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What's Behind States' Differing Approaches To Reopen Economies?


Why are there so many different approaches to reopening U.S. states? Our co-host Steve was curious about this, so he asked Donald Kettl, who's the Sid Richardson professor at the LBJ School at the University of Texas in Austin.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: What has this crisis shown about the relations between the states and the federal government in a time of crisis?

DONALD KETTL: What we've really discovered is that, increasingly, the kind of government that Americans get depends on where they live. It turns out that the states that decided to lock down their economies in March were far, far, far more likely to have decided to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which meant they were more aggressive in moving toward expansion of health care benefits. States that decided not to lock down were much less likely. So what we've got is an ongoing stream of decisions that the states have been making that, yet again, have separated themselves in the way in which they responded to this crisis.

INSKEEP: Are those differences necessarily bad - because it is a very big country with a lot of different regions to it?

KETTL: A single clumsy set of decisions from Washington would certainly not have fit the way in which the virus has broken out or the kind of response that we need. So we clearly need a lot of variation. But the problem here has been that there's been a difficulty in trying to get consistent messaging from Washington. And that's led to different responses in different states in ways that don't necessarily match the pattern of the disease. Yes, we need substantial variation among the states. But the variation ought to be based on differences in facts and differences in treatments that are effective. But instead, it's tended to break down much more on partisan lines. And that's really created some serious problems in the way in (ph) which the country's responded.

INSKEEP: Defenders of federalism will sometimes say that the states are 50 different laboratories for approaching problems in different ways. Could some of that be true now as the country starts to reopen? We get to find out if South Carolina can establish a way to reopen stores without a massive increase in cases. We get to find out if Georgia can reopen tattoo parlors in some safe manner. And the rest of us can watch from a distance while trying a different approach.

KETTL: The problem is that we're proceeding without much information. And we don't even have a consistent idea about what a test ought to look like, who it ought to be given to, how to measure the results and how to compare them. And so that's the great problem of trying to run 50 different experiments across the country when we can't agree on what the common ground is for figuring out whether or not those experiments work.

INSKEEP: The subtitle of your book "The Divided States of America" is "Why Federalism Doesn't Work." Has this experience proved your subtitle correct?

KETTL: Yeah, I'm afraid it has. And on the one hand, I'm a huge fan of federalism. And I think that there is tremendous advantage in having different states experiment with different kinds of ideas on everything from health care to environmental policy. But the underlying problem is the one that Madison and Hamilton and others were battling about back in the 1700s, which was, just how much national authority do we need?

Hamilton, at the time, was warning that at some point there would be some things that really required national action and required a strong enough national government to be able to steer our way through. And my great fear is that we are going to prove in this coronavirus problem that Hamilton was right. That's the grand experiment, in many ways, that are going on. And it gets to the fundamental question about just how much difference in this country are we willing to tolerate and what kind of risks are we willing to subject our citizens to at the cost of allowing states to experiment and go in such different directions.

INSKEEP: Donald F. Kettl is at the University of Texas at Austin and is the author of "The Divided States of America." Thanks so much.

KETTL: So good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.