The (in)competence of government

We now know that the massive recent recall of salmonella-tainted eggs—launched after 1500 people had taken sick—likely could have been prevented had one federal agency (Department of Agriculture) communicated what it knew about egg-farm sanitation failings to another federal agency (Food and Drug Administration) with responsibility for food safety. But that communication didn’t happen. Never mind that, according to the Wall Street Journal, “the two agencies have a formal understanding about the USDA giving the FDA notice over sanitary issues.”

This is the same federal government that we now want to turn around our schools, produce racial balance in Advanced Placement classrooms, manage millions of college loans, make certain that all teachers are effective—and equitably distributed among schools—not to mention spur classroom innovation, report accurate performance data at every level, and engage in a hundred other major-league education missions.

Sober up, folks. How competent is government to carry out its most basic duties and responsibilities, much less tackle truly complex problems over which it has very limited authority?

I’m not grumping only about Washington. Governments at every level. Can municipalities fix potholes, keep the traffic flowing, prevent subway trains from crashing, and ensure that utility companies reliably supply our homes with electricity and clean water even when snow falls and wind blows? Can states make certain that only people who really know how to drive are on the highways—and that those highways have enough lanes to accommodate the population? Can they take children away from parents who mistreat them—and put them somewhere better? See that their pension systems are funded? That their bridges don’t fall down? That their prison walls are tight and their courts efficient?

As for Uncle Sam, can he get the mail delivered to the right addresses in timely fashion? Keep airplanes from colliding? Guard against banks going bust with our savings? Adequately arm, supply, and protect our troops in harm’s way? Defend our borders? Keep our omelets and hamburgers from sickening us?

One is fairly reminded of those who demand that schools impart complex yet nebulous “21st century” skills to kids who cannot even decode words or add and subtract. We may laud the ambition and even share the dream, but if teachers who cannot get the basics right take on such challenges as creativity, “media awareness,” and “working together” they will surely fail. The basics will never get learned. And the kids’ lives will be blighted.

Ditto government. If it can’t do the basics, how can it realistically be asked to do the complicated stuff?

Yes, I’ve fretted before about over-reaching and over-promising government. But far from going away, this problem worsens. Today more than ever, many Americans expect miracles from government, solutions and riches from on high, not unlike “cargo cults” in the New Guinea highlands. This is exacerbated by elected officials—plenty of these on the Obama team and on Capitol Hill—who keep raising hopes and escalating promises. (Think health care reform.)

Our government does have some virtues. It’s rarely corrupt and eventually completes much of what it sets out to do, though the pace is slow and plodding, the costs are almost always higher than expected, and implementation is invariably accompanied by unwanted and undesirable consequences. Think of it as a wobbly horse and buggy that shouldn’t be asked to operate like a jet plane.

Surely this mismatch between government promises and government competence helps to explain the Tea Party’s traction and its recent electoral successes. Millions of Americans know from experience and/or feel in their gut that government isn’t the solution to all our problems and that, as it takes more onto its plate, costs will rise, the “basics” will suffer, implementation will worsen, and personal responsibility, sense of community, and civil society will all erode.

It’s one thing for government leaders to call attention to a problem. (Think “A Nation At Risk.”) That’s what the bully pulpit is for. It’s quite another matter for them—or anyone else—to suggest that government will solve that problem.

Consider the inflated pledges made at Charlottesville in 1989 about where American education would be by the year 2000. Consider NCLB’s promise to have every child proficient by 2014. Its commitment that kids stuck in bad schools could shift to better ones. That every classroom would boast a “highly qualified” teacher. (That rhetoric has now inflated to “highly effective.”)

Even modest-seeming promises don’t get kept. Arne Duncan sensibly wants us to focus on turning around the lowest-performing 5 percent of U.S. schools. Seems far more doable than NCLB’s labeling more than half our schools as needing surgery. Yet who really believes that the Education Department’s program of School Improvement Grants will yield this result? Nobody from Washington is flying out to turn around individual schools—as if any of them knew how—yet practically nobody outside the Beltway has a clue how to do it, either. Another dashed hope and unkept promise? Another issue for the Tea Party? Part of the reason for the (idiotic) calls to eliminate the Education Department altogether?

Government, in short, finds it difficult to fulfill its current responsibilities, coordinate its various parts, and honor its core obligations, many of which are vital just to keep us healthy, safe, and alive. How many more things should it try to do? Are not more promises by government a formula for failure and disappointment? A boost to libertarians who would have government cease and desist from just about everything? What if we just settled for scrambled eggs that don’t make us ill?

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