Tag: good government

There’s No Such Thing as ‘Good Government’

National Journal’s Ron Fournier:

I like government. I don’t like what the fallout from these past few weeks might do to the public’s faith in it…

The core argument of President Obama’s rise to power, and a uniting belief of his coalition of young, minority and well-educated voters, is that government can do good things–and do them well.

Damn. Look at what cliches the past few weeks wrought.

Fournier then runs through how the various Obama scandals show:

Government is intrusive … Orwellian … incompetent … corrupt … complicated … heartless … secretive … [and] can’t be trusted.

And that’s when the good guys are running the show!

Maybe Fournier needs to brush up on his Common Sense:

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil… Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence… For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least.

Translation: there’s no such thing as “good government.”

Government and Violence

Radley Balko writes:

[I]t’s worth remembering that the government initiates violence against its own citizens every day in this country, citizens who pose no threat or harm to anyone else. The particular policy that leads to the sort of violence… is supported by nearly all of the politicians and pundits decrying anti-government rhetoric on the news channels this morning. (It’s also supported by Sarah Palin, many Tea Party leaders, and other figures on the right that politicians and pundits are shaming this weekend.)

I hope Rep. Giffords—and everyone wounded yesterday—makes a full recovery. It’s particularly tragic that she was shot while doing exactly what we want elected officials to do—she was making herself available to the people she serves. And of course we should mourn the people senselessly murdered yesterday, government employees and otherwise: U.S. District Judge John Roll, Dorothy Murray, Dorwin Stoddard, nine-year-old Christina Green, Phyllis Scheck, and Gabe Zimmerman.

That said, I long for the day that our political and media figures get as indignant about innocent Americans killed by their own government—killed in fact, as a direct and foreseeable consequence of official government policy that nearly all of those leaders support—as they are about a government official who was targeted by a clearly sick and deranged young man. What happened this weekend is not, by any means, a reason to shunt anti-government protest, even angry anti-government protest, out of the sphere of acceptable debate. The government still engages in plenty of acts and policies—including one-sided violence against its own citizens—that are well worth our anger, protest, and condemnation.

The worst outcome would be for all dissent to become suspect. “Anti-government” is a concept used, essentially, to stifle debate, by conflating reasonable criticisms with the actions of lunatics. Both — of course! — are “anti-government,” and both are therefore guilty. It should be obvious what sort of agenda this furthers: Everything “government” is good.

Why Some People Think NPR Exhibits Bias

Listening to NPR on the way into work, I twice heard a reporter refer to Meredith McGehee, a champion of (ahem) campaign finance reform, as a “good-government lobbyist.”

Got that?  If you disagree with McGehee’s lobbying agenda — if, say, you think campaign finance reform is an unconstitutional attempt by the Left to restrict political speech that they don’t like — then you are against making government better.

But did you catch the more subtle form of bias?  I maintain there is no such thing as good government. (Call it Cannon’s First Law of Politics.)  And I’m not alone.  ”Government, even in its best state,” wrote Thomas Paine in Common Sense, “is but a necessary evil.”  Not good.  Less evil than the alternative, to be sure.  But still, evil.  Others disagree.  The reporter, like many others and probably without even realizing it, took sides in that long-standing debate too.

Unserious Cost Cutters Only

In a new Governing column entitled “Serious Cost Cutters Only, Please,” William Eggers and John O’Leary offer advice “for those public leaders who are looking to make structural changes that will bend the cost curve of government down.”

The target audiences are state officials who presently find themselves in the politically unrewarding position of not being able to spend as much as they’d like to because the recession has constrained revenues. Eggers and O’Leary correctly warn that policymakers shouldn’t “kick the can” down the road by pursuing short-term strategies that could prove costly in the long-run.

Unfortunately, their recommendations are of the pie-in-the-sky “good government” variety.

The piece caught my eye because I have first-hand state government experience with some of their suggestions:

The first lesson is that it is virtually impossible for the secretaries and department heads charged with running operations to come up with sufficient savings themselves to deliver the necessary cost savings. The best approach by far is to establish a dedicated team, located physically and philosophically close to the chief executive, and charge them with developing a set of recommendations that the mayor or governor can then direct her lieutenants to execute.

I spent two years working for such a dedicated team within Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ Office of Management and Budget. The group, “Government Efficiency and Financial Planning,” was originally tasked with conducting a “long-overdue inventory of the state’s operations.” We produced two reports with hundreds of recommendations for making state government more “efficient” and “effective.”

The governor never directed his “lieutenants to execute” very many – if any – of the recommendations. In fact, the lieutenants were so worried about the potential political fallout from the issue of the second report that it was intentionally released when nobody was looking. They needn’t have worried because those interests who might have had cause for concern already saw that the first report was basically inconsequential.

Eggers and O’Leary continue:

There is likely to be some internal friction between the cost reduction team and the various department leaders. That is by design. The cost reduction team is supposed to be disruptive.

GEFP was somewhat disruptive, but not very effective. The governor’s lieutenants typically either sided with the department leaders or did little to support GEFP. The reason was simple. The perceived political costs of GEFP’s efforts usually exceeded the perceived political benefits. Department heads, on the other hand, can create favorable (and unfavorable headlines) and thus possess greater pull.

The sorry story of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation is instructive. A recent series of investigations by an Indianapolis reporter found that the IEDC had long been taking undeserved credit for job creation. When the reporter tried to visit some of the companies celebrated in IEDC news releases, he found empty fields, vacant lots and deserted factories. When he asked the head IEDC official to provide the public with evidence to support the agency’s claims, the IEDC head refused.

The IEDC, which was created by Gov. Daniels, was portrayed quite differently in the first GEFP report released in late 2006:

The previous Department of Commerce was responsible for a wide range of programs that included economic development, energy, community development and revitalization, agriculture, and tourism. The priorities of these programs were difficult to discern while mired within the former structure. The dismantling of the previous department into the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, Office of Energy and Defense Development, Office of Community and Rural Affairs, Office of Tourism Development, and Department of Agriculture has enhanced the profile of their respective programs and allowed for greater focus and accountability. Each of these areas now has a strategic plan that identifies its mission and long-term goals.

Adding insult to taxpayer injury is this gem of a quote that’s contained in the report’s introductory section on transparency:

Information on government performance mainly comes from agency heads and program managers. Human nature will incline agency heads and program managers to report results that show their programs in the best possible light. Naturally, agencies have little incentive to report information that would demonstrate inefficient or ineffective performance.

The last I heard, GEFP is now in charge of overseeing how Indiana spends its share of Obama’s stimulus money. The 2006 report, now a distant memory, stated in bold font that “outcomes and results matter.” Unfortunately for Indiana taxpayers, the outcome certainly hasn’t been a smaller state government or lower state taxes.

Eggers and O’Leary rightly acknowledge that politics make government cost cutting efforts difficult. But at the end of the day, politics almost always trumps policy. Government is not a business, and attempts to make it operate like one are a fool’s errand.

More importantly, when Eggers and O’Leary talk about cutting government costs, they’re not really talking about net cuts. Taxpayers bear the cost of government. Therefore, a net cut in government costs would mean a reduced burden on taxpayers. Making government “more efficient” is all well and good, but if the “savings” just get plowed into other programs – as has been the case in Indiana – then taxpayers aren’t any better off.

What structural changes can be made to avoid the long-term fiscal problems that concern Eggers and O’Leary?

I’ve concluded that a strong statutory limit on state spending and/or revenues is the best option. That such limits, like Colorado’s TABOR, are effective is proven by the vociferous opposition they generate from interests that depend on state largess.

Another sign is that it’s rare for an authoritative state policymaker to pursue such a measure for the obvious reason that it would inhibit the  ability to spend other people’s money. Once again, my time in state government was instructive.

When I suggested to Gov. Daniels that he consider pushing a measure like Colorado’s TABOR, he replied that he “guess he didn’t see the need for that.” A Daniels lieutenant would later instruct me, at the governor’s behest, to create a taxpayer rebate mechanism (a component of TABOR). However, I was told that the mechanism couldn’t “cost” much because the governor didn’t want his second-term spending “priorities” to be jeopardized. I was also told it had to “look good” to voters for purposes of boosting Daniels’ reelection prospects.

The bottom line is that policymakers of all stripes say they want taxpayer money spent more efficiently and effectively. If I had a dime for every time I heard a politician promise to root out “waste, fraud, and abuse” I’d be snorkeling in the Caribbean instead of writing this blog post. Therefore, if taxpayers want structural changes that will limit the burden of government, they’re going to have to demand that policymakers offer more than just platitudes.

Just Give Us the Data! Transparency and Change

Yesterday my government transparency site WashingtonWatch.com rolled out a transparency campaign (along with many collaborators) called “Just Give Us the Earmark Data!”

Visitors to Earmarkdata.org are encouraged there to sign a petition asking Congress to publish data about earmarks in formats that are useful for public oversight. Developers can also participate in perfecting the data schema that will capture the “earmarks ecosystem” in the best possible way.

After a surprisingly successful effort at “crowdsourcing” earmark data last summer, the push for earmark transparency gained steam in January, when President Obama spoke about it in his State of the Union speech. A White House “fact sheet” issued the same day called for a “bipartisan, state-of-the-art disclosure database that allows Americans to examine the details of every proposed earmark.”

(We were going to ask for good earmark data anyway, but this gave the idea currency in a lot of quarters.)

The focus on earmarks and transparency got the political calculators whirring on Capitol Hill. “Is earmarking worth doing considering the political heat it is going to draw?”

One set of actors came up with their answer last week. House Democrats announced that they would restrict their earmarking only to non-profits. They want for-profit businesses seeking taxpayer money to go through conventional channels like competitive bidding.

The next day, House Republicans came back over the top of Democrats’ political bet. They announced that they would forgo earmarking entirely.

That’s House Democrats and House Republicans. Don’t assume that earmarking is going to go away. A good-government bidding war is on, though—spurred by the political challenge of transparency.

A couple of observations, least important first:

  • If it wasn’t obvious before, this illustrates that politicians are very capable political risk balancers. Indeed, surfing political waves is arguably the primary task of elected officials, most especially at the national level, and without this skill, they are goners. (That’s why looking for a wellspring of principle in an elected official usually gets you swamped in disappointment.)

    I’ve had a number of friendly cynics suggest that politicians wouldn’t mind earmark transparency—bringing home the bacon brings in the votes! This appears in general not to be true. There may still be earmarking from a hard core group who do perceive overall political benefits from it, but they’ll have to buck their parties, who do not.

    (Alas, I can’t say “I told you so!” because I tended to just grin and say “Maybe you’re right!” For future reference, I agree with the tendency, but doubt the direct outcome described in the adage attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” Thankfully, it’s more complicated than that.)

  • Notable: Elected officials’ political tuning is not just reactive. The anticipation of earmark transparency is what started this bidding war.This is especially worth noting with respect to President Obama’s “Sunlight Before Signing” promise, which I most recently reported on here. Skeptics have said that President Obama’s promise to post bills he receives from Congress online for five days before making them law wouldn’t make any difference because a bill that Congress has sent down Pennsylvania Avenue is already final. But a parochial amendment hanging out there for five days threatens to draw political discredit on its author and supporters—and their party. Sunlight Before Signing was a meaningful promise.

    (SBS has two advantages over the creditable “Read the Bill” proposal to hold bills 72 hours before a vote in Congress: 1) SBS takes advantage of interbranch rivalry, and 2) it was a campaign promise of the president!)

  • Broadly, this episode illustrates how transparency can bring welcome change. It’s correct to observe that earmarks represent only a tiny part of overall spending. But applying parallel transparency efforts to other parts of the legislative and regulatory processes are likely to elicit similar good behavior from government officials. There are manifold directions to go with government transparency. Each in its way stands to create political dynamics more congenial to good government and—more importantly—to liberty.