On the failure of government…

Our government has failed us numerous times, and it’s safe to bet that it will fail us again. What happened with the poisoned water in Flint Michigan is a recent example, and a horrible one, but it is just one example. The Brookings Institution created the dismal graphic above, showing government failures and plotting the size/impact/type of the failures [edit, 10.6.16: the link to the image died, but the interactive is here]. There is no question that our government is imperfect, and that there is reason to be disappointed. The way each of us thinks we should respond to that disappointment is what seems to divide us, and I just don’t understand the logic behind some that fall on the other side of this.

It’s not that I don’t understand the frustration. I feel it too, at least some of it. Trump and Cruz, and most of the GOP candidates, even Bernie Sanders, get support from people who feel that the government has let them down. The Cruz and Trump supporters (and, likely most of the GOP) sees government not working and their response is to throw the whole thing out. Government doesn’t work, so make government smaller. Regulations don’t work, so reduce the number and the scope of regulations. The FDA can’t protect us from harmful drugs, so reduce the size and scope of the FDA. The EPA can’t protect us from pollution, so throw it away. The post office is broke and losing money (never mind why…different topic), so throw it away. FEMA failed in Katrina, so dismantle FEMA.

To me, this seems like a very strange response and I’m left asking what, exactly, should take their place?  Let’s pick some examples from the Brookings analysis. How about the most recent, large (dark) operations failure: the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The government clearly failed to protect the affected people, and many lives were lost. If the response to this is to strip funding from FEMA, or even end FEMA, what would be in its place to act in the case of the next emergency? Do the small government people think that the aftermath of Katrina would have been better if FEMA didn’t exist? The criticism has been that FEMA didn’t act quickly enough and didn’t do a good enough job deploying resources to the needed areas. But that wouldn’t have been better in the absence of FEMA. To be fair, some have pointed out that help from neighboring areas was hindered by FEMA. In that respect, the lack of FEMA could have been helpful, but it’s hard for me to imagine that, in the end, the people affected by Katrina would have been better off left to fend for themselves than they were with the help of FEMA. I would never say that FEMA did enough, soon enough, but the response should be to make FEMA stronger, make it work better, not get rid of it entirely, right? That seems very strange to me.

What about recent oversight failures? The Boston Marathon bombing, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the financial collapse of 2008 are good examples. Yes, there is no question that government failed in each one of those cases, but how does a small government solution solve any of that? These are oversight failures. The Boston Marathon bombing was carried out by somebody on a terrorist watch list who clearly wasn’t being watched well enough. But how does getting rid of government make that less likely to help. It seems more logical to see that failure, recognize that the government failed to prevent that attack, and try to improve their ability to protect us in the future? How does making them smaller, less funded, and less equipped achieve that? If you want to shrink the size of government, how does a smaller Department of Homeland Security and a smaller Department of Justice handle the threat better than the one we have now? Wouldn’t a bigger, and better funded DHS/DOJ have a better chance, not a worse chance, of dealing with the threats?

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was certainly an oversight failure. It’s certainly fair to blame the company for not taking the necessary precautions, but you don’t blame the lion for eating the lamb, you blame the zookeeper for letting them come together. Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison, because I’m sure BP wasn’t intentionally spilling oil, but I think it’s reasonable to expect that a company will take risks, if allowed, to maximize profits. Even with regulations in place, they will take risks and calculate the cost of breaking the regulations against an increase in profits. It seems fair to say that the company should be blamed for the spill, and that regulators should be blamed for not preventing the spill. But how do we address the first part without the second? If you want to get rid of the regulations that were put in place to prevent the spill, because the regulations didn’t work, what makes you think it would be better without the regulations? Wouldn’t the spill be more likely, not less likely to happen if there was no oversight at all? Maybe the oversight was 100% ineffective, so the risk would be no worse without any oversight, but even if the oversight had a 5% effect, isn’t that 5% better, not worse than it would be without any oversight? Why, then, is the answer to get rid of it? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

In the same way, the financial collapse of 2008 is the product of the deregulation that happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Some blame the government and the programs that were put in place to increase home ownership, but that’s a pretty narrow view of the landscape. Sure, that all led to mortgages going to people who couldn’t afford them, and increased the chances of people defaulting on mortgages, but that alone isn’t what caused the crash. That would have hurt the bottom line of mortgage companies dealing in those loans (actually, it would have hurt the bottom line of the federal programs that backed those loans), but the widespread impact was because of the gigantic mountain of investment tools that were built on top of that weak foundation. I think it’s helpful to think of it like having a brittle coffee table (the bad loans). The table collapses and there’s some wood on the ground and maybe a spilled cup of coffee or two. Build a 20-story hotel on top of that coffee table, and now its collapse does a lot more damage. But, back to the point, government failed to protect us from the mishandling of funds that caused the collapse. So what’s the answer? Remove all controls?

I guess I can see some logic in the idea that if government is going to fail us, it’s better to save our money. If a car is going to break over and over again, it’s better not to buy that car. But what if you still need a car? How does a person make a jump from government failed to protect us, so we should remove protections? I imagine that some of my right-leaning friends would say that they don’t want to get rid of government, they just want to make it work better. But that’s certainly not how the candidates of their party talk. That’s certainly not the sentiment that they use to get votes. They say that government is the problem. If government would get off our backs, we’d all prosper and do much better. I can sympathize with that, to an extent, but if government gets off my back, then it also gets off the back of the guy down the street who has a zillion pounds of explosives in his garage…enough to destroy my house if he falls asleep with a lit cigarette. It seems like so many of our problems, when it comes to failed government, are in the opposite direction. Flint didn’t happen because government was on our back too much. Flint happened because government wasn’t doing what it’s supposed to do well enough. The financial collapse of 2008 didn’t happen because government was doing too much. It happened because government stopped doing the things it used to do that prevented 2008 from happening (I think it would be nice if government would actually start doing those things again, but that’s another story).


3 thoughts on “On the failure of government…

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