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David Brooks and the Centralization Meme

I consider David Brooks one of the two-to-three best columnists in the business, and he's obviously warmly disposed toward Obama, so I doubt he intends to be uncharitable in today's column. But I think that's where he ends up nonetheless. Particularly this: "By force of circumstances and by design, the president has promoted one policy after another that increases spending and centralizes power in Washington."

Do Obama's policies--both enacted and proposed--centralize power in Washington? Of course. No one who's fired up a television or Internet connection these last eight months could disagree. But the question is: relative to what? In almost every case I can think of, the administration has opted for a less centralized approach to pursuring its goals than some obvious alternatives. Solving the bank crisis? Obama endorsed a convoluted asset-purchase plan rather than nationalization. Health care? True, the White House supports an exchange to cover people who don't get health care through their employers, and it prefers to see a public insurance option. But it wants to keep the employer-based system intact and shuns a single-payer plan, much less anything resembling a British-style government-run system. The environment? Obama supports cap-and-trade, which allows companies to distribute the burden of limiting carbon emissions amongst themselves according to which ones can do it most efficiently. The centralized alternative would have been a one-size-fits-all mandate from Washington.

All of these things do increase the role of government in the economy. But, once you concede that the problems need to be addressed, there isn't much of an alternative. And Obama's approaches are pretty scrupulous about not increasing that role more than necessary, which seems to be the whole conceit. Sure, you could do these things in marginally less centralized ways. But, as Brooks conedes, that probably won't matter PR-wise, since, "Voters often have only a fuzzy sense of what each individual proposal actually does." So the idea that there's some less centralized  way of achieving Obama's goals that would be much more popular politically--which Brooks suggests--seems pretty unlikely to me. The problem, as Matthew Yglesias keeps pointing out, is that ambitious reform is hard. Our political system just isn't designed to enable it.