Tag Archives: submerged state

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.

And

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.