By John Mattingly
I believe it was Sartre who said, “The only people who have time to rock the boat are people who aren’t rowing. On the other hand, we all understand the need to drop your oars when you see the boat is headed over a hundred-foot waterfall.”
It does seem that the threshold for “dropping one’s oars” has lowered considerably in the last few decades, meaning people complain about smaller and smaller matters, confusing preference with priority, and this has contributed to the contentiousness of our political theater.
In the past, I’ve had a knee-jerk negative reaction to all government for several reasons.
1. I’m a farmer. I’ve offered more than my share of opinions in Colorado Central about the confusing relationship U.S. farmers have with government at all levels. I even made the unpopular suggestion that the American West is Socialism puppeting as “Rugged Individualism,” given that the West was built by the federal government: the railroads, reservoirs, roads, rural electrification, low-cost grazing, and free access to mining all came from Uncle Sam. But the rugged Socialists, or should I say, Individuals who have benefited from all this government help, can generally be heard saying, “Send the money West, Uncle Sam, then get outta Dodge,” which is pretty doggoned rugged.
I’m in the group who benefitted greatly from federal help, yet I tend to fall in with my peers and talk easily about a wonderful world in which the federal government didn’t exist, an attitude I have recently revised.
2. I came of age in the Viet Nam era. Fifty thousand of my cohorts were killed over there, and many, many more survived to live troubled lives. In the Fog of War, Robert McNamara admitted that the Viet Nam war was a mistake. He admitted, on the record, that the Domino Theory – which was the basic assumption of the administrations he served under during the war – was wrong, and the U.S. spent blood and treasure based on bad information.
I recently bought a tractor, and was given a jacket from the dealership for the purchase. The jacket was made in Viet Nam. I looked at the caps and other vendor-specific items in the dealer’s shop, all made in Viet Nam. The magnitude of the irony here is overwhelming. I don’t think I’ll be wearing this jacket around when one of my farmer friends, a Viet Nam vet, is around.
When I became of draftable age in 1968, I recall having information regarding the nature of the Viet Nam conflict, namely that Ho Chi Minh had visited the U.S. seeking our help because he saw parallels between his struggle and the American Revolution. I still have papers on all this in my files. That Viet Nam was a civil war, and not a candidate for the Domino Theory, was not regarded as obscure information at that time, yet was ignored at the highest levels of U.S. government.
And now we have learned that the “reliable source” for WMD in Iraq, which provided the key justification for invasion, was a disgruntled chemical engineer with a gripe against Saddam. So one “source,” combined with an incipient agenda in the Bush administration, again led to the spilling of blood and treasure.
When high level government officials make “mistakes” like these it’s hard to have much faith in their judgment about almost anything. I’m not even sure I’d feel comfortable sending people of this caliber to the store with a grocery list.
Plus, when government has fooled you once, you know the rule about being fooled twice (or more).
3. Government lacks imagination. I disagree with Reagan’s famous slogan, “Government is the problem,” just as much as he did. Government is essential, no doubt about it, but it isn’t hitting on even half its cylinders these days. I believe this is because government now attracts – in large part by default – people who would do more good in our society if they got a job picking up trash or cleaning toilets.
To paraphrase McNamara in The Fog of War: Government today represents a total absence of imagination, at all levels.
Maybe this is because laws and policies come out of committees that respond to so many special interests that the end product is either partial or ineffective.
Maybe it’s because power corrupts.
Maybe it’s because government curtseys to big business and big banks.
Maybe it’s because liability concerns have made us afraid of our own shadows.
Maybe it’s because most politicians come from the legal profession where – no matter what they may say – they have become habituated to prolonging and complicating all transactions.
Maybe it’s because the election cycle, being a few years in length, discourages long-term thinking.
Maybe it’s because no form of government can be effective or fair when the size of the population it governs exceeds a certain threshold.
So what would imaginative government look like? Here are some examples:
1. Instead of spending a trillion dollars in Iraq, imaginative government (IMGO) would have given everyone in Iraq an Apple iPhone and a subscription to Facebook. Based on what we’re now seeing in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and all through the Middle East, this would have done more to spread democracy than bombs and physical occupation. How hard is it to understand that the smartphone is now mightier than the smart bomb?
2. On water pollution, IMGO would simply require all water users to withdraw their water downstream from their discharges. This would be true far all, across the board, from house wells to giant industrial users, including municipal users. What better way to make sure a city discharges clean water into the river than to require the city to take out its drinking water downstream from its sewage plant?
3. On landfills, IMGO would require all town dumps be located in the geographic center of a municipality. What better way to encourage recycling than to make your garbage a part of your daily scenery?
4. On vehicle emissions, IMGO would require all cars and trucks to use their own exhaust for combustion. How hard is it to understand that if people can dump their pollution in the air for free, they will keep doing it until there is a meaningful feedback loop that forces them to pay the price of cleaning up their emissions?
5. On taxation, IMGO would increase tax revenues by allowing taxpayers to check off, on their tax returns, where they wanted half of their tax dollars spent, and this would be tabulated and transferred to the annual budget. IMGO would treat a budget as a moral document. How many people would stop cheating on their taxes if they had some reasonable say in how their tax dollars were actually spent?
6. On lending, IMGO would require all lenders to retain full responsibility for their loans. How hard is it to understand that a non-recourse loan, peddled downstream to somebody else, incenitivizes weak lending standards?
7. Concerning CEO ignorance of accounting errors and fraud, such as that expressed by the CEOs of Enron, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, AIG, and all the other big banks, IMGO would require CEOs to sign the annual audit of their company. If it’s “too complicated,” CEOs can find time to go to night school in accounting. On their annual salary of $200 million a year, they can afford it.
8. IMGO would not try to create jobs. IMGO would see itself as an arbiter, a field judge, an entity that exists to keep the playing field level, not put players on the field. In fact, IMGO would constantly look for ways to reduce jobs within government by establishing policies with self-enforcing feedback loops rather than more and more overseers and auditors.
9. IMGO would engage a truly novel approach to warfare that involved (a) knowing your enemy before launching an attack, (b) using military force only when attacked, and (c) calibrating the response to the situation.
10. IMGO would promote education in risk assessment and risk management rather than passing more and more laws requiring “safety” devices, such as the new gas can spouts, tractor seats with engine shut-offs, and airbags. From the standpoint of risk and incentive, it makes sense for dangerous things to be dangerous. The fact that they are dangerous is what creates an incentive to be careful. How hard is it to understand that legislating the removal of risk discourages diligence? (and in some cases, such as the gas can spouts, has replaced a small risk with a big one.)
In short, imaginative government would seek policies that reduce administrative requirements by placing incentives in all the right places: namely with those responsible. Now, we have government setting policies patterned after government itself, which expands administrative requirements while giving incentives to defer, shed, spread, or ignore direct responsibility.
As a farmer, I’ve seen how small, seemingly simple changes in agricultural policy have resulted in large, undesirable outcomes, simply because the incentives were upside down, or totally misplaced.
All levels of government provide us with a lot of help and worthy services, but the process of government action has gradually removed imagination from most decision-making, the immediate casualty of which is common sense incentivizing.
John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Creede.