Government–Some Things the Right and the Left Can Agree On

August 11, 2014

Government–Some Things the Right and the Left Can Agree On

I am sometimes among those on the Left who waste my voice trying to criticize or persuade the Right to concede some of their seemingly flawed positions.

The liberal desire to expand government to better meet social needs is met today by a conservative determination to continue reducing taxes and government.  Considering the stalemate, there are nevertheless some important things conservatives and liberals can agree on.

  • There are some needs the free market alone cannot meet, but…
  • Government is inefficient
  • Government costs too much
So, why not focus on what can be done to reduce the cost and improve the effectiveness of government? There can be no doubt that substantial savings can be achieved. Perhaps the savings could be split 50/50 between reducing the federal debt and strengthening some programs critical to benefitting the underprivileged, such as education and infrastructure.

Where is government better than capitalism in dealing with society’s needs? In an op-ed cited below, Paul Krugman suggests one good example is protection of the environment. In 2008, I lived for a year in China, and I studied China last year in London. A good example of a loose rein on capitalism is found in China’s rivers today, where factories and farms leave the water supply endangered for Chinese and other nations farther down the major rivers. Maybe China is a bit extreme, but we have examples in the US. The free market is not designed to always do the right thing for the environment. 

Having lived for a year in London recently as a student and qualifying for British health care, I could also propose health care as an area for improvement in the US. The British system is government owned and managed, far less costly, and it works rather well. It costs 9% of of GDP. Singapore spends only 5% of GDP on healthcare with its public system. We spend 18%. (World Bank figures)

But even if you regard government health care as too socialist for consideration as a legitimate further extension of US government (albeit one which might well reduce the cost of health care and cost of government), we still have trillions of dollars in current federal, state, and local spending which can be reduced, without reducing the value delivered. After all government activities regarded as unnecessary (or as better transferred to local governments) are adjusted out, there remain many to focus on improving (e.g., military, all the untouchable entitlements, the governmental cost of health care), and this is true at all levels of government.

Can we be fair in expectations of government? The image is that government is just plain inefficient–the private market does much better. But, I have some doubt we’re being realistic. Krugman asks whether the much cited DMV is really worse than anything you’ve experienced in the private economy. Worse than Comcast? Take a look at the Customer Service Scoreboard (cited below) for a long list of poor service providers in private industry. 

So, with the caveat that perfection is not easily reached in either public or private endeavors, there is still much to be saved.  The Economist addresses the opportunity in the current issue and some of the suggestions I provide come from The Economist articles cited below:

  • We could end tenured government jobs.
  • We could rotate government officials into private sector and back.
  • We could pay more for performance–Singapore pays up to $2 million for high level government officials.
  • We could set performance targets and attach compensation and job tenure to meeting those.
  • We could sunset all programs and all regulations, many of which are outdated and useless anyway. At expiry, we could vote them back in if still useful.
  • We could make more services pay as you go–e.g., public transportation and toll roads
  • We could reduce corruption in welfare, social security, health, procurement, and elsewhere.
  • Our criminal justice system is in serious need of being re-structured–we have the highest percentage of our population incarcerated, and many for minor offenses.
  • Some approaches to reducing poverty actually result in reduced long term cost to the government–less health care, less incarceration cost, less welfare.
  • More transparency of the cost of government–public awareness of where the money is spent will add pressure on low value government expenditures.
  • The Right could come forward with their cheaper alternative to Obamacare so that we can all evaluate and decide. I’m nor irrevocably committed to Obamacare. I think it is a good step in the right direction, but I’m sure there can be improvements.
  • And, finally, a complex subject best left to another post or a much longer article: We can re-vamp our form of government to better meet the true needs of the people, not just special interests. Our form of democracy is coming under justified fire and dissatisfaction, from Americans and around the world. We need to re-vamp it. See the Magalhaes article and the
  •  Vigoda-Gadot and 
  • Mizrahi article
  •  cited below. In addition to globally damaging the perception of our ideology, there is a huge financial cost to the government behaving as ours does now. No one can realistically doubt that our growth rate would be significantly higher with a more effective government.

What am I missing? This list, which could certainly be expanded, seems to me to be an easy appeal to the Left and to the Right? Why don’t we spend some of the energy wasted in criticism to work together to make these bi-partisan advances?



    The Economist:; Singapore delivers high-quality public services remarkably cheaply—spending less than 5% of GDP on health care, for example, around half the global average. 

    Magalhaes:  Democracies are not immune to the consequences of government ineffectiveness and bad policy-making. Ineffective democracies are likely to suffer in terms of their legitimacy near mass publics. And there are signs, to be confirmed with better data, that effective autocracies may be more stable than what we think, by diminishing demand for democracy and increasing their own legitimacy.

    Eran Vigoda-Gadot and Shlomo Mizrahi
    Managing Democracies in Turbulent Times
    2014, pp 37-64
    Date: 11 Feb 2014The Relationship Between Citizens and Government in Modern States: Threats and Challenges

    World Bank:

    Customer Service Scoreboard:

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