An Accidental Insight

My husband and I were on a cruise ship for two weeks, on our way to Amsterdam where we  visited our son. Anyone who has taken one of these trips across the Atlantic can attest to the fact that Internet access–when available–is maddeningly slow and intermittent. It’s also expensive. On our cruise, connecting to more than one device at a time was costly, so I was unable to make planned use of my Kindle by accessing those of my books that reside on “the cloud.”

As a result, I inadvertently encountered some important research.

A couple of years ago, I had downloaded a book on the “Submerged State,” a title issued by Chicago Studies in American Politics. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d read very little of it. (One of the enduring problems with academic research is academic language, which tends to be dense and inaccessible to all but the most determined readers…)

Since my vacation novels were unavailable, I decided to be determined, and to revisit it.

The authors make a basic–and very important–observation: thanks to America’s penchant for small government, conservatives have been able to give us governance that–despite being every bit as costly and ubiquitous as it it is elsewhere– is “uniquely invisible.”

They define the “submerged state” as policies and programs that function by providing incentives, subsidies or payments to private organizations or households to encourage or reimburse them for conducting activities deemed to serve a public purpose.

The result is that we have channelled a preponderance of the government programs that benefit citizens through private and nonprofit intermediaries, and that practice has had some very negative consequences: it has obscured the extent to which many of these policies enrich the already affluent; it has kept ordinary Americans from recognizing the role of government in their lives while allowing the programs to be “plainly evident” to the special interests that reap the rewards; and worst of all, by obscuring government activities and their positive consequences, it has reinforced anti-government attitudes.

In short, by “submerging” the operations of government, we have kept most citizens blissfully unaware of the ways in which government makes a positive difference in their lives.

The researchers considered a number of programs with varying degrees of visibility; they then surveyed recipients in order to evaluate their awareness of the benefits they receive, and recognition that those benefits originate from government.

Most of the citizens who had saved substantial dollars thanks to the home mortgage deduction, for example, claimed never to have been beneficiaries of a government program. Students whose federal loans are serviced by lending institutions are frequently unaware that those dollars come from (or are guaranteed by) government, and that eligibility and interest rates are considerably more favorable as a result.

Tax policies like Obama’s “Making Work Pay” are so obscure that the general public often  thinks rates have been increased when they have actually been lowered, leading to a pertinent question: can a reform be considered successful if it goes unnoticed?

Policy debates are also hijacked by widespread ignorance of the extent of government’s actual current role.For example, while many Americans know that the country spends more per capita on health care than any other nation, few of us are aware that government already foots most of the bill (estimates range from 56% to 70%), and that a program of national health care–with its vastly lower administrative costs– would be unlikely to cost much more.

The book has numerous other examples, but what I found most important was the researchers’ conclusion about the effects of non-visible governance on democracy. As they emphasize, an idea fundamental to democracy  is the premise that people are citizens, and citizens are active participants in governance. Participation requires that they be reasonably aware of what their elected representatives do on their behalf–that they should be in a position to form opinions about policies and be able to be involved in the political process. The submerged state, however, empowers interest groups and disempowers the public.

A couple of quotations that sum up the central point of the book:

The idea that public policies should reflect the will of the majority of citizens is a basic principle of representative democracy. Yet in the case of the submerged state, many citizens lack basic information, and public officials fail to provide it.


As long as public officials criticize government but persist in channelling public resources surreptitiously through private means, Americans will be deluded.

I guess I should thank the inadequacy of oceanic internet for a deeply instructive–if very depressing–read.


  1. “The result is that we have channelled a preponderance of the government programs that benefit citizens through private and nonprofit intermediaries, and that practice has had some very negative consequences: it has obscured the extent to which many of these policies enrich the already affluent; it has kept ordinary Americans from recognizing the role of government in their lives while allowing the programs to be “plainly evident” to the special interests that reap the rewards; and worst of all, by obscuring government activities and their positive consequences, it has reinforced anti-government attitudes.”

    I receive reports from Indianapolis Department of Public Works (DPW) regularly; reports of street work such as our annual pot hole filling of the same pot holes year after year after another winter of uncleared ice and snow from streets which causes the pot holes to be a permanent condition. I also get reports of special improvement projects by DPW to enhance, if not affluent, the higher income areas, to provide repairs, enhance the ambiance and provide or sometimes improve recreational projects. The DPW reports include the neighborhood or area financial input or matching funds in those areas. The preponderance of suburban neighborhoods are left with the problems of those pot holes, crumbling streets and general deterioration of entire areas of the city. We homeowners in declining areas pay property taxes which often aid the improvements in those “nicer” areas of Indianapolis but see little, if any, benefit from our property tax payments. The reporting of specific zoning violations and specific residents whose neglect of basic maintenance and repairs and outdoor “hoarding” of everything but old cars sitting on blocks in front yards, are ignored.

    It is not government “programs”, hidden or made public, which are the basic problem but local governments ignoring their own responsibilities and infrastructure maintenance that is the problem in deteriorating neighborhoods. Maintaining infrastructure is becoming a way to recognize the economic disparity of the majority of “middle America”, the backbone of this country.

  2. Just another detail. If federal legislation hadn’t created Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to provide guarantees to lenders there would be no such thing as a 30-year mortgage. Think about the millions of Americans who would never have been able to afford a home if they had to support monthly payments on 20-yr mortgages.

  3. Up north in Canada, I chair the Road Association. For those who own cottages in rural lake country, you know immediately what this means. Government takes care of the main road in, but leaves the rest to local property owners to figure out. Maintaining road surfaces over rugged terrain, granite crowns and wetlands is not for sissies. 99% of the work by the Association is completed before cottage owners arrive to enjoy shorelines. What has been done is unseen. After all, it looks like the road we came in on. Only those who engage the reality of getting things done by unraveling the powers of Mother Nature for the safety and comfort of others … know the tangible presence of government public works. What is done is unseen. What is undone is what people see … and love to snivel about. Snivel if you will, but be careful what you wish for. You may have to forgo coffee at the local hub to snivel some more and actually get a shovel and and rake yourself and lean into it. Then you will know what it is like being sniveled at. 🤔

  4. A “submerged state,” really?

    It’s neoliberalism, and we’ve had 40 years of privatizing the government. Look at Musk and Bezos’ space programs. Who do you think is funding them?

    The Brits are watching the Tories dismantle the NHS so it can be “privatized” or “submerged” from the level of government to corporations who receive their monies or guarantees from the government.

    And yes, this is the oligarchy peeling off government services to benefit themselves while claiming “socialism” or “socialist” theories are ruining this country.

    Americans are ignorant of this scheme because the media is not fulfilling its role as a free press. It’s nothing more than propaganda. The level of ignorance is parallel to the political spectrum running from right to left (most to least).

    Muncie has a classic “submerged state” consisting of an alternate government run by the oligarchs of which the Mayor is a member and basically takes what the oligarch institution called Next Muncie constructs and approves to the media and city council for voting.

    What’s even more hilarious are the top two oligarchs run non-for-profit institutions (hospital and university) themselves yet decide where taxpayer monies are to be spent.

    Meanwhile, our Gannett-owned newspaper (which is really owned by a Japanese conglomerate named Softbank) prints rubbish for the locals to read.

    I would say our free press has also been “submerged.” 😉

  5. “As we live a life of ease (a life of ease)
    Every one of us (every one of us)
    Has all we need (has all we need)
    Sky of blue (sky of blue)
    And sea of green (sea of green)
    In our yellow (in our yellow)
    Submarine (submarine, aha)

    We all live in a yellow submarine
    A yellow submarine, yellow submarine”

  6. “Yet in the case of the submerged state, many citizens lack basic information, and public officials fail to provide it.”

    A cynical morning – not sure if they had the “basic information” it would make any difference, given the lack of civic education and education in critical thinking. Not to mention the huge distrust in government, especially Federal government – they are unlikely to believe it anyway.

  7. If so many public officials weren’t constantly complaining about government, might the public begin to take a different view?

  8. Peggy,

    Politicians are not really “public officials”…they just jaw. Public officials do the work of running government,

  9. Neoliberalism is really the modern name for the original form of European government, the aristocracy: government of, by and for the privileged. Remember the American and French Revolutions? “Give me liberty, or give me death.” “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” We thought that they were wars to end the dispute of who government served but they turned out to be merely battles in an ongoing war. We won those battles but have lost the war.

    The weapon that won? Pervasive, persuasive entertainment media.

  10. who ever said the road workers just prop up the shovels along the road while you drive by. has never done road work. figuring out a issue before it turns into a drop off ravine,priceless..over 44 years as a trucker,of passing road work ive seen and been detoured into places ive missed. today,when it stops raining,ill be hauling that hot oil that makes your pavement,pot hole pourie. my neighbors all tell me how the highway crews,(state,county,city) just stand around holding broken shovels. ill be glad to inform him how the county can and in some cases will hire private contractors, will send the to his county for additional payments,adding to his tax rate. you could have been damned to the PPP public,private,partnership,in trumps giveaway to the rich. tolling and finding just how easy it is to use a vehicles onstar like electronics to start taxing you for every foot you drive,wherever,you drive.maybe you might want to head that off before some enterprising investors who gets tax cuts and wallows the halls of congress to,get you on demand tax payments. interesting subject today, and being up to date on how it could be..

  11. Pete – “The weapon that won? Pervasive, persuasive entertainment media.” You must have read “Entertaining Ourselves to Death”!

  12. LL, we mistake advertising for entertainment and thereby expose ourselves to what’s best for the very few, in compelling packaging, 24/7.

    What we think of as good for us isn’t at all.

  13. “That government is best which governs least…” has been attributed to Thomas Jefferson, and is said to have first been seen in print in 1837.  So, the idea of small government seeped into the culture early.  And, perhaps, with the coming of what was called Communism, with its very heavy focus on top down governing, and then the advent of “1984,” the idea of big government really got kicked in the behind.  On top of that, our “Frontier” mythology, that we are all independent actors, and can “Damn well take care of ourselves,” certainly undermines the idea of some “Big Brother” doing it for us.  The Ayn Rand, Libertarian fantasy, reinforces this  perspective.  In what may be the image of the ultimate “Lone Dude”  taking care of himself, as in the “High Plains Drifter,” did Eastwood’s character make his own gun, and its bullets, breed for the horse he rides, make the saddle, grow the food he eats, and on, and on…?The truth is that we are totally interdependent, and that small government is, if I may be so bold, for the small of mind…or those who want to manipulate the small of mind.”I am because we are,” comes from the African philosophy of Ubuntu, and speaks directly to this interdependence.

  14. Mitch and all,

    I spent 25 years+ as a management consultant working with very large companies. With firm missions of market dominance and positive profits, they invested much resources in managing, overseeing and measuring their efficiency/effectiveness at all levels. Our governments, especially the Federal one, do little of this with often disastrous results: “$250 toilet seats”, billions of PPP money to undeserving applicants, states using money as they see fit (not as intended), big waste to political contributors, etc. Pathetic “management” in its true meaning.

    Of course, we know why. Management is deliberately underfunded (see IRS). Oversight is not funded or ignored. Policies are designed by lobbyists. Etc. End of rant….

  15. Lester is on it today, so what Lester said.

    I spent some time in the South Pacific during WW II and afterwards made two trips across the Atlantic (to Liverpool, Algiers and Tunis), but the internet was, of course, unknown. While in North Africa I got to see the postwar chaos in person while at the casbah fighting off Arabic orphans who were trying to lift my wallet. I felt sorry for them but if I had given one lousy franc (It was French-administered at the time) I would have had 500 orphans going after my wallet. I also saw the power of the tobacco habit while in Algiers. There were constant calls from the crowded docks by Arabs: “Hey, Yankee; you got cigarettes?”

    It appears that Trump and the monied class prefer chaos and distraction via the Big Lie, other unsubstantiated claims of electoral thievery and still other such pretended mischief to cover their own wrongdoings in a classic definition of projection. Such is the real understanding of Sheila’s topic today, as in, there is no such thing as small government; rather the issue is whether we are to have government by contract via friendly politicians or government by government via dedicated public servants.

  16. Sheila,

    I admire your willingness to cross the Atlantic on a cruise ship. Our last Cruise was in the Pacific in 2008, the ship ran into a storm that lasted for 2 days. Even the crew was incapacitated, there was so much vomit on the deck, Cap told folks to stay in their cabins and use the garbage cans to catch the regurgitation. My wife had packed some Dramamine which helped us, but there was barely any to be found on the ship. Sorry, I just had to share lol! 🤢🤮

  17. Lester,

    Very good and insightful observations, and, undoubtedly you are even more than correct if possible.

    All of these rules, programs, parameters, conflicting diametrics, are all purposefully created obscurantism! It prevents those in need of help from getting that help, that is unless you know someone who has run the gauntlet already.

    But, the widely favorable Cash cow for the undeserving is shared widely amongst those in the know. It really is pathetically dishonest! Those so-called makers, who live off the government’s teet, love to show their righteous indignation towards the least solvent among us.

    It’s not only wrong, it really is evil! And I don’t use that term loosely. Evil (morally wrong or dishonorable) is the driving force behind a corrupted conscience or moral turpitude! They are basically one and the same. How has greed infiltrated every aspect of society? How has compassion basically been eliminated from society not to mention empathy!

    Whether One believes in a higher power or a force for good or bad, undeniably, whatever it is, the darkest portion is more prevalent than those who have a righteous slant. Those who claim to have a righteous slant to their dogmas, will tell people to be warm and well fed, but refuse to help. All that does is try to ease individuals with a completely corrupted conscience anyway. Just as those who might have had a guilty conscience concerning slave trade or owning other humans, that those other humans really weren’t human because they were cursed. That way their conscience would be absolved and wouldn’t be condemning an individual with that guilty conscience.

    Practicing obscuritism is definitely a way to do things in the dark and eliminate any conscience LED pushback. Because when it’s obscure or part of obscura, there is no counter argument for the conscience to marinate in.

  18. Lester, Anyone who takes an oath of office is a public official, regardless of their ability to jaw. I was on the Federal payroll for 22 years, so I’m very familiar with the distinctions between elected and unelected, but we all took the same oath to protect and defend the Constitution.

  19. My Mother served as a nurse in US Army during WWll. She said one night as their troop ship was crossing the Atlantic, the engines and lights suddenly shut down and they waited silently for several hours. They were never told what happend, but surmised a U-Boat beneath or enemy bomber overhead was detected. Anyway, those in charge were competent, did their jobs and probably saved the ship and all their lives.
    I think the US needs a restoration of trust, that we have competent people in charge working for the good of all Americans. The Justice Department needs to follow our laws, and hold the conspirators that attempted to overthrow the US Presidential election accountable. Right the ship and show us who we are!

  20. Privatization by any other name is still the same thing. The selling off of government responsibilities has resulted horrendous results. The prison system leaps to mind. I was working for the state of Indiana, when Mitch sold Family Services to IBM. That didn’t work out. Everything is at the expense of the regular guy. Cronies make money, and government bureaucracies can be dismantled because we surely don’t want any oversite. Everything is to further enrich the elite.

  21. Rose … I heard you. I listen to the voices of my ancestors, as well, who experienced the harsh heart rendering moments of truth as your mother did during WWII. Thank you for sharing. These voices resonate with those we are all hearing now from the Ukraine.

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