Some thoughts on government

I’m a liberal. I’m a guy who likes government.  So let’s start there.

I was talking to my Dad last time he was out here, and we got going on politics, and he was complaining about Obamacare, and the government take-over of health care, and I pointed out that he, personally, loves the federal government.  He was a bit affronted at this, and quickly harrumphed something dismissive, but I went down the list.  What does my Dad love more than anything?  Well, my Mom, for starters.  She’s actually doing pretty well, but she’s getting older and has some challenges. And her health is a huge concern to him.  But he loves the medical care she (and he) gets via Medicare.  He loves music: Dad was an opera singer, a career he was able to pursue in large measure because of the GI Bill, which paid for his education.  He loves the wonderful musical offerings at Indiana University, a state supported institution.  Dad loves the outdoors, especially the National Parks system.  He loves seeing his grandchildren, driving there on roads provided by the government, or flying in airplanes guided by air traffic controllers, landing on runways built by government.  He loves to write and send out his personal essays (which are wonderfully written, very interesting) on the internet, which wouldn’t have existed were it not for government.  Dad likes to gripe about “government,” but he does not actually ever have a single personal interaction with government that’s not positive.

Okay, sure, the DMV.  But that’s a state agency.  Not federal.  And last time I went to the DMV, the whole thing took ten minutes and went great, except my driver’s licence picture was stupid looking.

And last year, my wife and I were victims of identity theft.  Someone filed federal income tax using our names and ID, made up numbers so they got a sizable refund, and disappeared.  Dealing with that was a hassle, and required a number of phone calls and emails and a lot of paperwork, but I didn’t talk to anyone, at any government agency, that wasn’t helpful and efficient.  It was complicated because my situation was complicated.

On the other hand . . .

I have a friend, an actress in a show I’m directing, who has been driven to the brink of madness by the INS. She’s from Scotland, came to the States to go to college and married an American guy, and her interactions with the Immigration and Naturalization Service have been nasty. She’s terrified that she’s going to be deported.  I have another friend, a wonderful guy, who moved to the US from South Africa.  He started a business, employs dozens of people, has been an upright fellow in every way, but his struggle to become a US citizen took ten years, thousands of dollars, and eventually required the personal intervention of a US Senator. And that’s not even counting what some Hispanic friends have gone through.  Do you know anyone who’s had a positive experience with the INS?  I don’t.

I hear small businessmen talk about how choked their businesses are by government paperwork.  I hear people talk about how needlessly complicated taxes can be for some people, how it’s essentially impossible to just sit down and do your taxes, how it nowadays requires hiring an accountant. I think that’s all real too.  I’ve heard all sorts of horror stories about how difficult Dodd-Frank compliance can be, and I’ve heard that form PF is a particular monstrosity.  I don’t think many people think businesses should, like, dump raw sewage into public waters, but I also do think we should listen when businessmen say environmental regulations can be a colossal pain in the tush to comply with, for even the most well-intentioned companies.

There’s a new movie out: Won’t Back Down–Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis. It’s about a feisty single Mom and a teacher who go after the education establishment, including teacher’s unions, which are preventing their kids getting a good education.  It’s gotten terrible reviews, which may just mean that it’s a bad movie (I haven’t seen it yet), but this review suggests a political component to the negativity.  Plus it’s one of those movies where its Rotten Tomatoes score is way lower than its audience satisfaction score.  Liberals hate movies like this, (and like Waiting for ‘Superman’ a really good movie, which I did see), that suggest that our education system is seriously undermined by bureaucratic fol-de-rol and overly aggressive teacher’s unions. That just seems like another anti-government conservative talking point.

Yes, okay, but.  Is it all that untrue?  I’m a liberal.  I come from a family of teachers.  My Mom, my grandma, two aunts, two sisters-in-law, a niece: all teachers.  My Mom was very active in her local teacher’s union.  And yes, I agree, our education system is badly underfunded.  It’s also being undermined by bureaucracy and, at times, foolish union rules.  This movie’s critique of education maybe is annoying and one-sided and maybe extreme.  Maybe it’s kinda right too. (Like I said, I haven’t seen it.)

When we think of ‘government,’ we tend to think in terms of a monolith: ‘government,’ this huge impersonal inefficient humorless leviathan.  But ‘government’ is many things, serves many masters, performs many functions.  Does some well, others not so well. If we like government, and I do, we should recognize inefficiencies in it.

The military is one example.  The US military is, without question, the greatest fighting force in the history of the world.  I mean, that’s sort of a silly thing to say: put Caesar’s Legions up against, say, a modern Marine Corps rifle company, and the only real issue would be having enough body bags for the Legionnaires. The US military is the by-word for efficiency and competence.  And equal opportunity advancement and promotion, the ultimate meritocracy.  But who doesn’t know the wry joke implied by the acronym SNAFU?  What about the many reported incidents of rape and sexual assault among our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Who was it that killed Pat Tillman?

Human beings run government, and human beings screw up.  We can put systems in place to minimize the damage done by human error, but any organization has inefficiencies and foolishnesses built in.  What probably matters more are incentives. So what behaviors are we incentivizing?

In education, it’s easy.  Promotions and funding depend on standardized test scores, so teachers teach to the exam. That equals bad teaching.  Basic physics: the observation of phenomena change the phenomena.  My first reform: get rid of all standardized tests, all of ’em, forever.  Like that’s ever going to happen.  (It’s BTW the key to Finland’s system, which also happens to be the best ed system in the world.)

Sometimes you’ll hear conservatives say things like “The Founding Fathers created a limited government.”  I generally snicker; the Constitution was written by men completely fed up with the ‘limited government’ fiasco the Articles of Confederation had created.  They wanted a strong, efficient central government.  But they also didn’t trust people, and so built system inefficiencies into their model, checks and balances, deliberate barriers to getting things done.

And one thing they included is part of the First Amendment we don’t talk about much: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging . . . the right of the people peaceably to assemble, or to petition the government of a redress of grievances.”

Lobbying, in other words.  We’re allowed to lobby.  We have the right to lobby. To assemble, and petition.

That’s one of the reasons, I think, why Medicare is so spectacular a success.  The AARP keeps an eagle eye on ’em.  That’s one reason why the INS is such a nightmare to deal with; immigrants don’t have a strong lobby.

Government sponsored health care pretty much should always be better that private health insurance, in part because health care is built on asymmetrical information (see my previous blog on this subject).  For profit health insurance companies have every incentive to deny health care to people.  But more than that, anecdotal evidence suggests the same.  I really genuinely don’t know any old folks who haven’t gotten pretty darn good care from Medicare.  I also know lots of less-old people with major health issues, but I don’t know one who doesn’t describe the experience of dealing with their health insurance company as a bureaucratic nightmare.  My brother was in a major auto accident; it took a lawsuit to get an insurance company to pony up.  I’ve gotten pretty good care from my HMO, but I’ve also spent months dealing with a 40 dollar charge that I don’t owe, that’s been sent to collection three times because I can’t get my insurer to provide proof to my provider that the darn bill’s been paid.  (I could probably scrape up the forty bucks if I had to, but I’m darned if I’m going to!  Principle!)  Governor Romney spent a lot of time in the last Presidential debate invoking the bogeyman of Obamacare’s panel of doctors who will define best medical practices.  An unelected cabal of government docs telling you what care you should have!  Unthinkable!  Like every health insurance company in the world doesn’t do that too, only way way way more obnoxiously.

When we talk about government regulation stifling small business, though, let’s not just dismiss that as a lot of conservative ideological hooey.  Let’s take complaints about bad government, foolishly bureaucratic government, oppressive job-killing government seriously.  It happens. It shouldn’t.  I’m a liberal.  I like government.  Which means I want it to do good, and to work well.



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