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Right-sizing Government

Copyright 2007 Dorian Scott Cole
About this series.


The slogan "small government" has been a mainstay of many political candidates since the 1970s, or earlier, and a historical position of parties from the founding of the nation. Large government is typically equated with unwelcome interference, runaway bureaucracy, and high costs. But does small government actually prevent problems and save us money? Running on skeleton crews may actually be more expensive and create more problems. Cost-effective government may depend on having more people.

Why talk about issues if you can simply use a polarizing word or idea as a substitute? Why spend government money on what needs to be done if you can use a polarizing idea to spend money on what you want? It is difficult to keep government honest and focused on the right things when politicians have a cheat sheet in their arsenal. One cheat sheet is the slogan, "small government."

For example, why run a clean campaign if you can create mud to sling at your opponent? Historically it has been a very effective strategy. If it's an issue in debate, the public is likely to split 50/50 and the candidate will have to work very hard to find good solutions and be persuasive. But everyone is against dirt. Throw enough mud at a candidate and large numbers of people vote against that candidate. You can steal an election simply by making up stories that defame your opponent. 

The question is, who wants a liar and a thief in public office?  But mindless slogans and lies are the common fodder of political contests. We need to brand political candidates and parties for the kind of campaigns they run. Slick slogans and mud slinging simply mean the candidate is trying to evade talking about issues and steal the office. 

"Small government," the idea that the only good government is a small government, has been in use for years. There is some truth in this. Large bureaucracies that are unaccountable and given too much territory, historically have become very inefficient and grow like crazy. Keeping government small does help prevent excessive government spending and waste. It lowers the tax burden that we pay to finance government. 

Government spending actually goes back into the economy, which is good - what lowering taxes really does is let us focus our spending on what we want instead of what politicians want. It's a matter of priorities and control.

But running a government on a skeleton crew creates problems, not efficiency. It is ineffective. The current administration has relied heavily on business and industry to police itself. The idea is that they can do a better job of controlling themselves than government oversight can. After all, government red tape is expensive to fulfill, and for some businesses if the government gets involved, for the business it simply becomes a game of outwitting the government - something like being moonshiners who create illegal whiskey in illegal stills or people who create methamphetamine and other illegal drugs in their basements. Yes, about 2 in 10 people are likely to try and get away with something, and a lot more slips through the cracks. 

Therein lies one of the problems. Some simply don't go looking for problems, even if the problems are innocent and unintentional. Often it is simply a matter of managers not training people, or not putting enough attention on common problem areas. Business and industry have a long history of doing just that. It costs money. If no one is watching, one will always cheat and another will cheat when he is hard pressed and sees an opportunity. A third or fourth simply will not pay attention. So if no one is watching, 3 or 4 in 10 have free reign to abuse the public.  Not watching doesn't work - safeguards have to be in place. 

Every large industry, such as electrical power generation, oil refining, and mining, dislike government oversight. Meeting government regulations is costly and a lot of money goes into research to disprove the "need" or lobby against legislation. Many industries even thumb their noses at government inspections and regulations. The coal mining industry gets cited for countless violations of safety rules every year. Mining is a very hazardous industry, but miners are often no safer than the barest minimum precautions... or whatever they can get away without. Some mine operators do nothing about many safety hazards, don't pay their fines, don't respond to government citations by fixing hazards, and they are not closed down. People die.

Another problem is infrastructure maintenance. Infrastructure is the basic structure that we depend on for buildings, utilities, transportation, and communications. Infrastructure is like dirt, we take it for granted until a sinkhole develops and it disappears.  But the reality is, infrastructure takes a lot of continuous inspection and maintenance or it simply disappears. Roads get potholes, elevators fall, airplanes fall out of the sky, buildings fall in, bridges collapse, utility lines fall, break, or plug up, and communications circuits cease to function. 

Government does not inspect utility lines, except to ensure they are installed to code, and communications circuits are not under government jurisdiction.

By October First of this year (2007), there have been 6 recalls of meat that were contaminated with e-coli (from eating e-coli, people get very sick and even die), recalls of lettuce contaminated with e-coli, and recalls of countless toys contaminated with lead (destroys brains). (Jurisdiction of the FDA). There have been two mining accidents in the US, one which cost lives. (Federal and local jurisdictions.) There has been one major bridge collapse that claimed several lives. (Federal and local Highway Safety Administrations). (These are just off the top of my head, without doing a lot of research.) I live near several major bridges that cross the Mississippi River, and the bridges are closed too often for major chunks of them falling out or when other major problems are spotted. Keeping the country running is taking a back seat to other priorities.

Some of these public health and infrastructure problems are blamed on lack of inspectors, some on lack of maintenance, and some on lack of enforcement. Does this hold water? 

There are two (at least) approaches to problems. One is reactive. You wait until a disaster happens and then you fix it. Putting up a new bridge is much more costly than an ounce of maintenance. Fixing levies (dams that prevent flooding) is much less costly than recovering areas from disaster by buying thousands of trailers for temporary housing, rebuilding destroyed areas, and losing revenues from commerce for years.  

The reactive approach to healthcare is, you wait until a disease has progressed to the point of threatening your health or life, and then you try to fix it. This usually means years of expensive medications and treatments. Or people without medical insurance avoid treatment, and then end up in a costly emergency room and often get expensive procedures they might have avoided.

Problems always occur, they are relatively predictable, and inspection usually identifies them. I know from personal experience that you can cut failures by 80% through inspection and maintenance. Some things are going to happen despite best efforts (20%), but 80% don't have to happen. Following the reactive approach is irresponsible, causes human suffering, and is expensive. 

A second approach is preventive. Inspection and maintenance prevent bridges from falling in and killing people. Inspection and maintenance identify levies that are inadequate or needing repair. Inspection and maintenance prevent disease from occurring or progressing and eliminate the need for many expensive medications and procedures, as well as suffering and premature death. 

You and I pay the costs one way or another. If a bridge falls in, we pick up the tab for rebuilding it through our taxes. If people without medical insurance go to the emergency room for problems that could have been handled much less expensively if taken care of sooner or through regular medical facilities, you and I pick up the tab in higher hospitalization costs. We pay much more for disasters than if responsible people had addressed the problem before it turned into a disaster. 

What does size have to do with it?

In the 1970s business faced major inflation and had to cut costs. In the 1980s, business faced major competition and had to cut costs. "Down-sizing" was the battle cry, which meant cutting jobs, until during the 1980s executives realized that having too few people created inefficiency  - costs started going up. Middle-managers were eliminated and responsibility was pushed down to those actually supervising or doing the jobs.  Down-sizing changed to "right-sizing." There had to be enough people to get the job done cost-effectively. Today, businesses realize that what is needed is people with the right expertise, and enough of them. This is the most efficient way to operate. 

Politicians need to drop the "small government" phrase from their vocabulary. It is simply a polarizing slogan that has held little weight since the 1970s. There aren't any (well, maybe 1) "tax and spend" boogeymen in the Congressional closet. Even Democrats are for smaller government and less costly solutions. Democratic administrations, often accused, have been leaner on spending than their Republican counterparts - spending historically rises faster during Republican administrations. Those congressmen who want to waste taxpayer money, simply stick their legislation into omnibus spending bills that no one reads. 

Small government doesn't stop government waste, it is simply an inefficient way to run the government. Hardly a single government department, except Homeland Security, has enough people in it to do the job of inspecting and enforcing. Underfunding is ineffective - it is worse than eliminating the department because it misleads people into thinking that problems are being addressed.

Those chanting "small government" should not steal another election. I'm certainly not against business, but what we are currently seeing is a extreme "pro-business" government that is willing to overlook the public good, and an apparent strategy of giving regulatory departments too little funding to be effective, while many departments are often driven by political policy preferences and the not actual needs that they are required to address. 

Government needs to learn from business. It needs to be right-sized, responsible, and smarter. Small government becomes ineffective just as badly as large government. "Effective government" is the real issue. 

Effective government: 

  1. Takes a smart and cost-effective approach to the problem.
  2. Has the right number of people to get the job done, and is properly funded. 
  3. Has people (and departments) with responsibility, authority, and accountability.
  4. Has people with the knowledge and experience to get the job done. 

Politicians on the campaign trail often are not going to have full answers. Answers are worked out with other politicians, and not every answer we try works well. But it is essential that politicians running for office have the right approach to government and a good idea about an effective direction to go in. If a politician doesn't have a firm grasp of the above four things for running a good government, then he isn't a leader and should not be elected to office. The slogan "small government" should take on a derogatory meaning: "I just want to steal the election with misleading statements."

- Scott 

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