Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

What If We Tried Running Government Like a Government?

We’ve all heard it a million times: “why can’t government be run like a business”? I generally want to scream “because government isn’t a business….” but I generally settle for “Don’t you mean we need to run government in a businesslike fashion? You really don’t mean we should run government like a business…”

This notion that government is just like business, only less efficient, is often cited by people as the reason they support candidates for public office who, like Donald Trump or Carly Fiorina, have no government experience (and frequently, only the dimmest idea of what government is and does).

In a recent post–rant, really–Mark Sumner insisted that the recurrent theme that “government should be run more like a business,” is both dangerous and completely counter to the whole idea of democracy.

Government and business are not the same thing. In fact, there are good reasons why, in a democracy at least, any effort to run the government like a business should be seen as a hostile act.

After making the (obvious) point that the business of business is profit,  and the business of government is the common good, he goes on:

Well, those who still want to run government like a business would surely be thrilled at the idea of giving the president a pay raise of 16 percent a year—the average increase for Fortune 500 CEOs last year. In fact, CEO pay has risen 937 percent since the business-friendly 1980s, while presidential pay hasn’t even kept up with inflation. Come to think of it, when you compare average CEO pay to company revenues, it looks like President Obama should have pocketed about $124 billion last year. I think everyone can get behind that aspect of “running it like a business.” Right?

But then, the president would deserve that money, because unlike an actual president, as government CEO he’d have enormous freedom to ignore what anyone else said and run the nation as he wanted. Sell the Grand Canyon! Swap North Dakota for North Sudan! Fire the Congress! Yes, Mr. President.

I suppose that people could mean “run the government like a business” in terms of keeping the books tidily balanced. Only, of course, they don’t. Check out Amazon. Or Twitter. Or… well, just about any of them. Check out all those investment banks that invented more theoretical money than the GDP of the entire world, and then lost it.

I particularly liked his conclusion:

If you want a government that takes as much of your money as it can, delivers as little as possible, gives what it takes to a handful of the powerful, and is intrinsically unstable … Sure. Run it like a business.

And actually, there have been governments run this way. Plenty of them. There’s even a word for it. Starts with an ‘F.’ Just Google Mussolini, Benito. You can take it from there. Though, speaking of Mr. M, a lot of this “run it like a business” stuff seems to grow out of a longing for having one tough-talking leader at the helm. Maybe you should add Mugabe, Robert and Franco, Francisco and Dada, Idi Amin to that search. Like I say, this kind of government isn’t exactly a new idea.

On the other hand, if you’d rather have a government that’s interested in providing the best service to the greatest number of people, in rewarding everyone fairly, in protecting the weak from the powerful, then you have another choice. You need to run it like a government. That’s the only way you can, hmmm, what’s that phrase?

“Establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

That stuff. There’s no profit in that stuff. That’s why it’s nobody’s business … but should be everybody’s government.

Christian Charity–Mike Pence Version

Indiana’s Governor (along with governors from other enlightened states like Alabama and Louisiana) is using the Paris tragedies as an excuse to exclude a small handful of Syrian refugees who were to be settled in Indiana. 

These refugees are fleeing from the same psychopaths who perpetrated the atrocities in Paris –and before Paris, in Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and several other places, although (in a topic for another day) those massacres didn’t get the U.S. media coverage that the Paris attacks generated.

Given all that, you might think that a man who wears his piety like a badge of honor, who talks about “Christian Charity” and the “generosity of Hoosiers”  would embrace desperate people who’ve left their possessions behind, who have fled once-comfortable homes and once-thriving businesses and professions in a frantic effort to get away from the naked evil that is ISIS. You might think that heartbreaking photographs like the one of the dead three-year-old whose body washed ashore–photos that went viral and were hard to miss–would convey the urgency and human need of this incredible migratory flood.

You’d be wrong.

Instead of human compassion, we get grandstanding and political calculation.

Why do I think the Governor’s response would be different if the refugees were conservative Christians who looked more like us?


In Which I Agree With National Review

When a conservative is right, s/he’s right.

And over at the National Review, Kevin Williamson is right. His article, titled: Take a Bow, Species, rejected the constant drumbeat of what is wrong with America and the world in favor of a focus on what’s right. Here are some reasons for optimism that he lists:

* Polio has basically been eradicated from the globe

* Measles and rubella will be next

* The global rate of “extreme poverty,” currently defined as subsistence on less than the equivalent of $1.90 a day, is now the condition of less than 10 percent of the human race. Take a look at how the World Bank recently plotted that change:

* The overall rate of violent crime in the U.S. has fallen by about half in recent decades.

* U.S. manufacturing output per worker trebled from 1975 to 2005, and our total manufacturing output continues to climb.

* General-price inflation, the bane of the U.S. economy for some decades, is hardly to be seen.

Of course, you aren’t likely to hear about any of that from Republican candidates running for office in 2016. Unlike Ronald Reagan, none of them is remotely a “happy warrior.” Instead, they all seem obsessed with the belief that a country headed by Barack Obama must be in extremis.

This striking mismatch between the GOP’s gloom and doom worldview and our considerably more nuanced reality was addressed in a recent post at Political Animal that quoted a warning from another conservative Republican, W’s former speechwriter David Frum.

I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination…If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.


When folks on the Right are right, they’re right.

The Not-So-Great Gatsby Curve

As the issue of inequality has become more politically and socially salient, researchers are increasingly “connecting the dots”–finding and measuring relationships between social phenomena that may not appear on the surface to be related.

It’s one thing to measure economic distances; to draw conclusions about the ability of low-income workers to afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment, for example. Such statistics represent only a fraction of the social damage done by rising levels of poverty and inequality, but they do offer a window into individual struggles that lead to other, less tangible and/or immediately obvious harms.

The United Ways of Indiana recently issued a comprehensive analysis of the financial distress experienced by “Alice”– Alice being an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. These were households with income above the federal poverty level, but below the actual, basic cost of living.  The research concluded that more than one in three Hoosier households cannot afford the basics of housing, food, health care and transportation, that 37% of Indiana households live below the Alice threshold, that these families and individuals have jobs, and many do not qualify for social services or support, and that despite the importance of their jobs to their communities,  they are unsure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night.

Other researchers are beginning to investigate the ancillary effects of living like Alice–including the consequences for physical and mental health of individuals, the diminished prospects of their children, and the effects of inequality on America’s social fabric.

The Brookings Institution, for example, recently issued a disheartening study about inequality and stress.

Income and opportunity are increasingly unequally shared in the United States. It turns out that there are also significant inequalities in happiness, stress, and optimism about the future… The poor have lower levels of life satisfaction than the rich, they are far more likely to experience high levels of stress and worry, and they are far less optimistic about the future. They are also less likely than the rich to believe in the American Dream: that hard work can get them ahead.

An important question is how far these inequalities relate to each other. One of most well-known connections is the one between income inequality and intergenerational mobility, labeled the “Great Gatsby Curve” by Alan Kreuger. The idea behind the curve is that inequality in parental incomes (and other means) will result in even greater inequality for their children, as children’s opportunities are increasingly linked to their parents’ means.

The report makes the case that stress related to issues of survival–can I pay my rent this month? Will I lose my job if I stay home with my sick child?–is significantly different in kind and impact from the sorts of stress experienced by middle and upper income individuals. Those issues–Will I get that promotion? Will I get into my first choice law school? Will Heather go with me to the prom?– just aren’t in the same league, stress-wise.

The whole study is worth a read, but I was especially struck by the finding that there was “a higher concentration of both stress and worry among the poor in more unequal MSAs. Stress levels among the rich, by contrast, were essentially the same across cities.”

It has long been known that societies with stronger social safety nets have lower incidents of social dysfunction: everything from out-of-wedlock births, to divorce, to crime and violence. A recent study highlighted by Vox connected inequality to death rates.

Eventually, perhaps we’ll recognize that remedying the costs of social dysfunction is more expensive than a social safety net, and far more expensive than paying people a living wage.

I Don’t Think D- Is A Good Grade…

Here in Hoosierland, we like to grade stuff. Well, some stuff.

We assign grades to public schools despite the dubious nature of some of the criteria used. We are less enthusiastic about the grades given to our infrastructure by the Corp of Civil Engineers, although we’ve seen some grudging acknowledgment of those scores, given that our crumbling roads and bridges are hard to hide or ignore. (A former student tells me that a big chunk of the bridge from I70 into downtown Indy just fell off yesterday…)

Then there’s a grade I’m betting we won’t hear very much about: the grade for ethical government, awarded by the Center for Public Integrity. Indiana got a D-. (If you click through, you can see the scoring criteria, and the categories.

You may recall lawmakers’ promise to make ethics reform the centerpiece of the last session :

During the 2014 legislative session, a top Republican House leader, Rep. Eric Turner, privately lobbied his fellow Republicans — who control both chambers — to scuttle a proposed ban on nursing home construction that would have hurt his family’s business. A House investigation cleared him of wrongdoing, but he was later stripped of leadership roles and stepped down after being re-elected. Department of Transportation official Troy Woodruff took advantage of an ethics law loophole that allowed him to skirt a one-year cooling-off period and become an independent contractor for an Indianapolis firm he’d regulated. And former state education superintendent Tony Bennett only had to pay a $5,000 fine for questionable campaign practices, including the use of state staff and computers, even though the state’s inspector general condemned his actions as wire fraud and misuse of state resources. Bennett wasn’t charged.

Ultimately, legislators approved an ethics reform law, effective in July. But even during the reform debate, two lawmakers floated proposals that drew conflict of interest charges and sharp criticism.

To be blunt, the vaunted “reforms” were more atmospheric than effective. Indiana earned F’s in numerous categories, including public access to information, political financing, state budget process, judicial accountability, ethics entities and civil service oversight. The only B’s were earned by the state pension systems (B+) and internal auditing practices (B-).

Ironically, Indiana’s score was better in 2012. Before “reform,” we earned a C-.

Knowledgable observers cite many reasons we consistently  fail to clean up our act: lax enforcement of guidelines, a culture of quid pro quo, and most of all, a gerrymandered state where 80% of the legislative seats are uncompetitive, making it highly unlikely that unethical behavior will be punished at the ballot box.

That’s what happens when lawmakers choose their voters, rather than the other way around….