Our Dysfunctional GovernmentPosted: September 25, 2009
I used to tell my students down here in New Orleans how smoothly things ran in Minneapolis compared to here until that Interstate Bridge fell into the river. Then I realized we were just the canary in the coal mine.
Still, it’s really hard to describe the degree of dysfunction surrounding all levels of government down here in Louisiana to any one that’s never actually lived here. It easily takes 15 – 20 minutes to get some one to respond to your 911 call. The New Orleans Parish Prison just got cited by the Justice Department has having such basic problems that they routinely violate prisoner’s civil rights. The roads are beyond terrible. What’s worse is the parade of people with government contracts and positions–many connected with ex Congressman Jefferson–who routinely skim money from nonprofits meant to help the city’s tremendous number of poor. Some of the worst scandals have involved the New Orleans Public School District where vendors, school board members, and a long time former school superintendent embezzled millions of dollars meant to educate our most vulnerable citizens. Thankfully, we have a justice department that is intent on cleaning out this hornet’s nest (with apologies to our basketball team). People down here have just gotten used to the situation so much that it makes you want to cry.
So, like I said, since I’d lived in Minneapolis which is a high tax but fairly functional part of the country, imagine my surprise when a portion of the of the interstate just dropped into the river. I thought they had only underfunded and underbuilt the levees down here. It turned out the problem is much bigger than that.
If you haven’t seen this month’s issue of Scientific American, then head to their website and read this piece called “The Failing U.S. Government–The Crisis of Public Management”. It’s a fairly short article but enough of a jaw dropper to make me ask repeatedly: what is wrong with this country? We used to take pride in our nation’s infrastructure. Projects like The Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the nation’s interstate system were as much sources of pride as our nation’s romp on the Moon. They were symbols of American can-doism. I remember that as a kid, the parents would throw us into a brand new Ford LTD stationwagon that dad would order into the dealership that year especially for that purpose each year. We’d go search down a few national gems each summer until we had a new check marks on a list of every major American accomplishment and National Park. It was something to wave your little flag about then. What has happened to the shining beacon of progress we chased in the 1960s?
The recent systems failures are legion and notorious. The 9/11 attacks might well have been prevented if the FBI and the intelligence agencies had cooperated more effectively in early 2001 when they were receiving various signals of a possible terrorist attack. Hurricane Katrina caused mass devastation and loss of life because recommendations to bolster the levees shielding New Orleans and other protective measures were neglected for decades despite urgent expert warnings, and because the federal emergency relief effort failed completely after the storm. To this day, reconstruction efforts in New Orleans are paralyzed and many poor communities there have been abandoned. The U.S. occupation of Iraq was marked by massive and shocking corruption, incompetence, and implementation failures by U.S. agencies.
On the economic front, the current financial crisis is a remarkable systems failure. Government regulatory agencies completely dropped the ball while overseeing the surge of several dangerous financial instruments, especially sub-prime mortgages, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and credit default swaps (CDSs). The supply of CDSs in particular soared from nearly zero in 2000 to an estimated $60 trillion in 2008 with almost no regulatory attention. These unregulated CDSs underpinned the reckless lending that eventually burst in the Great Crash of 2008.
The list, alas, goes on and on.
I read this article with even more interpretation as I also flipped through my WSJ this morning and saw this “G-20 Near Deal on Economy: Plan Calls for Peer Review of Each Nation’s Policies on Growth; G-8 to Take a Back Seat.” Writing this thread is the activity I’ve undertaken right now until the rain clears up and I can go deal with the latest in the endless number of flat tires and undercarriage problems I have with the mighty mustang because no one ever takes care of the roads here.
This is the point of my linking these two articles together. They can’t even fix my local police station and it’s been four years since Katrina. It is operating out of an old furniture store sort’ve revamped with the largess of a few local business people. They can’t even make my roads functional enough so simple driving doesn’t continually take out my axles, my rear end, and my tires, and it’s been four years after Katrina. They can’t even put brand new functional pumps into the outflow canals with out years of tinkering to get them to work right. How the hell are we going to fight the failings of government while we continually sell off care and building of infrastructure, systems, and military to least cost bidders looking for incredible profits (who buy some senator or congressman or President in the process?)
Back to the Scientific American piece. (Bold mine.)
We need a better scientific understanding of these pervasive systems failures. It is wrong to think that they illustrate the inevitable failure of government. Other governments around the world more successfully manage infrastructure investments, health systems and environmental resources, apparently with greater flexibility, less corruption, lower costs and better outcomes. America should be learning from their experiences.
Several factors are at play. A key one has been the flawed privatization of public-sector regulatory functions. Wall Street firms hold excessive sway over government regulators, so that dangerous behavior has been unconstrained. Private insurance companies and health care providers block measures to curtail the overuse of costly technologies. Private military suppliers drive the procurement of unneeded weapons systems.
A second has been the collapse of planning functions within the federal government. A remarkable feature of the recent debates over climate change, energy systems, infrastructure rehabilitation and health care reform is the lack of detailed forward-looking government proposals and plans. The Obama administration has stated general principles (very admirable ones) but too often without clear targets and the operational strategies to achieve them. Planning has been replaced by lobbying and backroom deals in Congress that are nearly opaque to the public.
A third, and paradoxical, factor is the chronic underfunding of government itself. It sounds like the old joke about the bad restaurant: that the food was lousy and there wasn’t enough of it. The public is wary of putting more funds into government having witnessed one public sector failure after another. Yet without investing more resources in skilled public managers in health care, energy systems, and national security, we are probably doomed to remain stuck in the hands of vested interests and lobbies.
So, here’s the key to the G-20 suggestions.
The scope and effectiveness of the agreement — which was expected to be signed off on by G-20 leaders on Friday — will depend on whether and how it is enforced. The potential agreement envisions a procedure where G-20 countries assess whether each others’ policies are working, and the International Monetary Fund provides technical help. Not included are any enforcement mechanisms such as sanctions or other penalties.
It’s easy to sign on to lofty goals. It’s even easier to sit around and create a strategic plan containing a great vision. However, the devil is in the details that carry out on that plan. That is what has me supremely worried; especially in light of the continually growing laundry list of failures we see shown the light of day. The government tends to hand these big projects over to these private contractors based on the size of their political donations and then looks the other way. When the GAO or whistle blowers bring up problems, the problems get aired in a Congressional hearing, then depending on the strength of the company’s lobbying army, Congress slaps them on the wrist and lets them continue to operate. We have a huge number of multinationals that only exit because of the government teat. Then, they profit by abusing the public trust year after year after year after year. Just look up GE and Federal Fraud and you’ll be overwhelmed by the history of that company alone. They try KBR, Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, Blackwater … I could go on and on.
We have to get corporate money out of the political process. It should be a no-brainer policy for us to make sure that companies and entities with government contracts who are actively receiving or seeking federal funds should be removed from lobbying, donating, or serving any political campaign or candidate. Elected officials should be barred from taking employment with these groups too for an extended period after their term of public service ends. Inside administration officials should be subject to the same laws. I think that point needs to be added to the suggestions in the Scientific American Article. It’s either that or stop using private contractors for government projects which would be something completely impossible to ask for in our society. We’re too wedded to privatization. The potential for abuse is just too extreme and the poor results have just been way too obvious.