Government: Smart or Stupid?

Bruce Reed writes in Slate:

More Is Less: In 1994, Republicans took over the Congress with one goal foremost in mind—to turn Americans against government. Twelve years later, they’ve succeeded, although not the way they intended. A new CNN poll finds that 54 percent of Americans think government tries to do too much, while only 37 percent think government should do more. And to put government in its place, they’re going to vote … Democrat.

The poll linked doesn’t provide insight into what people think the government is doing too much of. Jeff Greenfield provides a clue:

The discontent includes the sharp growth in government spending — including the kind of domestic spending conservatives have long deplored — to the growth of “pork-barrel” projects once seen as an emblem of how big government politicians hold power.

“They have increased the amount of government spending by a degree that no Democrat would ever dream of getting away with,” said columnist Andrew Sullivan.

True enough. But then I read this story by Adam Nossiter in today’s New York Times about a high school in New Orleans:

In the last six weeks, students at McDonogh, the largest functioning high school here, have assaulted guards, a teacher and a police officer. A guard and a teacher were beaten so badly that they were hospitalized.

The surge hints at a far-reaching phenomenon after Hurricane Katrina, educators here say. Teenagers in the city are living alone or with older siblings or relatives, separated by hundreds of miles from their displaced parents. Dozens of McDonogh students fend largely for themselves, school officials say.

“They are here on their own,” Wanda Daliet, a science teacher, said. “They are raising themselves. And they are angry.”

The principal, Donald Jackson, estimated that up to a fifth of the 775 students live without parents.

“Basically, they are raising themselves, because there is no authority figure in the home,” Mr. Jackson said. “If I call for a parent because I’m having an issue, I may be getting an aunt, who may be at the oldest 20, 21. What type of governance, what type of structure is in the home, if this is the living conditions?”

After Hurricane Katrina the loss of homes and jobs caused many already fragile families to break apart. And the failure of every level of government to re-establish New Orleans as a viable city turned what might have been a temporary disruption into long-range social disintegration.

Of the 128 schools in the city, fewer half have reopened. The state took over many of them after the storm. That change, hailed at first as a bright beginning, has proven to be partly stillborn, as teachers, textbooks and supplies came up drastically short in the state-run schools.

The McDonogh library has no books. State officials, fearing mold, threw out all of them.

Rundown before the storm, the school buildings are now even more battered. The stalls in a girls’ restroom have no doors.

We could, if we wanted to be anal, argue about how much of the fault and responsibility lies with local and state government, and how much lies with federal government. The fact is that Louisiana is a poor state that lacks the resources to recover from a disaster on the scale of Katrina. And the failure of a major city like New Orleans affects all of us, directly or indirectly. The nation, not just New Orleans, needed local, state, and federal government to work together to help New Orleans recover as quickly as possible.

Instead, we got grandstanding.

For all of Bush’s talk about how he wants “local folks” to be in charge of hurricane recovery, the federal government has kept most of the project under its own inept control. As water still stood in the streets of New Orleans, the feds began to cut sweetheart deals with its pet contractors/contributors. Perfectly capable local companies were overlooked in favor of companies from as far away as Alaska that (ah-HEM) just happened to have close relationships to the Washington Republican Party establishment. And these contractors answer to their buddies in Washington, not to officials in New Orleans or Louisiana. And as a result, billions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted by fraud and abuse. (See, “His Majesty to Visit One of the Lesser Colonies“; “Life Lessons“; and “The Quintessential Bush.”)

And the lives of the young people of New Orleans are getting thoroughly bleeped up.

Government did too much, all right. It did too much of the wrong thing. But it didn’t do enough of the right thing.

Here’s a story by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Jonathan Weisman in today’s Washington Post that provides another example of misplaced priorities:

As part of their midterm election push, House Democrats are promoting a wide-ranging legislative agenda that would add tens of billions of dollars a year to the federal budget for the military, homeland security and education yet still impose a new budget restraint that would make it harder to widen the annual deficit. …

… “”It’s schizophrenia in ’06 is what it is,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), a member of the Budget Committee. “You cannot balance the budget by vastly increasing spending.”

Congressman McHenry, btw, was identified by Ari Berman as one of the five Congress critters most likely to keep alive the corrupt legacy of Tom DeLay:

Patrick McHenry (age 30). The youngest member of the 109th Congress, McHenry is the “it” boy of the GOP establishment. DeLay recently named McHenry one of his potential successors, an endorsement the freshman accepted enthusiastically. “I’m blown away,” McHenry told the Washington Times. “I’m so excited that Tom DeLay would say that about me”–a fitting compliment to a pupil who’s earned a reputation as the party’s “attack-dog-in-training.” DeLay was the first Washington pol to contact McHenry after he won the Republican primary in North Carolina’s rural 10th Congressional district, promptly sending his campaign $10,000. Upon election, DeLay shepherded McHenry through Washington, with cushy seats on the Budget and Financial Services committees, a communications position within the GOP’s fundraising arm and a role in Blunt’s whip operation. McHenry returned the favors by attacking House minority leader Nancy Pelosi for alleged travel violations and by voting, along with just nineteen other Republicans, to rewrite House ethics rules permanently to insulate DeLay. McHenry’s clearly a quick learner: He’s hired Grover Norquist’s press secretary and dated a former assistant of Karl Rove.

Let’s be sure we all understand one thing clearly: The single biggest cause of our current budget deficit is Bush’s tax cuts. The budget deficit didn’t come about because the United States, still the richest nation in the world, squandered money on education. It came about because of the bleeping tax cuts, and after that because of corruption and pork.

As you can see from this pie chart, the second biggest drain on national spending is “Defense, Homeland Security and International.” (International what isn’t clear.) But don’t forget that we’re dumping $2 billion a week into the bleeping war in Iraq, not to mention spending money to protect petting zoos in Indiana, while cutting spending for security in the major cities most likely to be struck by terrorism. And might I add, missile defense? It might be that we are spending enough money on “defense, homeland security and international” already; we’re just spending it in stupid ways.

And if the Republican “defense, homeland security and international” budget isn’t generously larded with kickbacks and quid pro quos, I will eat my sneakers.

The Dems want to institute a pay-as-you-go system, in which any new spending must be offset by budget cuts or tax increases. Apparently Republicans disagree with this idea. Why? Given that they’ve hardly been examples of fiscal restraint, they should be grilled mercilessly on this point. Too bad we don’t have an independent, professional news media any more. Reporters used to be good at that sort of thing.

Anyway, as Birnbaum and Weisman at WaPo explain,

Democratic leaders dispute the accusation and have been talking up Six for ’06. The plan would allocate billions of dollars to build up the military, subsidize student loans and bolster port security. It would raise the minimum wage, make college tuition payments tax-deductible, repeal oil-company tax breaks and expand incentives for personal savings accounts, among many other provisions.

The program would prohibit the House from approving new spending or tax measures that widen the budget deficit. It would do that by restoring budget rules requiring that all future spending increases and tax cuts be offset by equivalent tax hikes or spending cuts.

“It’s a road map to how Democrats would govern” if they win a majority in the House, said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).

Sooner or later President Bush’s tax cuts are going to have to be rolled back. In spite of the fact that President Clinton proved tax increases don’t kill the economy, Republicans will wail and shriek that the economy is dooooooooned if the wealthy are forced to pay their fair share of the tax burden. We can’t afford to pay for education because, you know, Lord and Lady Lah-Dee-Dah wouldn’t be able to buy a second yacht. And that takes jobs away from yacht builders.

But experience shows us that investing in education brings substantial returns.

Purdue University President Martin C. Jischke:

The enormous economic growth and social advancements that fueled the 20th century took place predominantly after World War II. That is when the G.I. Bill educated people in the emerging technologies of the day.

Who were these people?

They were people like Kenneth Johnson, who grew up on remote farms in Arkansas and Missouri and went to a one-room schoolhouse surrounded by mud. He came to Purdue on the G.I. Bill, graduated with a degree in engineering, and went on to help revolutionize airplane engine technology working for General Electric.

They were people like Billy Christensen, who finished his studies at Purdue in 1950 on the G.I. Bill and took a job with a punch card company. He went on to become vice president and general manager of the international arm of that company — IBM.

They were people like Bill Rose, who barely survived the Depression before he went to war and then came to Purdue on the G.I. Bill fresh out of the Navy. He graduated and took a job in the Joint Long-Range Proving Ground at the Banana River Naval Station. We know it today as the Kennedy Space Center.

The G.I. Bill was an investment in people and education that has paid for itself many times over.

It’s obvious that development of new technologies is critical to economic growth these days. While I don’t begrudge anyone a good job in the yacht-building industry, it makes no sense to place the discretionary spending of the super-rich (who, after all, could buy that second yacht in France) ahead of invention, technological development, and entrepreneurship here in the U.S. Yet that’s what Republican tax policies do. And as more and more of the nation’s wealth gets tied up in paying interest on the money we owe China, less and less money will be available for things like education and business loans. This is no way to run an economy.

Much of rightie hysteria over “big government” and the myth of the tax-and-spend liberals can be traced to a backlash against Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, as I explained here. Although American conservatives have always been allergic to entitlement spending, during the New Deal and post World War II era — when most of the beneficiaries were white — a majority of Americans took a more progressive view. But in the 1960s, conservative politicians successfully planted the idea that “welfare” was just a transfer of white tax dollars into black pockets, and suddenly white America decided that government programs (like the ones that had paid for their educations and subsidized their low-cost mortgages) were bad. Ronald Reagan, with his “welfare queen” stories, milked that notion for all it was worth. But I think we may finally have reached a point at which race-baiting just doesn’t work the way it used to, and white middle-class Americans are uncomfortable and insecure enough that they may be ready to listen to some facts. And the facts are that, in the long run, investing in ourselves is good for the economy. Conversely, cutting any Americans off from education and opportunity is bad for the economy, and will keep all of us poorer in the years to come.

Back to Bruce Reed at Slate:

Call it the Wal-Mart Effect. Independents and Perotistas pointed toward the kind of government Americans would get under Clinton: more for less.

Bush’s approach has been just the opposite—less for more. The federal government has gotten visibly bigger, with deficits that squandered the surplus and have added more than a trillion dollars to the national debt. A study by Paul Light of the Brookings Institution shows that the number of federal contractors has ballooned by 2.5 million over the past four years, a 50 percent increase. After shrinking by 400,000 under Clinton, the federal work force is growing again as well.

Bush would dearly love to blame the return of big government on Congress, Democrats, and the terrorists. But a big government that costs more and succeeds less is at the core of Bushism. Bush ran a campaign that promised not to cut government and runs a government that doesn’t try to solve problems. Where the president has expanded government’s reach—from Medicare to the Department of Homeland Security—it hasn’t gone well. Where we needed government to succeed—from managing Iraq to responding to Katrina—the Bush administration did a Hack of a job.

Seems to me we shouldn’t be talking about “big” or “little” government; we should be talking about “smart” or “stupid” government.

6 thoughts on “Government: Smart or Stupid?

  1. That’s good “smart” or “stupid” government! I remember a time when the rich in America never complained about their taxes because they felt they had a responsibility to the country that made them rich. We sitll have a few like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, Sr.; but, the rest seem to be just greedy monsters who care nothing about the country that made them rich. I would say that is a bit unpatriotic.

  2. Whether the government is smart or stupid depends on the leadership. Currently I think it’s……challenged?

  3. “Currently I think it’s…..challenged”
    Rarely is the question asked, is our leaders learning.
    Fool me once , shame on, shame on , shame on you.
    Fool me twice…., can’t get fooled again!
    Government has become a fools paradise……….

  4. It’s the stupid government, stupid!!

    Now go forth and post that on 10 righty websites (if you can find any that take comments, don’t delete all contrarian comments, require registration or membership, or are not being run by knuckledragging simians).

  5. The Goverment and Homeland Security have a big proble. They always go after the wrong people and it is such a waste of our money.For Ex:Osama Bin Ladden is walking around laughing at Bush.

  6. Pingback: The Mahablog » Cracked

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