Issues 2008: Reforming Government

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.

13 comments… add one
  • Inefficient, antiquated, wasteful, and self-serving government agencies undermine the idea that government can be an effective technology for solving human problems.

    Yeah, but government agencies being self-serving is a design feature, not a bug – if you’re working for the government. I don’t see how anyone can reform governments at this point, given the power of the government employee’s unions. And in Illinois aren’t creations like the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority simply an expedient way of granting political favors to people?

    I just don’t see how government can be reformed at this point, because no one has the guts to take on the government employees.

  • All true. However, one of the characteristics of something being unsustainable is that it won’t be sustained.

    As I’ve been saying quite a bit lately, if the key to prosperity were via commissars plotting a course through the economy (at an appropriate salary, of course), the Soviet Union would be the world’s economic powerhouse.

    It wasn’t, it isn’t, and that won’t be whatever people are saying about regulation right now.

  • Brett Link

    Obama has at least made noises about needing to get a “21st century system of regulation for 21st century markets” or something like that, but he’s not very specific. It probably doesn’t help that a lot of these ideas are being implemented as we go.

    I agree with Outis on the government employees’ unions. At least with private sector unions, they can only push so far – otherwise the company goes out of business, and they all lose their jobs. Government employees’ unions are not under that restriction, since they can always squeeze the government for more money from the taxpayer. I’d ban them outright, but you’d need to make some adjustments in employment law and administrative reform, particularly in the school system – I’ve heard that before the teachers’ unions, administrators tended to treat the teachers like crap.

  • However, one of the characteristics of something being unsustainable is that it won’t be sustained.

    Yeah, but that doesn’t mean that we will have an orderly retreat, as opposed to a rout. Personally I think we’re too over-ecxtended to do anything but break. It’s just a question of when.

  • I think that the problem started when we lost our civil religion. By our civil religion I mean the set of foundational myths that include George Washington’s honesty (the cherry tree incident), the purity of the Founders’ motives generally; the set of public gods like Liberty and Justice; the ideology set out in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights; and a set of governing structures like citizen representation, rule of law, federalism and divided government powers. In other words, we had a set of myths and institutions and points of beliefs that all could coalesce around, but we lost the structures starting in the 1870s (and accelerating during the 1930s and 1960s), the ideology starting in the 1890s, the institutions starting in the 1930s, and the myths starting in the 1960s. Note that all of these dates correspond with massive crises, and we are in a massive crisis now. What will we lose this time?

    This would not be a problem if we were a nation instead of a country, but without shared race and relationship ties to bind us, the US was dependent for its civil discourse and intercourse on its shared ideology, institutions and myths. With those gone, all that binds us together is geography, and history shows that that is not strong enough. For these reasons, I expect one of a small number of outcomes in my lifetime: either we will rediscover our lost civil religion, invent a new one, divide into smaller entities, descend into civil war and adopt the civil religion of the winning side, or we will fall to chaos or invasion or both. I’m generally an optimist, though a cynic (odd combination, I know), but at this point I am feeling very pessimistic about our future. Unless we have another Reagan or FDR figure who can unite the country behind a single shared vision, some time in the next 20 years or so, and make it stick, I fear that the US is in for a steep decline.

  • Jeff, I think you know that you and I believe much same things along these lines. On several occasions I’ve posted on the subject of our “civil religion” (I think I used exactly those words).

    As Chesterton put it in “What I Saw in America”, America is a country founded on a creed. No creed; no country.

    I don’t think that the problem goes back quite as far as that. I think the problem only goes back about 40 years to the point when the schools became vehicles for radicalization rather than for Americanization as they’d been since the turn of the previous century.

    At any rate that’s the concern that’s behind my final post in the series, posted this morning.

  • Well, you’ll note how nicely that lines up with the last thing I mentioned losing: our foundational myths. I remember being taught, early in my school career, many of these myths. I also remember my younger brother (7 years younger) being taught about Jefferson owning slaves but not much about the Declaration of Independence, as an example. I was largely taught by the last generation of teachers educated before the 1960s, and he was largely taught by the first generation educated during the 1960s.

    My real hope is that we do find a path to a new civil agreement. Unfortunately, there are no examples from history that I can bring to mind where a political rift this deep was healed without catharsis of one kind or another. “Interesting times” I can do without.

  • Larry Link

    Perhaps we are actually in the process of changing our myths..and when you are in the middle of something it can be difficult to see all that is changing. As to the divide on the political front, we’ve been dealing with this struggle for some time…and it is shifting. In a generation or two, the majority race will lose it’s long time status, as with Europe, so it will be here, we will be a country of many cultures, many flavors, which can be a good thing. Of course it may very well be a very bumpy road getting there, and for many reasons…

    I think once we reach that new balance of cultural mix, not only will our politics change, but so will our government. Where we will go as a country will be any ones guess, but one thing that is true, directions can be influenced…I think we have a good chance to see something big happen in the next decade..I’m hoping for the better…hoping, but a pendulum swings back and forth once it is in motion…it also stops eventually.

    Don’t forget that collectively, over the centuries, we have changed a great deal. Collectively we will change again. Government and our laws are what keeps us together, and we know how groups have tried and have been successful in doing just that, changing government and the laws…as far as unions go, without them things would be much worse for the average working person, it helped to create that middle class..and we know whats happened to that group, it has changed a great deal over the last few decades..and that has helped to create much of the political split we are seeing today…the 50’s and 60’s not a very pleasant time in our history, very violent, but, things did change and in the right direction, it will happen again..and again…it’s what we a Nation, and as a species…and then we’ll be gone..personally, most of our lives are simple fantasies anyway…and so is politics, government, education…cars, planes, trains, the atomic bomb…on and fantasy after another..we’re still the same species as where the founders of our country, it’s just that our fantasies different..for better or worse.

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