Campaign books are terrible. I know that. I tried to read former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s ‘Courage to Stand,’ book, which was perhaps the worst book I ever read in my life. And that wasn’t really Pawlenty’s fault. It’s just a bad genre. These books are autohagiography: they have to appeal to everyone, exalt the author (or supposed author), and offend no one. That’s basically impossible. So they throw the need to be appealing overboard and instead settle for boring. Here, for instance, Pawlenty recalling that seminal moment in which he saw Ronald Reagan’s beaming visage for the first time:
“I didn’t have a chance to interact with him, but it was meaningful to me just to be in his presence...What struck me most as President Reagan spoke to that crowd was his smile. He seemed genuinely happy and joyful and pleasant.”
Great, thanks Tim. And you can find examples like that in just about any campaign book you care to pick up. Any campaign book, that is, except Rick Perry’s ‘Fed Up.’
This is not a boring book. More to the point, it’s not even a book about Rick Perry. It’s a book about Rick Perry’s ideas. And his big idea is that most everything the federal government does is unconstitutional.
The book is fundamentally about the 10th amendment: that’s the one that says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” The 10th Amendment clearly restricts the federal government’s power, but it’s in tension with the clause granting Congress the power to “to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States,” and the Commerce Clause, which allows Congress to regulate activities that involve trade between states and nations.
But Rick Perry thinks we’ve swung way too far towards the clauses allowing Congress to, you know, actually solve problems. In his book, he suggests that courts went too far when they used the Commerce Clause to justify “federal laws regulating the environment, regulating guns, protecting civil rights, establishing the massive programs and Medicare and Medicaid, creating national minimum wage laws, [and] establishing national labor laws.” That’s a lot of the federal government for one guy to dislike.
He also thinks the federal government should butt out of education -- kind of ironic given that No Child Left Behind was passed by George W. Bush, who Perry called “an incredibly good president,” and based on programs Bush pioneered in Texas -- and that we have a problem with activist judges, even though a world in which all these programs were declared unconstitutional would be a world in which activist judges basically invalidated a century of popular sovereignty.
But Perry isn’t such a fan of popular sovereignty, either. He’d like to repeal the 17th Amendment, which would mean giving states, rather than voters, the power to select senators, as he believes the 17th Amendment was part of an unwise effort to take power away from the states. You can’t fault the guy for inconsistency.
Back in the Fall of 2010, Newsweek’s Andrew Romano interviewed Perry and pushed him on some of these ideas. That’s an important service because you never quite know how much of these books really reflect the candidate and how much really reflect the candidate’s ghostwriters. Perry, perhaps to his credit, didn’t budge. “I would suggest a legitimate conversation about [letting] the states keep their money and implement the programs,” he said in response to Romano’s questioning about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, all of which Perry appears to consider unconstitutional. “The 17th Amendment is when the states started getting out of balance with the federal government,” he said when pushed on that piece of his book.
Perry’s federalism is radical in scope, but it’s not thoughtless. He believes, and repeatedly argues, that states are simply more capable than the federal government. “Most problems get better solutions when they’re solved at the local level,” he writes. He believes that the variations in state policy allow Americans to “vote with their feet.”
It’s a superficially appealing vision. But it misses a few things: economies of scale, interrelated economies, and coordination problems.
There are certain things that are simply better done on the national level, and others that need to be done on the national level. Credit card regulation is a good example. Credit card companies are based in particular states, but they sell all over the country. Currently, that means that consumers in California are stuck with the weak regulations of South Dakota and Delaware. We are much more of a national economy than we were when the Constitution was written.
In other cases, the problem with state-by-state regulations aren’t as apparent until disaster strikes. Take a hedge fund that is Too Big to Fail. Are you really comfortable with a world in which it can locate in whichever states gives it the most favorable regulatory treatment? Because if it blows up, it’s not just going to take, say, Arkansas down with it. Or think of a nuclear power plant. Would you really want to be a Missouri resident near the Kansas border if Kansas decides to give the industry a pretty free ride?
In an economy this interconnected, it can be very difficult for cumbersome state governments to work with one another -- and with the businesses they all regulate -- at the speed of the economy. That why you’ll often hear frustrated corporate executives ask for a single national standard rather than 50 different regulatory regimes. The world Perry is envisioning might sound uniquely American to him, but it looks to me like taking a few steps towards the European Union’s construction. Its economies are deeply intertwined, and they use the same currency, but they have enormous trouble coordinating amongst one another. And as we’re seeing now, that can leave them in a very bad spot when they have to coordinate quickly, aggressively, and over very tough issues.
But for all that I disagree with much of it, Perry’s book is, at least, a serious argument about what kind of country we should be. I recommend it highly.