Tag Archives: federal government

It’s The Structure, Stupid!

Folks in my age group will remember the banner that was famously hung in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters: “It’s the Economy, Stupid!”  I wish I could hire a sky-writer to outline a different message every day until it sinks in: “it’s the structure, stupid!”

What do I mean by that?

Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows that I am desperate for voters to rid us of the proudly ignorant, deeply corrupt lunatic currently in power. His moral and intellectual defects certainly matter. But he and his Keystone Kop administration are only there because of systemic dysfunctions–which is why the various pissing matches on the Left over candidate purity are so beside the point.

Until we fix the system, God herself can’t get Medicare-for-All or free college or a UBI or even immigration reform passed. (I personally give props to candidates like Mayor Pete who clearly recognize the need to focus on how to get from point A to point B, rather than simply identifying point B as a desired destination.)

Yes, we need to get rid of the morons and crooks running the White House and the Senate. We also– desperately– need to elect people who understand the need for systemic change and who will make that change their number one priority.

Connecticut’s Democratic Senator, Chris Murphy, made this point in a recent interview with The New Yorker. The interview, not surprisingly, revolved around Impeachment and the Democratic primary, but when Murphy was asked whether he agreed with Joe Biden’s expressed belief that bipartisanship would ultimately return–that Republicans and Democrats would once again be able to work together–his response was absolutely dead-on.

I think we can’t be dependent on the culture of this town changing based on personality changes. There are incentive structures that reward dysfunction. You have got to change those systems. You have to change the way that congressional districts are drawn. You have to publicly finance elections and get rid of dark money. You have to stop the habit of Democrats and Republicans meeting every single day, separate from each other, so that we can never talk across the aisle about big problems. There are rules that incentivize partisan bickering. Barack Obama ran on a promise to be able to change political realities in Washington through sheer force of personality, and it didn’t work. I just think we have to be focussed on changing the rules.

The rules Murphy is referencing have created the toxic culture we inhabit, and that culture won’t improve until those rules change.

It’s simple enough to prescribe what’s needed: massive turnout to eject the repulsive remains of what was once a respectable political party, replacing them with people who: 1) are committed to the restoration of democracy and the rule of. law; and 2) who understand the structural reforms that will be required in order to achieve that restoration.

“Vote Blue no matter who” is an essential first step, but it is only a first step. Then the hard work begins. We have to eliminate gerrymandering, the filibuster, and the disproportionate influence of money in our political system. We have fight vote suppression and pass the National Popular Vote Compact. We have to repair the enormous damage this administration has done to our federal government and our stature in the world. We have to move aggressively to combat climate change and protect the environment. We have to restore civic education and teach news literacy.

In other words, ridding ourselves of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump is essential but not nearly sufficient.

We will have our work cut out for us–and we can’t do what absolutely needs to be done unless and until we change the systems that got us here.

 

Meanwhile…

The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert has a recurring segment he calls “Meanwhile.” It follows his monologue, which is usually devoted to the latest Trump insanity, and consists of lesser items he deems newsworthy, weird or amusing.

“Meanwhile” is a particularly apt word right now, because–meanwhile, as Americans are glued to the unfolding impeachment drama and the President’s increasingly unhinged responses to it–Trump’s corrupt and dangerous administration is busy destroying the agencies of our federal government.

Scientists are fired, and environmental protections eviscerated. Students are preyed upon by dishonest private “institutes” and “colleges” that the Department of Education encourages to operate with impunity. Public lands are handed over to private companies to despoil. Anti-discrimination rules meant to protect vulnerable Americans needing housing are weakened or eliminated. Refugees and immigrants continue to be abused. The head of the Department of Justice dishonors the Constitution and makes a mockery of the rule of law.

And every day, there is something like this: A crucial federal program tracking dangerous diseases is shutting down. As Vox reports,

Most of the deadliest diseases to affect humanity leap to human hosts from other animals. The 1918 flu pandemic likely came from birds. HIV likely jumped from a similar virus in chimpanzees and other monkeys. Recent Ebola outbreaks have come from bats, rats, and gorillas.

Ever since the 2005 H5N1 bird flu scare, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has run a project to track and research these diseases, called Predict. At a cost of $207 million during its existence, the program has collected more than 100,000 samples and found nearly 1,000 novel viruses, including a new Ebola virus.

But on Friday, the New York Times reported that the US government is shutting down the program. According to its former director Dennis Carroll, the program enjoyed enthusiastic support under Bush and Obama, but “things got complicated” in the last few years until the program “essentially collapsed.”

“Things got complicated” is evidently bureaucrat-speak for Trump Administration ignorance and incompetence. As the article points out, pandemics seldom make the news until they happen, and that is too late–what is needed is to understand and prevent them.

As researchers warn that a flu like the 1918 influenza outbreak could kill as many as 50 million to 80 million people — and as new technologies alter the landscape of biology research, making it possible to study diseases in new ways but also making dangerous research easier than ever — it’s important for the US government to treat pandemic risks as a serious priority..

The end of Predict is a symptom of a bigger problem: The US government isn’t taking the risk of pandemics as seriously as it should be, and it isn’t investing enough in spreading the expertise and best practices that might be needed in the case of a global pandemic.

“It is the prospect of another such pandemic — not a nuclear war or a terrorist attack or a natural disaster — that poses the greatest risk of a massive casualty event in the United States,” Ron Klain, the former White House Ebola response coordinator, wrote for Vox last year. And yet pandemic preparedness gets very little attention.

The day-to-day task of governing gets very little attention. (It is a concept clearly foreign to our ignoramus-in-chief.)

We’re all fixated on the antics and tweets of the head buffoon. Meanwhile….

 

 

The Real “Deep State”

The conspiracy theorists who surround Trump (a/k/a the conspiracy theorist-in-chief) have issued dark warnings about the so-called “deep state.”

In this telling, there is a shadowy cabal of agency or military officials who secretly conspire to influence government policy and usurp the authority of democratically elected officials. Prior to Trump’s “democratic election,” the term was generally used to describe the politics of countries like Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan, where authoritarian elements worked within to undercut elected leaders. Trump and his inner circle, particularly the now-departed  Bannon, have argued that the administration is being intentionally undermined by a network within the federal bureaucracy.

As the New Yorker has described it,

Some of Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters (and, in a different, cautionary spirit, a few people on the left) have taken to using “the Deep State” to describe a nexus of institutions—the intelligence agencies, the military, powerful financial interests, Silicon Valley, various federal bureaucracies—that, they believe, are conspiring to smear and stymie a President and bring him low.

In my City Hall days, a witty colleague opined that incompetence generally explains more than conspiracy–an observation that seems particularly appropriate here. Nevertheless, I think there is a deep state, although one that is rather different from the dark conspiracy conjured up by the Trumpsters. And we all should be deeply grateful to it.

Federal bureaucrats are routinely maligned; the word “bureaucrat” is semi-pejorative. There is an abundance of research, however, that confirms the public service motivations of people who work for government. The evidence is that public and private organizations attract different kinds of individuals, and those drawn to government have a desire to serve the public interest and are convinced of the social importance of their work.

I have a number of former students who work in federal agencies. In the wake of the election,  two of them shared with me that they were torn: should they simply leave government, knowing that Trump neither understood nor appreciated the importance of what their agencies did? Or should they remain, focusing on the fact that their obligation is to serve the American people and the Constitution, not any individual President? Should they try to keep the federal government–at least, their small part of it–operating properly despite the chaos and dysfunction in Washington?

The ones I spoke with are still there. They are doing their jobs as best they can in the absence of rational policies and Presidential leadership, soldiering on despite still-unfilled senior positions and conflicting policy signals. They are the real “deep state”–the reason FEMA has responded appropriately (so far) to Hurricane Harvey, the reason Social Security checks continue to arrive on time, the reason that day-to-day American government still functions.

If and when America emerges from “Trumpism,” we’ll have the public servants of the deep state to thank.

Fixation on Size

Maybe it’s a man thing, this fixation on the size of the tool that is government.

I raise the issue because Jeb Bush recently made a speech in which he promised that he would reduce the size of the federal work force by 10 percent in four years. Much of that, he said, would be accomplished through attrition and a strict system of replacing every three departing federal workers with one new employee.

This is traditional political pandering, and it isn’t exclusive to the GOP. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Evan Bayh.) It’s a classic case of identifying the wrong problem. As any businessperson will confirm, a substantial part of good management involves “right sizing”–matching the size and skills of one’s workforce to the needs of the enterprise.

Announcing a rule that only one of every three departing federal workers will be replaced is simply stupid. The question citizens should be asking–not just at the federal level, but of those managing state and local units of government as well–is: is this task one that government should be doing? If not, we should stop doing it. (Granted, that’s easier said than done, but that should be our goal.) If the task is one of the many things We the People have determined is an important and/or proper function of government, then our focus should be on ensuring that it is done well. That means making an evidence-based determination of the resources–human and otherwise–that the job requires.

The American commitment to limited government has little or nothing to do with the size of government, and everything to do with intrusions by the state into matters that our system leaves to the private sector.

We can–and should–argue about the proper role of government. But once we agree that government needs to do something–protect the country, issue Social Security checks, monitor compliance with tax laws, print money, whatever–then our focus should shift to monitoring performance and making sure that government has what it needs in order to operate efficiently and competently.

As any woman can tell you, size is definitely not what matters.