I hadn’t planned on this installment when I began my series on the issues in the campaign this year but as the series progressed it became clear to me that in the list of subjects I was going to discuss I had missed something important, something that nobody is talking about.
If there’s one important issue that we should be discussing it’s the reconstruction and reform of government itself. The Clinton Administration characterized this process as reinventing government but, unfortunately, the process they engaged in was inadequate and insufficiently institutionalized.
Government in the United States remains mired in a 1950’s model of corporate management and operations. Over the period of the last 30 years, impelled by both domestic and international competition, businesses in the United States have changed the way in which they function in basic ways that result in their producing a lot more with a lot less. Governments haven’t been subject to these pressures and haven’t made these changes. We just can’t afford to continue with a government that works like a big company in 1960. That’s just too expensive but, unfortunately, nobody is talking about this because our current crop of politicians are too invested in things as they are.
I’ll give just two examples, one at the federal level and one at the state level, of the sort of thing I’m thinking about.
Every year millions of Americans dutifully purchase one of the two top tax preparation software packages, TurboTax or TaxCut, to help them in filing their federal and state income taxes. Between them these two programs have something like a billion dollars in annual sales. If government were functioning properly these two packages wouldn’t exist at all. They flourish in a niche created by ineffective government.
A properly functioning government would have provided this functionality at no charge to the taxpayers simply because they enhance compliance, reduce the costs of processing, and prospectively would reduce printing and mailing costs. It would save Americans a billion dollar per year.
Not to mention the untold billions spent on tax advisors, forced by an incomprehensible system of taxation.
My example from state government is the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority. Illinois instituted its system of tollways 50 years ago as a method of financing the construction of new highways and maintaining existing roads. The intent was that the system would ultimately be discontinued.
When you take a look at the agency’s current budget, something leaps out at you. Highway construction maintenance is a relatively minor budget item, 20% of the amount spent to pay ISTHA’s employees. The Authority exists to perpetuate the Authority. It would be significantly cheaper to abolish the Tollway Authority and pay whatever debts it’s incurred out of general revenues.
In just these two cases we’re talking about billions of dollars which could be used to create new businesses and produce tax revenues rather than consuming tax revenues. But there’s another equally important reason that we need to reform government at a basic level.
Inefficient, antiquated, wasteful, and self-serving government agencies undermine the idea that government can be an effective technology for solving human problems. They delegitimize government and encourage cynicism.
This is a pressing matter nobody seems to be talking about. Every candidate talks about weeding out waste, fraud, and abuse. But, just as one becomes desensitized to a smell after living with it for a while, I doubt that the candidates recognize the waste, fraud, abuse that’s everywhere around them.