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Problems with the Problem-with-Government Problem

The main problem with government is that, sometimes, it doesn’t work very well.

Sometimes it is because the issues are complex, not completely understood and the wrong decisions are made by well-meaning people.

But sometimes it happens because those in charge do not want government to work and decisions are made that ensure that it can’t.

The former version isn’t all that common but does pop up and can be disconcerting. A disturbing recent example is the ongoing problem at several VA centers where vets have to wait for unconscionably long time periods for service and care. The difficulties emerged from two poor decisions. The number of vets returning from the Middle East misadventures and needing services was greater than anticipated and someone, somewhere, made poor decisions about the software to use in record-keeping. The result was a huge backlog of veterans who couldn’t even get their paperwork into the system and, for those who did, ridiculously long waits.

No one is happy when bureaucratic cock-ups like this happen. Interestingly, they are independent of partisan slant and occur under both left-leaning (Obama and the VA) and right-tilting (Bush and Katrina) governments. They happen when lots of people are involved in making many decisions in a complex domain.

The latter version occurs when governmental officials make decisions that are either known to have little chance of working or are motivated by values that are antithetical to government. Screw-ups of this type are painfully common and, when seen in their fullest context, devastating. As Rachel Maddow revealed in her overview of the series of debacles in the state of Michigan since Rick Snyder became governor (culminating in the crisis in Flint), it’s all easily traced to a desire to shrink government.

The lens through which each is viewed depends on your larger socio-political framework — and this, folks, is where the partisanship comes rolling in.

There’s wisdom in Barney Frank’s famous line, “Government is just what people do when they get together.” When societies grow they necessarily become more complex. Over time a social scaffolding emerges so that the system can be, in a word, governed. Typically the people who get involved, who do the jobs that need doing, who form the committees and establish the regulations and standards do so out of a sense of duty and an altruistic commitment to the greater good. We call them civil servants for that is what they are.

There is nothing inherently wrong with government. No large-scale society could exist without one, and the larger the society the larger the government will have to be. Can it screw up? Sure. Poor decisions are made; cumbersome regulations can get into the system and make life difficult; unforeseen complexities that agencies aren’t prepared for emerge. But when these things happen, when we confront these “problems with government,” the sensible reaction shouldn’t be to dismantle the offending branch of government. It should be to repair it. Fund it if it’s underfunded; change the regulations if they are stifling innovation; shave the bureaucratic excesses off if the agency’s grown too big for its own good.

If the VA implodes the proper response is to increase funding, add health-care providers and hire a couple of software gurus who know how to write code.

On the other side of this ideological coin is the infamous line from Grover Norquist: “I want to shrink government to the point where I can drown it in a bathtub.” Here the underlying socio-political theory assumes that functions that serve the greater good are best handled, not by tax-supported governmental agencies, but by the private sector.

But this debate cannot take place without asking a deeper question: What functions of a modern society are we talking about? A Norquist’er would say, “just about all.” A Snyder would likely echo, “yup.”

My position, which is widely shared, is simple. I don’t disagree with the role of the private sector but think it should be circumscribed. There are critical domains of a modern society that it should not be involved in — the ones that impact all its citizens. In these government should be in charge and its role is to develop and maintain properly run agencies that improve a society’s overall well-being and foster increases in the quality of life of its citizens.

At the Federal (and to some extent, state) level these include health care (ACA, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, FDA, CDC), the environment (EPA, DOT, DOA), defense (military, FBI, CIA, DHS), public safety (police, fire, sanitation), justice (DOJ, courts, prisons), education (DOE), scientific research (NSF, NIH, NASA) and the arts (NEH, NEA). These are the province of government. Right now virtually all are grotesquely underfunded (the military being the exception) and their budgets should be increased and funded by a revised, sharply progressive tax code.

All the rest can be handled by a sensibly regulated private sector. I call my program “Bleeding Heart Capitalism” others may know it as “Democratic Socialism.”

Privatization cannot work across the board because the motives of the individuals involved are antithetical to the needs of a complex, diverse society. From an idealistic point of view those who are motivated to work in governments do so because of a desire to improve the lives of all. They’re comfortable with modest salaries, equally modest working conditions and the sense that what they do is useful.

When private firms enter these domains they bring with them an entirely different ethic. Profits become paramount, keeping the share-holders happy transcends concerns about the greater good. Regulations are not to be devised for the welfare of the community, they are to be avoided, worked-around or scrapped. Empathy takes a back seat to motivated self-interest. Greed trumps charity.

Governmental agencies will, must, function according to larger regulatory programs designed to protect the environment, ensure public safety and support those who use its services.

Private corporations will, must, function with an eye toward market forces, competitive circumstance and long-term financial gain.

When I compose these blogs I try (I really do) to give the other side the benefit of the doubt. There are more than a few conservatives whom I respect and I rarely believe that their motives are venal or their aims unethical. But in the matter of which side of this “problems-with-government” issue one comes down on, it’s hard not to conclude that many of those on the Norquist side are actively, consciously trying to undermine the operations of governments and use the failures as justification for privatization.

When the Tea Party types in Congress engineer a governmental shutdown it’s motivated, at least in part, by a desire to force government to fail. When Rick Snyder tries to save a couple of million dollars by privatizing the operations of a VA hospital you can almost hear him chuckling as he watches the collapse of the program. When Kansas finds itself in a huge financial hole because Sam Brownback and his Republican-run legislature passed bizarrely huge tax cuts, smiles can be seen at the edges of tightly-drawn lips.

The problem with government isn’t “government.” It’s the anti-government forces undercutting the operations of governments. Governments serve everyone. The private sector serves the stockholders. 

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