to have, and it’s actually possible to do– we just haven’t done it yet. 

So, that would be one example of how you could actually disintermediate so much of the policy noise, the rules requirements, and the One-Stop Centers (American Job Centers), all of these things we don’t actually need, and put the power right in the hands of local leaders and parents. Then, it becomes pretty easy to understand what those TANF dollars have actually bought you, and it becomes easier to make decisions about who to penalize if you want to go down that road.

Let’s say you’ve convinced me– what are the obstacles that you, Ryan Streeter, must overcome for the U.S. to return to localism?

The major obstacle is people caring enough. Right now, the incentives for power, for attention, for money, and for resources, are all at the national debate level. We all just spent a couple of breathless months waiting for a midterm election, and we now have a bunch of people that are coming to Washington–just as in past elections–to complain in two years that they can’t get anything done because of the environment. So, I think the biggest obstacle really is just one of attention right now: we have a lot of top talent still seeking to participate in the national debate, in national politics, and not so much at the state and local level. That might be changing a little bit– I’m not sure. But, I think that’s the biggest obstacle. 

The second obstacle is the self-reinforcing policy apparatus that keeps the federal administrative state so powerful and resistant to the kind of change that I’m talking about. That doesn’t just have to do with civil servants themselves, but also the lobbyists, the members of Congress, and all those who have career interests in keeping those administrations doing what they do. If you tried to devolve more authority to the states by reforming welfare policy, you wouldn’t just have welfare advocates arguing against you, you’d have big corporations–the Deloittes of the world–that do all the back office stuff for states on these issues. They have a huge interest in keeping the machinery of things the same. 

They can adapt if you change things the way that I’m talking about, but there aren’t too many places from within that megaplex of political and administrative power which would initiate this kind of change on their own. Instead, change would have to be forced on them, which means Congress would probably have to do it. So, you would have some combination of Congress implementing this change and governors demanding it, but right now, there’s just not a lot of interest in this stuff. 

There is actually interest at the gubernatorial level. I think a lot of governors would love what I’m talking about, and I think there are many of them, in both parties, doing interesting things around the state to show why they should receive more authority. They’ve been a class of innovators over the last several decades that I think is worth learning from. But, right now, the incentives and motivations in the nation’s capital are going to make it pretty hard to do that.

Earlier, you brought up the fact that as we’ve globalized, we’ve increasingly searched for federal solutions to national problems. To me, that seems like human psychology: people saying, “here’s a huge, urgent problem, and we need to use our biggest and most powerful asset, the federal government, to solve it accordingly.” What kind of role do you think that kind of psychology plays?

That’s a good question, and I think you’re right. Climate change is in a sort of a unique category, where you can’t formulate policy on it without the federal government being involved. It’s a little bit of a different issue. When you’re talking about domestic issues that we often try to formulate national solutions to, one of the things I would say is, “name a policy that’s been proposed to do something about inequality over the last 5 years that actually will do something about inequality?” Guaranteed jobs? Wage subsidies? Higher taxation on higher earners? Those things will help people not earn as low as they’re earning now, and so eek by at a better level, but anywhere there’s upward mobility happening in the country, it’s generally a combination of local factors that you can’t control with national policy.

So, I would say, if you’re talking about educational outcomes, if you’re talking about college attainment, if you’re talking about post-secondary outcomes, if you’re talking about upward mobility, almost all of those are driven by locally-generated factors. The cost and price of housing areas that keep people out– that’s a local problem. The nature of the job market and the nature of the institutions that train people for those jobs– those are generally local problems. Criminal justice– local problem. Eighty percent of our prisoners are in state prisons, and only 20 percent are in federal prisons. We need sentencing reform at the federal level. But, if you’re going to help fix this other problem, which is that 75 percent of those who leave prison are back behind bars within five years, we need evidence-based prison reform at the state and regional level.

We’ll send people to Washington to form national policy on all of these issues. Where they’re actually fixing themselves, it’s because of the other things that are going on locally. So, whenever I hear people talking about the minimum wage, and they talk about wage subsidies, I’ll debate the merits of those policies with them as policies. But, when they’re offered as solutions to this big problem–this widening income gap–in the country… that’s unfair to the people you say you’re trying to help. It’s going to make the pain of the lower earnings hurt a little bit less, but it’s not going to do the things that people talk about. If we care about upward mobility, we really have to think about how policy works at the local level. 

With respect to climate change, that’s an issue where nations actually have to make some decisions for themselves about what kinds of policies they’re going to adopt. But, the way it’s really going to work is if cities are engaged and coming up with some of their own solutions–ones which can be adopted and spread elsewhere–because that’s where all the action is.