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The End of the Local

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Given that some recent posts have dealt with the contrast between central and local control over violence, this from Jason Sorens is interesting:

In 1927, local revenue decentralization (LRD) still stood at 73%, nearly twice the level it is today. By 1932, near the nadir of the Depression, that had fallen to 68%. Under “that man in the White House,” the pace of centralization accelerated, as within two years LRD was at 59%, dropping further to 49% by 1940, not far from where it is today. To be fair, state politicians like Huey P. Long deserve some share of the blame or credit, depending on one’s perspective, for their attempts to set up state-level mini-New Deals. The federal role in centralization largely has to do with the expansion of federal grants to state and local governments, reducing the importance of autonomous revenue sources. The point is that within the space of about a dozen years, the U.S. political economy was transformed from one of extensive decentralization and robust local autonomy to one of federal dominance.

The remaining centralization episodes include the periods between 1940 and 1946 (-3% LRD), 1961-1969 (-6% LRD), 1971-1977 (-5% LRD), and 1991-1995 (-3% LRD). The latter two periods are probably associated with state supreme court decisions mandating state aid to local public schools, which in states like New Jersey and Vermont have been associated with noticeable jumps down in LRD. The escalation of the War on Drugs under Nixon, with its concomitant federal grants to local police departments, might also account for the 1970s trend. The 1960s centralization almost surely has to do with the expansion of the federal welfare state, which partly crowded out the pre-existing safety nets set up by local governments.

This describes a remarkable shift in terms of the balance of power between the federal government and localities (and it’s unclear exactly how Jason is defining “local” here). It’s intriguing to think of how this has played out in terms of control over legitimate use of violence; in most cases this seems largely to have stayed in the purview of localities, although state and federal policing certainly increased over the course of the twentieth century, as did mechanisms for influence on and oversight of local policing organizations.

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