How To Shrink Government—For Real

When I first started working in the advertising business in New York City many years ago, one of my senior colleagues told me the following joke—both to make me laugh and provide me with a little insight into reality….

 Starting his first day at a new job, a man ran into his predecessor cleaning out his desk, who gestured to the top right hand drawer.

 “I hear you’re taking over from me.  This is a pretty demanding position, so there’s a little tradition we keep up here.  I’ve put three sealed and numbered envelopes in this drawer.  When you hit your first crisis with our boss, open envelope number one.  When the second crisis strikes, open number two.  When you and our boss have your third falling out, open the third envelope.”  

 Smiling at the seeming absurdity of the three envelopes, the man said goodbye to his predecessor and started his new job.

 However, one terrible morning several months later, after his boss had chewed him out for not meeting his performance goals, the man went back to his desk and—his hands shaking—opened the first envelope and read the note: “Blame your predecessor.”  After lunch he went in and explained to his boss what a mess his department was in when he took over the position. It worked.  Mollified by the explanation, his boss sent him back to his desk without further comment.

 A couple of months later his boss was on the rampage again, demanding to know when improved results were forthcoming.  After anxiously reaching into his desk, the man pulled out the second envelope and read the advice: “Announce a reorganization.”  Racing into his boss’s office, the man explained that he was changing around the responsibilities of the people in his department in order to increase productivity.  A bit disbelieving but still satisfied by this plan, his boss sent the man on his way.

 Unfortunately, as yet more months passed, no improvements were apparent.  Frothing with rage, the boss told his underling to be in his office the next morning with a new strategy to finally turn around his department.  Remembering how the first two envelopes had saved him, the man raced back his desk and frantically tore open the third envelope.  

 Inside he found a note that read as follows: “Prepare three envelopes….”

 A good deal of private sector work tracks right along with the three envelopes.  Managers and supervisors have, from time immemorial, followed exactly this arc to keep those above them happy—at least for a while.  Government bureaucracies—and the bureaucrats and elected officials that run them—are likewise prone to either blame their predecessors or announce a reorganization when problems become too obvious to ignore.

 However, those who survive in government jobs become experts at one particular “skill” above all others: keeping their heads down and asking no questions.  Consequently, we employ millions of men and women who will—from the day they start work until the day they retire—plod placidly along while paying little heed to either the utility of their work or its societal outcomes.  The consequence is an ever growing chasm between the costs of government and the actual benefits that are provided to our nation.  

 If you’ve ever wondered why we spend our lives paying taxes for schools that don’t educate, roads filled with potholes, and various departments and agencies that seem to have no discernible or logical function, you are asking the right questions—but you are wrong in believing improvements are possible.  Absent the private sector accountability provided by the need to both produce measurable results and turn a profit, it will always be the predisposition of government to cost more and provide less over time.  Although there are many who believe—believe with all their hearts and souls in many cases—that those who want to reduce the size of government are heartless haters who are putting our lives and the future of our nation at risk, the catastrophic rise of both daily government expense and government indebtedness compels those with the least smidgen of sanity to question our current direction—and seek change.

 Obviously, we need government, and there are basic responsibilities that government is best suited to fulfill.  National defense, local law enforcement, health and safety regulations, and maintenance of the infrastructure and the regulatory framework necessary for interstate and international commerce are clearly the purview of government managed by elected officials.  Protection of our environment is also necessary to help ensure the health and welfare of our citizens.  A free, taxpayer-supported system of primary and secondary education—whether provided by public or charter schools—must certainly be in place to put each generation in a position for future success.

 However, the accountability necessary for well-managed government programs is impeded by the sheer immortality of government agencies and departments—that which is once funded never goes away.  Much like that famous fictional Count from Transylvania, government agencies and departments live forever, sucking the life blood of the citizenry and striking fear into the hearts of all who dare defy them.  Elected and appointed officials, although nominally in control, rarely have the staying power to do much to rein in their inexorable growth.

 Government is, at least in theory, the servant of the people, so the solution might be to let the people decide—directly.  

 Therefore, we should consider allowing the appropriations for every government agency and department—except for a very select few deemed absolutely vital to our nation—to “sunset” every ten years.  In order to continue operations, they would need to be voted back into existence by our citizens—not a handful of legislators who have been purchased through campaign contributions.  During the ten year cycle, appropriations and oversight would be left to elected officials and appointees, but thereafter a plebiscite of the citizenry—local, state, or national, depending on the department or agency or question—would decide whether to allow it to continue to function.  There would, of course, be a brief winding down period if programs were closed so that the enforcement responsibility for regulations promulgated could be smoothly transferred, but this would be manageable—and of limited duration and cost compared to the eternal life and expense prior.

 There will, quite naturally, be those who for a variety of reasons would vociferously oppose such an idea.  The status quo always has its fans—particularly when there is (as is always the case with government) jobs and money involved.  Nonetheless, unless we want to continue to spin on as we are until every last penny is gone from our pockets—and the pockets of our children and grandchildren—we must take affirmative and direct control over the mechanisms of our government.

 If not, we will soon be preparing our own “third envelope” for our nation and its future.  This is an outcome we dare not allow to occur.

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Who Gets To Vote?

The history of American democracy is also a history of our sloppy, exclusionary, and infuriating system of voting. As much as we might want to paint our elections as some sacred system designed to produce that most perfect of all unions, the plain fact of the matter is that winning candidacies boil down to a very simple and cold-hearted equation: Make certain that my supporters vote and those of my opponent don’t. All the rest is political science theory.

Not surprisingly, the methods of winning elections by controlling who votes have run the gamut from the rascally to the outright despicable. Here in my own state of Illinois, the dead have a long and storied history of rising from the grave to cast their ballots. For much of our history women were denied the vote. Long after the passage of the 15th Amendment, African-Americans had to sometimes risk their lives to enter a polling place. Gerrymandered districts have long been used by both major political parties to neutralize the votes of some while amplifying the impact of the votes of others. The limitations of our continued reliance on balky voting machines and volunteer electoral judges perhaps reached an apogee—or nadir—in 2000, when we all had a chance to learn what a “hanging chad” was, and the U.S. Supreme Court abruptly—perhaps too abruptly—ended a Presidential recount in Florida and declared a winner.

Therefore, to blithely celebrate our “free and fair” electoral system requires a least a little willful blindness at times. We cannot discuss improvements if we deny our historic failures.

However, recent discussions about expanding the franchise by permitting felons, sixteen year olds, or even illegal immigrants to vote in some elections veer into territory that goes far beyond simply improving the systems we now have. We are now asked to decide whether felony convictions should be sufficient grounds for revoking a basic right of citizenship, when sufficient maturity to vote responsibly has been attained, or whether unlawful residency should provide voting rights that have historically been restricted to citizens. These are all huge questions that have profound implications for the future of our nation.

The question of whether states should continue to restrict the rights of convicted felons to vote hinges on a very basic question: Do we believe voting to be an irrevocable right or an earned privilege? At least to this point in time we have generally restricted the rights of felons to vote while in prison. The question today is whether voting rights should be automatically restored to felons upon release or there should be additional restrictions until other conditions set by individual state legislatures are satisfied by that ex-convict.

We might also reasonably ask whether the same restrictions should apply to both violent and non-violent offenders, but this often crashes into the question of whether we are giving preferential treatment to white-collar criminals. As regards the right to vote, should we distinguish between the accountant who facilitated a real estate fraud and the purse snatcher who knocked down a little old lady during the commission of the crime? Is the integrity of our voting system more at risk from someone running a marijuana grow house or someone who was stealing cars and stripping them for parts?

Having taught high school, I know my viewpoint regarding allowing sixteen year olds to vote has been affected by my professional experience. Some liberals are, of course, thrilled with this idea in the wake of student protests in favor of more—and more confiscatory—gun control laws because younger people generally skew hard left politically, and this tendency could affect the outcome of many elections. However, although the exuberant idealism of the young can be useful counterpoint to the weary cynicism of older voters beaten down by the eternal gulf between the promises and performances of politicians, bright-eyed ideology unleavened by messy life experience can be problematic.

Anyone who remembers their youthful belief in their own infallibility—which, of course, stood in stark contrast to the blind stupidity of the oblivious adult world—has at least at once grimaced at the utter cluelessness of their younger selves. The French have a lovely aphorism, quoted and re-quoted in various permutations, that ably captures this dichotomy: “If you are not a liberal at twenty, you have no heart; if you are not a conservative at forty, you have no head.” A world run by 16 year olds might by long on energy and short on practicality—or it might resemble The Lord of The Flies. Perhaps there is something to be said for the sagacity that comes with age. In addition, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 years of age in only 1971, so it is likely worth another bit of a wait before we fiddle with the voting age yet again.

The issue of granting some voting rights to undocumented immigrants is a topic of intense discussion in states such as California, Illinois, and New York. Their laws designed to protect the many who reside in those states illegally readily morph into granting this population more and more public aid and benefits of all types—so voting rights seem to some the next natural step. This is also viewed as a way to battle the entrenched “racism” of those who support stricter enforcement by helping to boost the electoral fortunes of those candidates who are friendly to the notion of a world without borders.

However, one would be hard-pressed to find a developed nation where policies that reward lawbreakers are commonplace, and it is reasonable to ask whether open borders and a modern welfare state are a potentially ruinous combination. Although it is certainly true that we are a nation of immigrants, those immigrants almost always arrived under supervision and with documentation—and rules and limitations have been crafted throughout our history to maintain a manageable flow of people into our great nation.

Of course, although our legal immigration policies have historically been quite generous, there is no doubt they have often reflected the prejudices and preconceptions of the people who crafted them. This is sad, and at times it has resulted in injustices that have affected individuals and their families, but we cannot undo the past and now must muddle along from here. Additional domestic and international issues, which are far beyond our ability to predict, will affect our immigration legislation and procedures going forward in ways we cannot imagine, so all we can do is continue to be as welcoming as our economic conditions and security considerations allow. Beyond this, the question of granting some voting rights to those who have entered the U.S. illegally will be a priority for some immigration partisans—but I strongly doubt the vast majority of Americans will endorse this idea because it fails to account for basic common sense.

There was once a time in American history when our polling places were in taverns and saloons—and a vote could be had for the price of a couple of beers. Our election procedures have obviously improved a great deal since, but much improvement is still possible—particularly as regards expanded voting opportunities and convenience.

Moreover, we can continue to improve the security and accuracy of the ballot in a variety of ways, and the increased infiltration of dazzling and powerful technology into every facet of our daily lives may someday mean that we will be saying “Siri, it’s time for me to vote for President.” on a Tuesday in early November. That would certainly increase voter participation—and reduce the opportunities for the chicanery and silliness that have marred too many of our elections in the past. In addition, it would be way, way cool.

Me Hate You

Another day, another mass shooting. Another day, another sexual abuse scandal. Another day, another corruption scandal. Another day, another random outrage.

As much as we try to avert our eyes and focus on feel-good stories and videos of adorably cavorting puppies, it is sometimes difficult to avoid the frightening suspicion that a great many facets of our society are breaking down and raining catastrophe upon our heads. As we grope for answers to our problems, the cacophony of competing solutions is enough to make one’s head spin, and most boil down to either exponentially expanding our personal freedoms or rashly restricting them. Therefore, during any given week we will be excoriated for being either intolerant or too tolerant—and those who hold contrary views will present their disagreements in the most derisive and wounding terms possible.

Just this past week we were treated to multiple loud fights. A morning television host compared the religious beliefs of Vice President Pence to a mental illness. Another school mass shooting—this time in Florida—prompted some to liken gun control opponents to child murderers. We were asked to simultaneously celebrate the athletic achievements an Olympic athlete and condemn him for a documented instance of sexual harassment. These and so many other angry and injurious debates are the non-stop, jack-hammering background noise of our daily lives.

The frothing rage generated by President Trump’s proposal to reform the federal food assistance program, still generally referred to by many as “food stamps”, is a useful example of all that ails us today. The program is currently rife with bureaucratic red tape, exceedingly expensive to operate, and does not even meet the basic requirement of ensuring that those who need assistance are receiving the help that they actually need. Today the single largest category of “food” purchased with food stamps is soft drinks. Racing right behind are candies, cookies, chips, and other junk food.

It seems, therefore, completely reasonable to propose providing boxes of nutritious, domestically grown, shelf stable food—real food—to those who cannot provide for themselves or their families. After all, no one is going to be able to live a healthful and happy life on a diet of Pepsi and Doritos, which are food purchase choices supported by the current program. Although some would argue that the poor should have the same opportunity to cram their faces full of empty calories as do the affluent, this seems a perverse twisting of our idea of freedom in order to put hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of grocers and junk food manufacturers that are profiting from a system that actually causes great physical harm to those whom it was meant to help.

However, those who believe that the current program is too tolerant—providing the minimum nutrition at the maximum cost—find themselves hotly criticized by those who feel that insisting food assistance provide actual food is an intolerant restriction of a seemingly fundamental American freedom, the right to eat junk food. That we even find ourselves at loggerheads over common sense reforms meant to both reduce costs and improve nutritional outcomes is a sign of just how destructively—some might say self-destructively—partisan and toxic our political processes have become.

To provide high quality food to the needy seems a no-brainer, but it apparently is not. When reality itself is captive to one political or moral viewpoint or another, there seems little hope for solving many more pressing problems. Moreover, the inevitable result of spinning every bit of information to suit one agenda or another is the echo chamber of insults that we now occupy. It seems there are no longer two legitimate sides to any issue. Today it is that I’m 100% correct and you’re an idiot—who is ugly as well.

These corrosive—and fundamentally intolerant—interactions between those who hold differing views should be a red flag that we are careening toward a final breakdown of our democratic processes. If the word most commonly associated with government over a long period of time by the vast majority of Americans is “failure”, which poll after poll shows to be the case, that is a clear sign that our faith in the system has dissipated to a point that goes beyond worry—panic might be a more apt descriptor.

The collapse of our political and social discourse is not a “canary in a coal mine”. That canary fell of its perch quite a number of years ago and is stiff and cold on the ground. We are no longer disagreeing; everyone is in full attack mode 24/7 and prepared to do whatever is necessary to destroy those with the temerity to hold fast to values or ideas that differ from their own.

The core questions are really no longer ones regarding tolerance or intolerance for others or their ideas. Many of us simply need to look in the mirror and ask what is wrong with ourselves. Why are we so comfortable with denigrating those whose values, experiences, and judgments are different from our own? This is a question that each of us must answer for ourselves if we are guilty of attacking when we might be more helpful by listening.

This problem has been growing worse for decades, and there is plenty of blame to spread around across the political spectrum. Those who are old enough to remember the Clinton presidency might recall the suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster in 1993, a man who was widely considered an honest and decent person—perhaps too honest and decent for Washington. A line from his torn-up suicide note perhaps provided a terribly accurately foreshadowing of where we are today: “Here ruining people is considered sport.”

When we reach this point personally and politically, there is no place to go but further down into the muck and slime of personal attacks and sleazy innuendos masquerading as policy debates. We have many huge, difficult, and complex challenges ahead of us as a nation—none of which will be solved by continuing to throw mud balls at one another.

I am not optimistic, but I try my best to remain so. Perhaps our very human tendency to seek hope where there seems none will be what finally saves us from ourselves. Maybe.

In the meantime, enjoy your Pepsi and Doritos . . .

Change Can Be Painful

I have been mulling over the concerning level of distress that now seems to infect so many of our personal and national conversations. Donald Trump is, to be certain, at the root of some of this because he refuses—or is simply unable—to finesse much of anything. President Trump finds the rawest possible nerve to rub at the most inopportune possible time—and keeps right on rubbing it no matter how loud the howls. I will agree with those who argue that he is an irritant; this is not much of a mystery.

It is, however, just as true that a great many problems we have tried desperately to ignore for decades are now impossible to avoid—and Donald Trump is many times simply the blunt instrument for our reckoning with unpleasant realities.

We are enslaved by public and private debt, the cost of medical care is outrageous, our public schools are failing many children, higher education is amazingly costly and often captive to ideological battles, homelessness and hunger haunt many, families and communities are fragmented, and there is a fairly pervasive sense that our governmental structures have devolved into self-serving parasites that pay little attention to the needs of those whom they claim to serve. All of this frustration and rage erupted last November, and our nation opted for chemotherapy over continued palliative care—hence at least some of the pain we are today experiencing. Aggressive treatment of our maladies is a shock to a system long accustomed to soothing platitudes and bland reassurance.

Now we have steep tax cuts and pointed discussions about reducing our expansive—and expensive—government structures. Tough questions are being asked about how to remake our healthcare and health insurance systems to reduce cost. Charter schools and school choice plans are corroding the public education monopoly. Higher education is suddenly having to justify both its mission and its stupendous cost. Public aid programs of all types are asking for much more responsibility from recipients. Zoning and tax policies that artificially inflate housing costs are under attack. People are pushing back against experts and policy makers who promote punitive and half-baked ideas regarding what is best for us.

As for government and government officials, they are disliked, distrusted, and disrespected by the vast majority of Americans—many of whom are now approaching a state approximating open rebellion. This is not surprising because our long national experiment with expanding government to provide endless freebies fueled by reckless borrowing has now crashed into the inevitable arithmetic of profligacy—eventually you run out of money. Avoiding real-life financial decisions by charging the spiraling costs of government programs rife with waste and inefficiency to future generations of taxpayers—who are now stuck with the tab—was loads of fun for elected officials who could keep handing out goodies without the political inconvenience of raising taxes to pay for them, but the incredibly large check for that stupendous party has now been dropped in our laps. Tough and divisive discussions are certainly ahead.

There is, in addition, a certain degree of anger generated by the very act of finally facing up to our problems. I find a good many of our recent hot-button debates concerning education, immigration, economic policy, and national defense seem animated by intense frustration over being forced to make hard decisions rather than being allowed to obliviously cling to questionable narratives and notions—heedless of cost or consequence.

After decade upon decade of waiting for improvements in hidebound public schools, parents are now demanding alternatives for their children. After abdicating control of our borders and endlessly extending the stays of those offered “temporary” refuge in America, enacting reasonable and long overdue immigration policy changes is a shock for a great many. Shrinking government and unshackling businesses from inane regulations seems very frightening to those who have grown comfortable with stultifying statist ideologies. Pushing back against terrorist groups and rogue states has terrified those who have forever counseled appeasement. At every turn, definitive and firm action has raised the hackles of those invested in bureaucratic inertia and willful ignorance.

It is clearly painful for some to have to abandon the familiar failures and pursue a new path. However, watching new charter schools succeed where others had failed, immigration laws and procedures being thoroughly debated and—President Trump’s alleged comments about “sh*thole countries” notwithstanding—vastly improved, business activity rising and unemployment shrinking while the stock market booms, and ISIS crushed at the same time North Korea is finally being forced to the bargaining table, it is increasingly difficult not to recognize that the time for a clean break with the failed ideologies of the past is right now. Bewailing successes that conflict with stale orthodoxy seems sillier by the day, and if we can stop imagining crises and instead work cooperatively to implement yet more fresh creative thinking regarding the issues facing our nation, we can likely achieve wonders.

Abandoning shibboleths is scary, adopting unfamiliar ideas is stressful, and accepting the necessity for change is upsetting. Nonetheless, we need to step out of our comfort zones and recognize that which is familiar may not be either helpful or good, and all the protests and complaints will not diminish the need for a thorough re-evaluation of ideas and philosophies that many have held dear for a very long time. We might not always be pleased—or even comfortable—with the decisions that are made as a result, but many times we—as a nation—will be better off.

The Tax Cut Gamble

Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Republican-led Congress will pass a significant tax cut. This prospect is—depending on your tax bracket, political ideology, and the state where you reside—a cause for either rejoicing or anger. Expert predictions about the effects of this tax cut bill, which will certainly reduce overall federal government revenues, should not be trusted. The long-term outcome will be determined by the unknowable responses of legislators and individuals to both its specific provisions and broad intent—which is to push broad reductions in the size and scope of government by cutting off access to funding.

Those who predict that this bill will increase the deficit and drive yet more federal debt have ample cause for concern. Previous cuts to federal taxes during the Reagan and Bush administrations produced exactly this outcome because there was no political will in Congress to reduce outlays to match available revenue. Washington simply borrowed to make up the difference, which has ballooned federal debt from roughly $1 trillion at the start of the Reagan administration to over $20 trillion today. If voters keep electing members of Congress who promise more despite less money in the coffers, the net result of this tax cut will be no reforms and continuing fiscal catastrophe at the federal level.

Any drop in federal revenues also impacts the states. Washington’s largesse is particularly important to local economies built around schools and healthcare (“Eds and Meds”), which are dependent on a variety of federal cash sources and could suffer if the D.C. money stops flowing. Moreover, given the many mechanisms that shift federal dollars into state economies—which run the gamut from research grants to highway construction money to public safety funding—the possibility that the spigot might be tightened is sending shivers down many a spine.

If states decide the easiest path forward is to raise state taxes in order to avoid making difficult fiscal choices, the effect of any federal tax relief will be lessened. A lack of political will to cut spending to match available revenue—this time on the state level—will diminish or eliminate any positive effect of the federal tax cut for many citizens.

This tax cut legislation is a significant risk for Republicans in Congress because—whether due to sheer economic ignorance or partisan political posturing—many opponents are describing this bill as a “tax cut for the wealthy”. They are absolutely correct that the wealthiest will enjoy most of the gains, but this is simply because the rich pay most of the federal taxes—about 45% of Americans, in fact, pay no net federal income taxes at all. It’s not a conspiracy against the poor, but it plays well with audiences who perhaps slept through ECON 101 in college, and you can be certain that those in government and elsewhere who are worried that shrinking tax revenues might reduce their influence and power will repeat this half-truth—loudly and endlessly.

This does not, however, mean that the Federal tax code is either sound or fair. There are far too many opportunities for imaginative accountants to find perfectly legal deductions and loopholes for wealthy individuals and corporations that enable them to avoid paying their fair share—and this needs to be remedied. These additional revenues can help to correct fiscal imbalances in critical federal safety net programs such as Social Security, which is in dire financial condition due to the flood of baby boomers rapidly bankrupting the system.

One flash point for many voters is the status of the deduction for SALT (State And Local Taxes) now enshrined in the federal tax code, which works out to be an indirect subsidy paid by everyone to those who live in high tax states such as New York and California. As financially painful as the loss or reduction of this deduction might be for some, it works out to be an immense windfall for the wealthiest, an egregiously disparate benefit offered to those who earn the most. In order to cushion the effect, changes could be phased in over a two year period, but this is a reform that must be made out of a sense of fairness for all. Sometimes “me-me-me” must be set aside for a greater societal good, and this might also force wasteful state and local governments to reconsider their excessively expensive policies and practices.

This tax reform is a gamble, but to continue as we are is a disastrous “sure thing”—more wasted tax dollars and more crushing government debt.